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Opinion: Getting by (in College) With a Little Help from My Friends

Creating a cohort, or ‘posse’ of disadvantaged students can help ease the socioeconomic shock of postsecondary education.

Roland Anglin
Roland Anglin

There are places and sparks of innovation in the educational system that push us forward in understanding how we can effectively educate citizens in this country, particularly those from modest circumstances. A recent opinion piece by Vicki Madden in The New York Times reinforced my belief that we should and can find innovation in educational practice -- in this case at the postsecondary level.

Madden’s point is observational: for many low-income students, college is an alien experience. As she points out, “[t]o stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. The transition is not just about getting a degree and making more money. If that were all socioeconomics signified, it would not be such a strong predictor of everything from SAT scores and parenting practices to health and longevity.”

Let’s not trivialize Madden’s point by saying, “Tell us something we don’t know.” Yes, the struggle to shift and adapt to a new world when the entry point is college is ever present, but the progressing differences in how class and race are lived in this country are even more of a barrier to using postsecondary education as a strategy for upward mobility. In reading Madden’s thoughtful piece, my mind did not go to “and what do you suggest?” No, relief came to mind in knowing that we can address at least this challenge through tested means.

It is no secret that there are many barriers to success in postsecondary education for a disadvantaged (low-income, first-generation, and/or minority) student. Among the many barriers are the daunting forms that families have to complete to access financial aid, not to mention inadequate precollege preparation and, yes, the absence of the social and cultural capital necessary to navigate college.

There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that moving students through college as a cohort has a significant impact on student success. The Posse Foundation is a nationally recognized organization that has successfully shown that a cohort model works. The foundation, which began in 1989, identifies talented public high-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might otherwise be overlooked for admission and sends them to college in a “posse” of 10 students. The Posse Foundation boasts a 90 percent persistence and graduation rate among its scholars. The idea behind the Posse Foundation’s cohort structure is that students will be more likely to persist in their educational endeavors if they have a strong social support system. In addition, the organization sees its model as a great way to increase diversity of all types in higher educational institutions.

Other examples of the cohort model, sometimes referred to as a “learning community” in the literature, have taken hold.

In some cases a learning community is generally framed by one theme to encourage student engagement and motivation. Disadvantaged students who often begin their postsecondary experience at a community college (typically for financial reasons, but also as a matter of convenience) might particularly benefit from a cohort model for promoting achievement and persistence in their postsecondary studies.

Cohort models often provide the type of intense social, emotional, and academic support that nontraditional or disadvantaged community college students might lack. A cohort model has the potential to engage such students in a way that creates strong attachment to their college experience, increasing the likelihood that they will succeed and persist.

One study study used a randomized research design to examine the effects of a learning community at Kingsborough Community College, a part of the City University of New York. This study found that participation in the learning community: 1) significantly enhanced students’ sense of integration into the college community; 2) increased the number of courses attempted and passed, as well as the number of credits earned in a semester; 3) improved the likelihood that students would pass math and reading placement tests (thereby eliminating the need for remediation); 4) provided a short-term boost in educational attainment; and 5) revealed evidence of potential improvements in long term student persistence.

Is using cohorts or learning communities to increase postsecondary persistence among students from disadvantaged backgrounds the only answer? Of course not; properly used and implemented, however, it is a way to manage the negative impacts of race and class. Make no mistake, though, there is much more to do to make postsecondary attainment an accessible experience.

Roland V. Anglin is director of the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

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