Causes

The soul of higher education

The connection between dropping out of college and feelings of shame are real, but wrongly placed. Could it be the system of higher education in this country wasn’t designed to help everyone succeed in earning a college degree? What if there was a new system, which would allow each person a customized opportunity, not only to finish school, but also to feel worthy again?

By Sarah Saxton Frump for Praxis

Even back when I was an atheist, “O Holy Night” gave me goosebumps. Some folks are partial to Mariah’s rendition; I’m old school and prefer The King’s College choir. But no matter the version – the lyrics, the harmony, the crescendo in this song feel like light breaking through a bleak midwinter’s eve.

Not until last Advent had I ever paid attention to a specific section in the first verse. My co-founder Hudson sent me a video of Father Gregory Boyle speaking at Holy Cross and just said “skip ahead to the last four minutes.”

Father Boyle, in reflecting on the work he’s done with Homeboy Industries to care for gang members in Los Angeles, says that every nonprofit has essentially the same menu of services, but what matters at Homeboy Industries is that they build a community of tenderness where gang members can face long-buried pain and trauma. He tells a story about Germaine – I won’t spoil it for you; you should watch the video – and then he pauses before saying:

And the soul feels its worth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. Yeah, it’s about Jesus. Yeah, it’s about Christmas. But how is that not your job description as human beings? You appear, and the soul feels its worth.

I said “Amen” out loud to my empty living room.


A new path, designed to serve

Working in higher education isn’t the most obvious way to help a soul feel its worth. Many Americans still treat a college degree like a luxury good, and the scene in the public imagination is a khaki-clad co-ed lounging on the quad between classes, reading Nietzsche and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The higher education world doesn’t conjure up the kind of pain that, say, the work of Father Boyle might.

That’s because the common perception of higher education is a private four-year degree; but that’s only true for 2.8 million students. Another 14 million study at public or for-profit colleges (with six million of those attending community college). As the importance of a degree has grown over the past 30 years, institutions have expanded enrollment. This rapid growth demanded efficiencies and led to a widely adopted, one-size-fits-all approach that has isolated and commodified the very students higher education has a mandate to serve.

While this industrialization approach expanded college access, it also led to record rates of students not finishing; 250,000 folks in Austin, where we work, are among the 45 million Americans who have started college and not graduated.

The students who don’t finish are the very ones who would benefit most from a degree and the economic opportunity it affords. Eighty percent of students born into the highest income quintile will earn a college degree, while only eight percent of students from the lowest will graduate.

But an even more troubling product of our system is how it wounds the self esteem of students who don’t graduate. These students come to believe that if they’d just had more money, more time, more smarts, or more grit, then they’d be able to finish. Regardless of whether the barriers and causes are cultural or personal, the student internalizes the blame.

A troubling product of our higher-ed system is the woulds it inflicts on the self esteem of students who don’t graduate.

At PelotonU we have a different explanation: the system was never designed to serve them.

Almost 70 percent of students are now post-traditional, which means they either work full time, are over the age of 24, enroll part time, or are a parent. Their changing professional and personal responsibilities don’t fit within the fixed semesters and stringent seat-time requirements of traditional college. Even when instruction is delivered online, students are beset by inflexible deadlines.

That’s why we designed a new path to college graduation – a solution that both addresses the structural barriers confronting students and offers a new narrative about their intrinsic dignity and worth.

To address the structural barriers, PelotonU combines three existing elements into a new model.

  1. Enrollment Advising: We provide the needed flexibility by helping students pick from a curated list of top online universities: competency-based degree programs that are high-quality, affordable, self-paced, and designed specifically for learners with full lives.
  2. Study Space: We offer a place to study that’s open 60 hours a week, including nights and weekends. The study space creates a sense of belonging, where students learn alongside peers and an on-hand tutor to support their studies.
  3. Coaching: We hire trained educators to meet in person every week with students from when they enroll to when they graduate. The coach offers hope by serving as a trusted guide for a new and complex journey.

We designed our model to place students within care, where they can be treated as whole persons (not just students with specific academic milestones to hit) on an individual journey (not being batch-processed), and that includes the make-or-break step of selecting the right program.

So the essence of our model is care; the crux of our care is coaching; and our coaching approach stems from the conviction, so astutely phrased by Father Boyle, that one of our highest callings is to help each other feel our worth.

Confronting education-related shame

Most of us walk around wondering if we’re loveable, if we’re good enough, if we’re seen. Dr. Brené Brown calls those whispers from your inner critic “shame tapes.” They’re the persistent voices that might hint (or scream) that you’re not smart enough or too old, that you don’t belong or no one could ever love you.

When we begin to pay attention to what’s going on in our head, we find we all have shame tapes; and even when we beat them into submission for a season, they often resurface.

Dr. Brown defines shame as:

  • The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
  • The fear of disconnection.
  • The fear that there is something about us that makes others consider us unworthy.

She goes on to highlight the three most important things to know about shame.

  1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about it.
  3. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives.

Indeed, my own experience with shame enables me to see how it drives people’s behavior at every turn.

That might sound depressing, but I assure you it’s not. Realizing this is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. It shows me the ways in which people in my life (including me!) need to be reminded of their worth and dignity. And it helps me respond rightly: not by taking personally their behavior or even by letting my own shame tapes play out (oh, she doesn’t want to hang out with me anymore. I knew I was too much for people to handle…), but rather by moving toward the person who feels ashamed even as they’re being driven to isolation. We each have the power to interrupt each other’s shame tapes and remind one another of our God-given worth and dignity.

For a moment, imagine you dropped out of college at nineteen. You worked for a while, felt stuck, and went back to school. And then you dropped out again. Another five years went by, and you tried again–but it only got harder. You have a couple of kids now, and bills that require a full-time job. The years go by. You’re 37 now. Your kids are in high school, you’re out of credit card debt, and the time is right. You want to go back. You can afford it. But your transcript is a mess, there’s a couple of holds on your account, and you’re a college dropout thrice over.

Odds are, you feel like your failure is entirely your fault. Your shame tape might be saying you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t really want it, you didn’t deserve it, or you’re not smart enough. When you think about going back with a full-time job and kids in high school, your shame tape might say you’re too old or you won’t be able to keep up with the material.

Would you take the risk and go back?

Daniela, the student in this situation, nearly didn’t. The shame tapes almost won, but her manager encouraged her to give college one more try with a new program their company was partnering with – that’s us, PelotonU.

In record time, Daniela earned her associate degree and decided to continue pursuing her bachelor’s. Now she’s eyeing a Master’s degree. She’s been promoted and received a pay raise, and her grown children are cheering her on.

Daniela thought she didn’t have what it takes–that when it counted she wouldn’t be enough. And she had evidence to back up her belief: after all, she’d dropped out of school 3 times before, and now she was “too old” to be in school.


Coaching for empowerment that roots out shame

Millions of capable Americans are walking around with a voice in their head saying they weren’t good enough because they never graduated.

And hundreds of college persistence nonprofits now work to equip students with all the tools and resources they need to succeed. Most of these hard-working, earnest, and well-intentioned organizations address academic barriers, then logistical ones, then emotional ones. It makes sense – this is the order in which these present themselves on the surface.

But when we tackle academic and logistics barriers first, we can actually widen the cracks for shame to get into our students’ hearts. When we tell our students we’ve equipped them with everything they need to be successful and they fail, their inevitable conclusion is that there must be something wrong with them. It’s like when a friend tells you a recipe is easy or a math problem is simple – but then your cake flops, or you get the wrong answer. Our shame tape pipes up to remind us that we’re bad cooks or just stupid.

But God knows how our shame drives us away from him, and he has been pursuing us since Eden when he went to find Adam and Eve in their shame, in the first shame. He reminds us we’re beloved, no matter our choices.

It’s from this conviction that PelotonU’s coaching flows. Our students are people first, made in God’s image, irrespective of their personal faith or its absence. They have dignity and worth unrelated to their past performance in school or how many credits they’ve earned or how badly they’re ghosting us when they’re struggling and the shame tapes are winning. Our coaches regularly live out the truth of each student’s inherent dignity as they walk alongside them, trying to help them know their worth.

Our students are people first, made in God’s image, irrespective of their personal faith or its absence.

Practically, this creates four key pillars of our coaching.

  1. We acknowledge the role of the higher education system in making people feel shame. We help decouple our students’ negative experiences with higher ed from their self-esteem by showing them the structures outside their control that made success so unlikely, even when they did everything right.
  2. We empower students to take control of their education, highlight their strengths, and show them how to bring those to bear on their academics. We ensure students have the necessary tools to solve their own problems, and then we insist they solve them.
  3. We actively combat shame in our coaching meetings and program and teach students about it early on. We avoid phrases that might make a student feel shame (“You’re still working on that project? Yesenia finished it in just a week.”). We stay up to date on trauma-informed practices and prioritize the emotional and psychological needs of our students before logistical and academic needs.
  4. We infuse grace into our policies and procedures, and religiously adopt an attitude of “not yet.” If a student misses a deadline, we always ask if everything’s okay, even if it’s the seventh time. We have a policy for students who need to take a break from school – students who would drop out from traditional programs but instead remain enrolled with no long-term consequences to their academic standing or self-esteem.

These values create a sense of hope and have resulted in industry-leading outcomes for our learners. Since 2014, PelotonU has served more than 180 students and seen a 79 percent persistence rate, seven times better than the 11 percent local alternative. Universities also pay us for this coaching, which covered 30 percent of our expenses in 2018 and will grow to fund 70 percent of our costs in the next three years.

Seventy-nine percent of our students will be the first in their family to earn a college degree. Two thirds have tried college before, and half are parents. Their average age is 27, and average annual income is $23,000.

What’s most exciting is the 50 degrees we’ve enabled so far – degrees that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. And while we deeply believe a college degree has a unique role in shaping a student’s future, it’s not for the credential that we give our hearts to this work. We do it because, along the way to graduation, students discover what was there all along: their own courage, resilience, and affection for learning.

As students grow in self-confidence, their friends and coworkers see it as well, and it often leads to better pay. PelotonU students have seen 84 promotions or pay raises; our bachelor’s degree earners now average a 140 percent increase in wages.


Redemptive inefficiency

My co-founder Hudson and I often get asked what comes next, and the answer is one of a handful of tensions we hold. We balance providing robust support to our students with using donated funds efficiently to serve more folks. We grow more slowly than we might, so as not to exhaust our team or make unnecessary mistakes. We stop what we’re doing when students want to talk, even with grant deadlines looming, because knowing students comes before our task list.

We get less done to be sure, but being redemptively inefficient is the sort of people we hope to be. We hope to stop and hear a story and admire the student’s journey before proffering advice; we hope to be the community members who know our neighbors–and not only their names but their dreams and extended family.

As team leaders, we hope to carry with us a peace that creates rest and health for our team, so they in turn can offer the same for our students who thereby create more for one another. In the middle of that cycle, folks begin to find hope and take the next step towards what once felt out of reach.

As to vision, we’re rooted in the fabric and aspirations of our local community, and intend to share what we’re learning to help others do the same in new cities. We believe this work strengthens families, makes communities more resilient, and slows the loneliness and fragmentation unique to this generation.

If we do our jobs well, then other places will continue to take interest, and we’ll look back in 10 years at a movement of students who have come to realize not only new educational and economic worth but also their soul’s worth.

This story comes by way of The Praxis Journal.
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