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College Transitions & Persistence

College Costs: Burden or Investment? 

The high costs of college can be seen either as a burden or an investment in the future. In Research in Higher Education, IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin and former IPR graduate research assistant Ryan Svoboda investigate if how students at selective colleges and universities think about college costs and their futures affects their academic performance. The researchers performed two studies to establish the links between their awareness of education’s financial burden and psychological and cognitive processes, which in turn affect students’ academic achievement. The first study used longitudinal data from 28 selective colleges and established that students who accumulate student-loan debt are less likely to graduate from college. Their debt predicts a decline in grades over time, even when controlling for other factors such as SES. To identify how financial anxiety influences academic performance, the researchers conducted a second experimental study with 221 undergraduates at an elite research university. Keeping college costs in mind reduced the students’ abilities to complete difficult cognitive tasks. However, those students who thought about college costs and loans but also thought about their connection to future financial success showed no decline in abilities. Better understanding of how students perceive high college costs might help in shaping effective policies to support student performance, especially for low-income and first-generation college students.

Ethnic and Socioeconomic Identities in College 

College is a promising and challenging time in students’ lives, and an important part of their experience is based in their view of themselves in society, both in terms of class and ethnicity. In the Journal of Social Issues, Destin and PhD student Claudia Castillo-Lavergne explored the role class and ethnic identities play in the psychological well-being of working-class, Latinx college women. The young women are likely to encounter unique pressures like prejudice and discrimination in addition to possessing unique resources based on their multiple identities. As part of a larger study, the researchers surveyed 98 working-class, self-identified Latinx women, aged 19–27, on how they understood the meaning of their ethnic group membership; the extent of their uncertainty about their socioeconomic status (SES); and their well-being as measured by self-esteem and satisfaction with life. Destin and Castillo-Lavergne hypothesized that increased uncertainty about SES would be linked to decreased well-being, and that a stronger sense of their ethnic identity would protect the women’s well-being despite high levels of status uncertainty during college. Their analysis revealed, though, that a strong sense of ethnic identity did not diminish the negative impact of status insecurity on these women’s well-being. However, the women who experienced the highest levels of well-being were more confident in both their ethnic and SES identities. The researchers conclude that a high level of ethnic identity amplifies the association between SES uncertainty and psychological well-being. Higher education practices, they suggest, need to take all aspects of college students’ identities into account when designing supports.

College Students and Self-Perception of Social Status 

As psychologists continue to examine how young people form their identities, special attention is being paid to the socioeconomic and racial dimensions. In Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Destin, Loyola University’s Michelle Rheinschmidt-Same, and Yale’s Jennifer Richeson, an IPR faculty adjunct, look at how feelings of uncertainty about socioeconomic status, or SES, (also known as status uncertainty) can affect college undergraduates’ educational experiences and outcomes. Surveying 133 sophomore and junior college students over two years, Destin and his co-authors found that students from lower-income families felt greater status uncertainty than their higher-income peers. That uncertainty was linked to weaker beliefs about their own abilities to succeed, as well as marginally lower grades. As an experiment, the researchers posed questions to momentarily either ease or exacerbate students’ feelings of uncertainty about their SES. They showed that participants who were led to feel less uncertainty about their SES became more motivated to engage in important but psychologically threatening academic behaviors, like attending faculty office hours. The complex factors that determine how well students understand and define their place in society influence their academic experiences and outcomes. This occurs through the levels of assuredness and uncertainty that shape how they interact with peers, potential mentors, and institutions. Additionally, the authors point to additional investigations of the intersection between racial-ethnic identity and SES.

Bolstering Career Readiness in Florida 

James Rosenbaum
IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum studies concerns the college-for-all movement, college attendance and coaches, high-school-to-work transitions, and linkages among students, schools, and employers.

As the American economy continues to reward college-educated workers and provide fewer lucrative opportunities for their unskilled, non-college-educated counterparts, educators have developed new programs to bolster post-high school success. IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum and his coauthors recently surveyed more than 200 Florida teachers about one such effort, Florida’s College and Career Readiness Initiative, as part of a study published in the Phi Delta Kappan. The initiative identifies “below college-ready” high school seniors and places them in college readiness courses. The researchers find that many teachers view it as insufficient in preparing non-college-bound students for the workforce. They report that only 20% of teachers surveyed believe most of their students will finish a bachelor’s degree, and a slim majority think most of their students will not even obtain an occupational certificate. Numerous studies have found that educational programs across the board are more effective when they have the full confidence of teachers. The researchers find that as a potential fix, the teachers advocate for focusing instruction on students’ needs for meeting college-level skills. They say separating students will allow them to better address each group’s needs. They also support a broader definition of “career readiness” to include certificate programs and applied associate’s degree programs. 

Designing Technology for Project-Based Learning  

Educational technologists will be more likely to have their innovations used in the classroom if they address instructors’ challenges and needs. In Educational Technology Research and Development, IPR associates mechanical engineer Elizabeth Gerber and learning scientist Matthew Easterday and their colleagues examine what technological assistance would be best for teaching projects known as “authentic project-based learning” (APBL). In APBL, students work in teams with real-world clients to solve an actual problem and implement the solution. Students acquire tremendous experience in teamwork and professional practice, but because each project is different and inherently complex, teaching APBL is demanding. To uncover genuine requirements and difficulties in teaching APBL, the researchers surveyed 47 university APBL instructors about their most significant challenges. The study uncovers that the instructors needed help to set up the problem for the APBL, to prepare a flexible curriculum for it, and to monitor and assist teams. They also needed assistance in managing the various stakeholders, such as co-instructors, clients, and students. The researchers conclude that useful innovations, therefore, would include software databases and tools for sourcing projects and forming teams. Tools to share and remix curricular materials, project management tools, and software to help instructors track actions are also called for. 

Economics and Literature

From left: Morton Schapiro, Northwestern president, professor, and IPR economist, and Slavic languages professor Gary Saul Morson reflect on their book, Cents and Sensibility, for a Northwestern University podcast.

Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University president, professor, and IPR economist, and Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures, published their second book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities(Princeton University Press, 2017). The scholars argue that the study of literature offers economists ways to improve their models and predictions, as well as ways to shape more effective and just policies. At the same time, they underscore, examining literature through the lens of real-world economic problems can help to revitalize its study. The book was widely reviewed and discussed, in the academic press and beyond, including by the Times Higher Education, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Schapiro and Morson penned several opinion pieces based on the book and spoke about the value of the humanities to the study of economics and vice versa at the Chicago Humanities Festival in November.