College Computing Educators are Widening the Gap Between Rich and Poor

September 1, 2009 at 9:33 am 11 comments

The first time that I read about higher-education faculty being a significant cause of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots was in this column in 2005 by David Brooks of the New York Times. He explicitly argues that colleges, rather than being a ladder to improving one’s life, are actually reducing the opportunities for the poor.

“As you doubtless know, as the information age matures, a new sort of stratification is setting in, between those with higher education and those without. College graduates earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates, and people with professional degrees earn nearly twice as much as those with college degrees. But worse, this economic stratification is translating into social stratification. Only 28 percent of American adults have a college degree, but most of us in this group find ourselves in workplaces in social milieus where almost everybody has been to college…The most damning indictment of our university system is that these poorer kids are graduating from high school in greater numbers. It’s when they get to college that they begin failing and dropping out. Thomas Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education has collected a mountain of data on growing educational inequality. As he points out, universities have done a wonderful job educating affluent kids since 1980. But they ‘have done a terrible job of including those from the bottom half of the family income distribution. In this respect, higher education is now causing most of the growing inequality and strengthening class structure of the United States.'”

Richard Tapia, in his foreword to Jane Margolis et al.’s Stuck in the Shallow End, actually makes the explicit argument in his title, “Computer Science is Widening the Education Gap.

“Over the years, I have developed an extreme dislike for the expression ‘the best and the brightest,’ so the authors’ discussion of it in the concluding chapter particularly resonated with me. I have seen extremely talented and creative underrepresented minority undergraduate students aggressively excluded from this distinction. While serving on a National Science review panel years back, I learned that to be included in this category you had to have been doing science by the age of ten. Of course, because of lack of opportunities, few underrepresented minorities qualified.”

So what will convince computing educators that their definition of “best and brightest” is in accurate or even downright wrong?  It’s so easy for computing educators to define “the best” — “This guy aces my test and can hack up a storm!”  What if there is even someone better whom you’re ignoring, who is invisible to you because of the way that you construct your class?  I believe that’s Lecia’s point in her comment to my earlier blog post.  What gets educators to look beyond?  I’m not sure that an argument based on broadening participation, fair treatment, and equal opportunity is being heard.

Maybe it will be economics.  Forbes clearly blames the colleges themselves for rising higher-education costs. The graphics in the piece are well-worth checking out, especially the rising cost of College presidents and the diminishing budget spend on education.  But I’ll close with the ending statement from Forbes, which suggests that the schools that most emphasize the “best and brightest” are really no better than those schools that emphasize catering to those who need education:

“In the end, should students and parents just stop fretting over the high cost of elite universities and instead opt for a lower-priced public college? Probably. It turns out that where students go as undergraduates doesn’t help them earn more money over their lifetimes, according to a 2002 study by Stacy Dale, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J., and Alan Krueger, a Princeton economics and public affairs professor. Their study looked at 14,238 full-time workers who were freshmen in 1976. The ones who were bright enough to get into the highest-ranked–but usually expensive–schools but then didn’t attend, did just as well in their careers as the students who did matriculate at those schools. “What we found is that it doesn’t matter where you went to school, but who you are,” Dale says. Someday parents and students may wake up to this reality and balk at the prices being charged for a college education. Until then, colleges can continue to be blasé about costs.”

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Wilson  |  September 1, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    On August 19, you asked, “How will you know that American universities have collapsed?” ( I think you have just answered your own question…

  • 2. Mark Miller  |  September 2, 2009 at 1:03 am

    The conclusion you end with from Forbes is compatible with a TV segment that John Stossel did a while back on “20/20” called College: Worth the price of admission? He focused in on the statistic that’s often used by colleges that college graduates earn on average $1 million more over their working lives than those with just a high school diploma. He said if you look at the average among all college graduates this is true, but what isn’t talked about is there are some ambitious, high-powered individuals who skew the average. He interviewed Dr. Marty Nemko who said, “You could take the pool of college-bound students and you could lock them in a closet for 4 years and they’re going to earn more money.” Stossel completes his thought, “Because those are the kids who already tend to be harder working, more persistent…” Nemko chimes in, “And smarter.” Stossel talked to an economist who said that if you remove the high-powered earners from the college stats that there’s still an economic benefit to a college degree on average, but it’s more like $500K more over our working lives.

    The sad part is the stories of college graduates who feel like they’ve been duped with the promise of high-powered incomes and the reality of the poverty they’ve ended up in with huge student debts. With their college education though they may eventually realize opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. One can hope. I don’t have a problem with the fact that they got a higher education. The problem is the mistaken impression they were given that they would necessarily have a higher income with a degree than without one.

    So I think David Brooks’s criticism is misplaced and I think his analysis is flawed. He said that more and more poor kids are graduating from high school, but they’re failing when they get to college. He blames the universities for this, but the conclusion I’d draw is that the high schools that graduated the students didn’t prepare them. It seems that given the dynamic of secondary education in poor areas there needs to be an interim step between high school and college. Is community college an answer? People have successfully gone from community colleges to universities. So perhaps this is the solution Brooks is searching for.

    Richard Tapia’s afterward resonated with me. It goes along with what I’ve been saying for a while, just without the racial component. I didn’t experience the discrimination he talks about, but I think I experienced some of the shallowness he alludes to. Being “stuck in the shallow end” hurts the sciences generally, not just minorities.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  September 2, 2009 at 10:38 am

      Mark, consider David Brooks’ criticism and Richard Tapia’s comments together. Richard isn’t talking about kids who shouldn’t have got through high school. Sure, it’s a severe problem that our high schools are falling short. But here at Georgia Tech (as an example), we have the highest average SAT scores of any public school in the nation. Disregarding any criticism of the SAT, it’s pretty clear that we have kids who are way past high school or even community college. Yet, we flunk out a LOT of these students. What’s going on there? I think that’s who Richard is talking about — great, smart students who don’t succeed because we don’t know how to find them and engage them. What both Tapia and Brooks are saying that those students are often part of a minority group in college, whether due to socio-economic status or ethnicity or gender. They’re not picked as being “likely to succeed” or to be obviously “best and brightest.” That’s a wasted resource, and it exacerbates the education gap between the haves and have-nots.

      • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  September 2, 2009 at 1:31 pm

        Is there a correlation between who you “flunk out” and the students at the low end of admitted students in terms of SAT scores? How about if you are focusing on CS students and SAT math scores?

        If so, is the correlation similar when you focus on the minority groups who are more likely to “flunk out?”

      • 5. Mark Miller  |  September 3, 2009 at 2:58 am

        Hi Mark.

        When you say “flunk out” I assume you’re talking about just CS students. It seems to me you’re talking about two different things. The effect that Richard was talking about has to do with secondary education. You’ll notice reading his story that he got through his post-secondary education fine. What he talked about is students who were not given access to facilities and concepts that would’ve allowed them to learn important ideas about math and science early on. I think that can’t help but have an effect. What you’re talking about (I assume) is an effect on ALL CS students once they enter your program.

        I have no solid theories on why you would be flunking most of them. I think the comments to one of your previous articles provides a clue in that they indicated professors try to cram too much information into a short time. Students with prior programming experience would have the best shot at being successful in this environment.

        When I went through the weeder courses at my alma mater they didn’t feel that hard. This was probably because I had been programming since I was 12 and I had a high level of interest in programming. I learned most of what I needed to know about the introductory language (Pascal) in high school, because of my own self-study. My high school didn’t have an APCS course, though we had access to the exam (any of us could take it), and they had a Pascal compiler I could run on the school’s computers.

        I can only speak from my own experience. When I was first learning programming at the age of 12 it was definitely not a walk in the park. I was fortunate in that my local library offered public access to computers, which included access to programming languages. This was in 1981. Given these resources I learned on my own. There were no programming classes I had access to. The schools in my area wouldn’t offer computer classes for another 3 years.

        I struggled a lot. It was a long time ago, but my memory is that it took me about 2 months (though not working on it every single day) to get to a skill level in Basic where I could write a program that worked and did more than print a string multiple times on the screen, using Print and Goto. Reading your description of the GA Tech CS curriculum, which hasn’t been too detailed (assuming I went into Java first–I’m not sure if that’s how it works), it’s conceivable that had I never programmed before entering such a program I might very well have failed the introductory courses, or scored low. As a kid there were certain intellectual hurdles I had to get over before I could really understand what I was doing. I’ve already talked about some of them in past comments on your Amazon blog.

        I saw a couple students in my Pascal class in college really struggle with the language, and they reminded me of the struggles I went through when I was first programming. Having my head start was probably crucial to my success in the program.

        I’m inclined to agree with a quote that Alan Kay has used: “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points”. I think it would be better to start at a conceptual level rather than plunging students into the deep end of learning a language quickly. I’ve already commented previously about how the Java language is a difficult one for beginners to learn. The primary reason being that it wasn’t designed as an educational language. I assume that your fellow CS educators discount this, but I wouldn’t. It could be a significant factor in the failure rate, assuming that most of the incoming freshman have not programmed before, or have little experience with it.

        Since you are involved with educational research I’ll assume you’ve explored students’ learning processes and what the critical concepts are that enable people to understand computing and programming.

        How well do they get the idea of abstractions, such as the concepts of variables, objects, and processes that take place on them or inside them? It seems to me these are ideas that can be expressed without getting students into programming right away if that’s too quick for them. I’m sure you’ve seen yourself how you lose students if they feel that they’re going to be clobbered over the head with programming. Programming is not something that comes naturally even to people who are good at math, science, or engineering. While I was in school I saw an engineering student and a top honors math student who were both confounded by K&R C, particularly the concept of pointers.

        Perhaps it’s incorrect of me to say this, but to me programming involves an amalgamation of the skill sets that come from understanding and doing math and science, in terms of the cognition and background understanding that’s necessary. Experience with math and science are not sufficient for understanding programming right out of the chute, but they help.

  • 6. An Educational Extinction Event? « Computing Education Blog  |  January 30, 2010 at 11:39 am

    […] (Uns) will be replaced by On-Line University (Ons).  I have significant concerns about that. Universities already widen the gap between rich and poor, by flunking out or not admitting the poor. On-line courses tend to flunk out even more students, […]

  • […] doing things that engage students (like lab activities and undergraduate research).  David Brooks, as mentioned here previously, lays the blame at the feet of the faculty who aren’t doing enough to support the […]

  • […] arguing that there are enormous economic impacts of getting more kids through high school.  David Brooks has argued similarly that there are enormous impacts for getting more kids through undergraduate.  I think Alan’s point is well-taken — […]

  • […] Collar Coders” reminds me of the lessons of Jane Margolis et al.’s book “Stuck in the Shallow End.”  It turns out that there are lots of African-American students in computing, just few in […]

  • […] Tapia in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, we in computer science explicitly) may be playing a role in widening the economic divide. David Brooks wrote about these inequities in 2005, in his NYTimes column, titled “The […]

  • […] Tapia in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, we in computer science explicitly) may be playing a role in widening the economic divide. David Brooks wrote about these inequities in 2005, in his NYTimes column, titled “The […]


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