New book examines economic and intellectual motivations for returning students
Mike Rose says his new book, “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education” (New York: The New Press, 2012. Print), “developed out of a long history of work with various populations who are in some way behind the educational or economic eight-ball.”
A professor of education in the Social Research Methodology Division of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Rose has taught or observed a variety of student populations for nearly four decades, including everything from kindergarten to Vietnam veterans in a reentry program offered through UCLA Extension. Having interviewed numerous students who are attending community colleges or occupational programs for “Back to School,” he says that no matter what their circumstances or goals were, “They were all in one way or another, trying to get another chance at education.”
“Everybody, in some way or another, is coming back to school to try to change their lives,” Rose says. “Usually, there was some sort of economic motive. If they were unemployed, they were trying to get a leg up so they have some labor market advantage. If they were already employed, they were trying to get skills that [would] enable them to do a little bit better.
“Some were in adult school, people who did not finish high school and were going to school to build their skills [or] headed toward taking the GED exam. Some were from other countries, immigrants who had completed school in their home country but were here for citizenship classes or to improve their English. In some cases, they were trying to get a GED so they’d have a domestic credential.”
Rose says that many of the students, ranging from their early 20s to their 50s, were employed at low-skilled, low-paying, and often unstable jobs. Most were caring for children and families in addition to attending school, and a number of them were living on unemployment or supporting themselves with jobs at their schools. Many were participating in basic education as adults, functioning at a 6th grade level or lower in reading, writing, and math skills.
Rose describes a variety of reasons why adult students would need to revisit education after years in the workforce.
“There were people who didn’t do all that great in K-12 or maybe started out doing okay but for various reasons faltered,” he says. “Some people had learning disabilities, or had to quit [school] to support and take care of family. When you’re poor, you’re parceling out your resources.
“In other cases, some people did complete high school [and] went into the workforce, or into the military. Now they’re coming back from military service; or they went into the workforce and their job fell apart. They had a job for ten or 15 years, maybe, and then – boom – the industry shuts down. In rural and semirural communities, that can be disastrous because there’s not much diversity of employment there.”
Rose outlines the effects that reduced budgets are having on students who are pursuing a second degree or even a high school diploma during the nation’s economic downturn.
“In just about any survey you look at, enrollments are up around the country for adult school programs, for occupational programs, for community college programs,” he states. “And the tragedy is that these enrollments are increasing at a time when most states are cutting the budgets of these programs. So you end up with people who are not able to get into either an adult school or community college program. It is literally hundreds of thousands of people who are on wait lists, can’t get in, or are turned away.”
Rose notes that current economic and political philosophies have created “this strong ideology of austerity; that the way to secure our economic future, many people believe, is through clamping down.”
“There are economists from across the ideological spectrum that question the wisdom of such a severe austerity move during a recession,” says Rose. “We certainly are seeing this debate in Europe. The argument is that what you need to be doing is creating jobs and holding the safety net together. And then you start to worry about trimming back on expenses when the economy regularizes again.
“But even though you get a range of centrist economists to somewhat right-of-center economists [to] left economists agreeing to this, the political climate is such that… you don’t have a strong, moral counter-voice representing the less advantaged at the table.”
Rose asserts that despite the current trend of cutting back on education, the effects of an uneducated or undereducated population are a disadvantage to consider in the long run, both in terms of the economy and more vividly, in terms of societal gain.
“If people become more employable, then they’re paying taxes,” says Rose. “They’re drawing less on social services; they’re buying things. There are all kinds of economic benefit to increasing people’s labor market value.
“But one of the things that we know from research is that the more people are educated, the more non-economic payoffs you have,” adds Rose. “They become more civically involved, more politically involved. There are better health outcomes and health literacy. They rely on social services less. They get more involved in their kids’ education.”
Rose says that the returning students he studied expressed many reasons for pursuing education that were not related to the obvious economic incentive.
“What is so fascinating to me are the other reasons that people express, other than economic [reasons],” he says. “People said things like, ‘I never did very well in school, and I want to do better,’ or ‘I want to be a role model for my kids, I want to help them with their homework,’ or, ‘I want to know what’s going on [in the world].’ They say things that are really powerful, like ‘I want to turn my life around.’”
In the book, Rose points out that nearly 45 percent of postsecondary students in the United States do not enroll in college directly out of high school, resulting in a non-traditional college student demographic that is now the norm in many parts of the nation. He underscores the enhancement that non-traditional students bring to adult and higher education, both for their fellow students and their instructors.
“One historical example of how powerful mixing up the population could be in our colleges and universities is the GI Bill [and] what happened after World War II when suddenly you had thousands of GIs coming back and going into higher education,” says Rose. “It really did change the nature and landscape of higher education in the United States.
“I think that there’s undeniable social benefit to involving more people from more kinds of backgrounds with more personal histories, more experiences, more languages … into this thing called education. It makes it a richer mix. [Students like these] might ask the same kinds of questions that other people ask, but they’re going to ask them in a different way.”
Rose’s most recent writings include an a two-part essay for Inside Higher Ed with sections titled “The Missing Element in Student Success” and “Developing Professors for Student Success.” He also participated in a forum discussion on an article by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman on promoting social mobility through early childhood intervention programs.
Photo by Tammy Reese