It's a most predictable pattern in U.S. higher education:
- A social scientist coins a new "theory" and is touted as an "eminent social scientist."
- Academic administrators read about the theory and consider what it may mean for their institutions.
- Academic administrators' professional associations provide forums for their members to opine about the new theory, especially as case studies presented at conferences "prove" its validity.
- Demonstrating they are on the "cutting edge" (read: "demonstrate value added to the institution"), academic administrators rush back to their institutions and begin implementing the new "coin of the realm."
All of this because academic administrators believe an untested social science hypothesis provides "the answer" to a challenge they are dealing with at their institutions. And, in most cases, the challenge isn't educational but economic.
The most recent iteration of this pattern is a theory being promoted earlier this week at the Council of Independent Colleges' annual Chief Academic Officers' Institute (CAOI). According to Inside Higher Education, administrators from dozens of mostly small private colleges are discussing the concept of "cultural capital" and the extent to which their institutions must build it, especially in first-year students.
The theory of "cultural capital"--a sociological concept formulated by Pierre Bourdieu that's similar to the idea of "social capital" first broached by Coleman and his colleagues in the late-1960s--suggests that sustained exposure to the elements of culture increases the likelihood that young people will succeed in that culture.
Why the heightened interest at CAOI in cultural capital?
If you think it's has to do directly with developing a more culturally sophisticated and knowledgeable student body, forget it. As the discussion at this year's CAOI demonstrates, the mushrooming interest in cultural capital has more to do with salvaging students who'd otherwise drop out after their first year. After all, retention is critical for small private colleges.
So it's "off to the races."
One "headliner" at this year's CAOI, Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, John M. Braxton, promoted his new book, Rethinking College Student Persistence. Braxton argued that the degree of a first-year student's cultural capital relates positively to his or her likelihood of returning for a second year at an institution.
To increase retention of first-year students, Braxton and his co-authors would have institutions collect data (and make it available to advisers and other personnel) identifying the level of cultural capital that matriculating first-year students have attained. Students who are most lacking in cultural capital would then receive special attention during their first year.
Hmmm...what's that "special attention" consist of?
And then there's the testimonials to add credence to the hypothesis. For example:
- South Carolina's Wofford College has taken the bait. Its Provost, David S. Wood, said that the first-to-second-year retention has increased to 89% and the graduation rate has increased to 80-83%. Impressive numbers, no?
- The Vice President and Dean of Student Life at William Woods University (WWU), Venita Mitchhell, described the institution's LEAD (Leading, Educating, Achieving, Developing) Program. WWU offers a $5k tuition credit to any student who participates actively in campus life, earning points that discount tuition, The Motley Monk notes, for the next semester. Mitchell added: "Bribery always works." So much for educating the mind!
Some wary administrators haven't taken the bait. Inside Higher Education reports one administrator at an institution which has many first-generation students and boasts a cultural capital requirement who said:
[M]many students go but don't want to be there....We're struggling with
making these students go, because they're disrupting the experience of
those who want to be there, shifting loudly in their seats and taking their
cell phones out even if we've told them not to.
How much should we force them to do this? We want to give them that
culture, but we want them to want it."
Other academic administrators are a little more than wary, worrying whether the impetus to build cultural in students actually hurts them in the long run.
"Culture" is being defined too narrowly...the kind of stuff that appeals to the upper classes (and The Motley Monk, too). The Dean of the School of Humanities at Messiah College, Peter Powers opined:
It may look like just acquiring cultural capital to us, but it can create
isolation and cognitive dissonance for them within their home
communities. If they start feeling, "to fit in here I'm having to move
too far away from my peer group back home," they may decide it's
not worth it, and institutions may lose them.
Don't be fooled. Building cultural capital in first-year students is very much about retaining them which, in plain English, mean "collecting another year's tuition from them."
If undergraduates aren't interested in developing their cultural capital, why are they attending college in the first place? To pay tuition in order to enhance a resume?
Let the discussion begin...
To read the Inside Higher Education article, click on the following link: