Help poorer students to ‘navigate’ university, says Harvard professor

Robert Putnam says bursaries are only part of the solution to widening participation in the US

October 26, 2015
Isolated teenager sitting on street

US universities must provide more “navigational” support to help students from poor backgrounds succeed in higher education, according to one of the world’s leading authorities on social mobility.

Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University, told Times Higher Education that assistance for disadvantaged undergraduates should go beyond bursaries and must have an increased focus on counselling and guidance.

Professor Putnam, who is a visiting fellow this term at Nuffield College, Oxford, argued that the high cost of attending university in the US played “quite a small role” in educational inequality.

His latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, argues that much of the damage to poor students’ life chances is done long before they come to consider applying to university, highlighting a growing disparity between the amount of emotional and intellectual support provided to affluent and to disadvantaged children from birth onwards.

Children from disadvantaged families are becoming increasingly isolated and falling behind, the book says, as affluent children are more likely to be read to by their parents, or to take part in extracurricular activities and community groups.

All these factors make poor children less likely to get into and then stay in higher education, and Professor Putnam said that many of the solutions needed to focus on early years, in particular improved childcare provision.

But he told THE that higher education institutions could still play an important role, especially community colleges, which offer “remedial” education and some degrees, and are often used as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s course.

These institutions have high dropout rates and, while president Barack Obama has proposed making study at a community college free for most people, Professor Putnam said that poor students also needed more in the way of guidance from college staff.

“These kids have been left behind by the rest of society in a situation in which they lack savvy; they lack all the things our kids know from hanging out with us,” he said. “Therefore they find an institution like community college illegible; they have no idea how to manage in that setting, and it means community colleges need to invest a lot more money in providing guidance and coaching.”

He highlighted the example of “navigators” employed in US cancer treatment centres: people who are not medical professionals but are tasked with helping patients through the process of treatment and also through the institutional bureaucracy.

Professor Putnam, author of the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and an adviser to successive US and UK governments, said that leading universities should also focus on this area.

“Places like Harvard and Swarthmore now realise that, if they are going to get kids from non-traditional backgrounds in and through university, they have to invest not just in more scholarships, they have to invest in more counselling and navigational help,” he said.

Professor Putnam’s research did not focus on the UK, but he said that it had some advantages over the US, particularly around the provision of early years education. However, he was concerned by growing income inequality.

“I believe Britain has been a little faster off the mark both at the level of policy and at the level of universities, but I wouldn’t say you can forget about this and move on to something else,” he said.

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