Payne v. Kunjufu:
Poverty and the College Attendance Pipeline
Professor of Educational Leadership
Special Assistant to the Provost for Academic Initiatives
Indiana State University
I recently attended a screening of the new documentary, First Generation. It is a film about four high school students—an inner city African-American athlete, a small town White waitress, a Samoan dancer, and a daughter of migrant field workers—and their experiences navigating the possibilities of college attendance and breaking the cycle of poverty that grips each of their lives.
Over the course of their junior and senior years, we see these four high-achieving students in archetypical daily struggles, yet most powerfully and fresh, we see the crushing mismatch between college expectations and potential with the barriers to attaining their dreams. Some examples include:
Little sense for the diversity of institutional types in this country or how to differentiate one from another other than on proximity;
Seeing athletics as the only real opportunity for scholarships since that is what they know from big-time college sports on television;
Clear admissibility to an elite public institution but not applying because they could not pay the $100 application fee;
No sense that there is a college sticker price versus a price they would actually pay at even an “expensive” private institution and that as children of poverty, they had strong potential for attendance for free;
Being wholly dependent on the school guidance counselor for help and the realistic capability or even interest that the counselor has in the intense support of the needs of the student;
A parent(s) that can’t bear the thought of their child “going away” to school or that does not see why college is important; and
Choosing the local community college over a more distant four-year institution with the expectation of ultimately attaining a bachelor’s degree despite the reality that most with this expectation do not.
As I reflect on the power of this documentary, and the daunting challenge we have as a nation to provide a larger proportion of our citizenry with a postsecondary education, I find myself recalling a debate I saw a few years back between Ruby Payne and Jawanza Kunjufu and their competing perspectives on how to think about and respond to children and youth in poverty. Payne provides a window into what she calls generational poverty and the patterns of behavior that she says pass down through generations that often lock a person in a cycle of poverty. She also describes social class language differences that America’s teachers from largely middle-class backgrounds find enriching for “understanding” their poor students.
Hmm, sounds a lot like blaming the victim and a means of helping teachers know “them” better, but does it serve to reinforce assumptions?
Kunjufu, by contrast, puts forth an argument that America’s largely White, middle-class, and female teachers are ill-prepared to work with the African American students that make up a considerable percentage of poor students in schools and thus develop low expectations for them, perhaps reinforced through low performance sourced in a mismatch between teaching and learning styles.
Hmm, sounds plausible, but how do we best prepare or mentor teachers to be more effective in the diverse classroom?
Whatever is going on, insidious forces are at work, that in my view play out in many ways, including in their effect on college attendance patterns [i.e. rich kids disproportionally attending four-year institutions and poor kids community colleges], those that seem to reinforce a class society.