Life Gets in the Way of School

Okay, I know the title is a bit simplistic, but that is, in fact, what researchers discovered. I think we as teachers (and long time students) know that. But it is interesting to have it confirmed.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s article by Peter Schmidt, New Studies Show How Life’s Tough Turns Can Derail Students:

The subset of students that Mr. Cox and Mr. Reason examined included about 700 identified as white, 700 as Asian, 600 as black, and 600 as Hispanic. The two researchers focused on data from the students’ sophomore year of college, basing their assessment of stressful life events on how many students had responded yes when asked if they had experienced any of 14 family setbacks, such as a parent dying or losing a job, a brother or sister dropping out of school, an unwed sister becoming pregnant, or a member of the immediate family going on public assistance or becoming homeless.

The analysis found that, for each racial or ethnic group examined, graduation rates dropped off sharply with each additional stressful life event outside college. For example, among Hispanic males, those who had not experienced any of the specified life events had a predicted graduation rate of 69 percent. But the rate dropped to just under 64 percent for those who had experienced one life event, 58 percent for those who had experienced two, and just over 46 percent for those who had experienced four. Women and black and white respondents of both genders followed a similar pattern.

What they also found out, and what was not highlighted as much in the article, is that life does not have to get in the way of school.

[I]t appeared that students identified as Asian experienced less-precipitous declines in their graduation rates as the number of life events they reported increased. The two scholars did not offer any explanation as to why Asian students might be more academically resilient.

Based on the many discussions and studies of the importance of education in Asian and Asian-American culture, I would guess that students overcome the stressors in their lives because they see education as more important.

It took me a long time to get my PhD. I was actually granted a one-semester extension on the twelve year limitation. But I got it. Because it was important to me. So, a marriage, three moves, two children, three emergency surgeries, and countless other real and perceived stressors later, I graduated. I even went back to school and walked! (The boys, who were seven and eight, were slightly bored, but very good.)

I am NOT saying that life does not get in the way. It does. But sometimes life becomes the reason not to finish, instead of the reason you took so long.

The two researchers’ paper suggests that colleges take steps to encourage students to report life events, and train faculty members to be more alert to signs that students are in distress.

This can be a significant issue, especially among populations such as the ones my school serves. The students always have significant life events.

One of my students went to take care of her grandparents’ business, because they were killed in a car wreck and her father was already dead. Dang! Who can deal with that and school? This student missed a week and a half of school, but came back working hard and got the paper done that we worked through while she was gone.

It can be done. But many students do not have the cultural background to commit to education no matter what. Everyone has hard things in their lives. We still go to work, though perhaps not, as Mary Kay envisioned, giving make-overs immediately upon learning that our child was killed in an accident or our husband is leaving us for his significantly younger secretary. I taught the day I found out my mother was dying. I taught the day she died. It was my job. It sucked. But I did it.

Perhaps our students need help to see their educations as their jobs.

One thought on “Life Gets in the Way of School”

  1. This is so appropriate to my life as a CC teacher–it’s usually because of life events that students end up here. Not enough money because a parent has lost a job. Not enough resources because they took in Grandma. Not enough time because the student takes care of their younger siblings. I’d be interested to see what the researchers say about student who have chronic life events–that is to say–one right after another right after another and can never seem to get a leg up on things. Can they ever finish?

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