Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College

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Today’s episode is a bit of a departure from what Marie and I usually do, and it comes as a result of the Early College high school conference we just attended, where we were pleased to be presenting a session on making schools an open book for parents—that is, ways that schools should invite parents to engage with them in a serious and productive manner.  That doesn’t mean just showing up at parent-teacher conferences, by the way, but that is a topic for a different episode.

Episode 68: Tips from Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita, Spelman College on USACollegeChat podcastWhile we were in Atlanta at what turned out to be an excellent conference, sponsored by EDWorks, which is an Ohio-based nonprofit leader in the Early College high school movement (that’s a shout-out to you, Andrea Mulkey, and the great work you do), we were privileged to hear a question-and-answer session with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.  Dr. Tatum served as president of Spelman College for 13 years before retiring last summer (though she has certainly not retired from the world of education and how to improve it for students and especially for students of color).  Dr. Tatum is also the author of a number of books, at least one of which I intend to buy and read, and that is Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations About Race, which is getting ready for its 20th anniversary edition.

In the Q and A session, Dr. Tatum was forthcoming and candid, and Marie and I got the feeling that she was telling the audience exactly what she thought—which is a rare trait among college presidents I have heard speak.  So what we would like to do in this episode is simply highlight just a few of the many points that Dr. Tatum made—as accurately as my notetaking during the session and our memories allow—and add a few comments of our own.

1.  College Readiness

When asked about her definition of “college readiness” for incoming college freshmen, Dr. Tatum spoke about three different ideas.  However, the first words out of her mouth were that students had to “read critically and write well”—and, by “writing,” she clarified that she meant “academic writing.”  Listeners, I am going to take that to mean that kids have to be able to write both to explain or inform and to persuade and that they have to do it clearly and objectively in a coherent and well-organized essay, using and footnoting sources when needed.

As you know from our earlier episodes, we spent some time last fall with students in high school English classes in an elite New York City public high school, and we were deeply saddened at the quality of their writing.  Even those students who had interesting things to say, lacked a command—or even an awareness—of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and choice of words.  From Dr. Tatum’s point of view, I believe they had a long way to go before being “college ready.”

After a sentence or two more about reading and writing, Dr. Tatum quickly added “quantitative, too”—meaning that, of course, students also needed good mathematics skills.  But I feel as though her emphasis in that answer was on reading and writing—and maybe especially on writing.

Second, Dr. Tatum talked about social and emotional readiness for college.  She talked about some students who had been too sheltered by their parents and, thus, were not ready to be on their own.  This is exactly one reason that we here at USACollegeChat so often talk about the merits of sending kids away to college—that is, to give kids a chance to get out on their own, but in a mostly safe and protected environment, and see what the world is like, without the constant oversight and monitoring of their parents.  Parents, we know that it is hard for some of you to let go, but letting go is inevitable, so why not do it when your kid can get the support of a college community?

Then, Dr. Tatum went on to talk about the social and emotional readiness of students to come together across differences and succeed in a diverse community.  Students who come from segregated school experiences—whether their high schools were segregated by race, by income, by religion, or by gender—might have a harder time fitting into a community where everyone is not the same.  Parents, if your kid has gone to such a high school, you need to do what you can to help him or her make the leap into a diverse college community.

I, for one, advocate those diverse college communities, as you listeners know, and that is one reason I love my own alma mater, Cornell University.  Cornell was founded as an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study,” in the words of Ezra Cornell.  Of course, on the other side, there are plenty of great colleges that are designed to serve one population exclusively or primarily—from women’s and men’s colleges to faith-based colleges to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—and we have talked about all of them in earlier episodes.

Third, Dr. Tatum talked about financial readiness, noting that a lack of understanding about finances and how to seek out financial resources to cover college costs is one reason that some students do not actually finish their degrees.  In other words, students get only so far on initial scholarship money or loans or family support and then can’t continue when those funds run out.  So, being financially savvy and resourceful is an important aspect of college preparedness for more and more students as college costs keep rising and rising.  Parents, that is something that you can work directly on with your own kids during senior year of high school and, likely, well before.

In answer to the specific question about whether everyone needs to go to college, Dr. Tatum said, “maybe not,” but she went on to say that some form of postsecondary education would be necessary.  She commented that it would be better to prepare for college and decide later whether to go or instead to pursue some kind of postsecondary training, such as career-specific training in a wide variety of fields that do not require a college degree.  Parents, helping your kids become college ready academically, socially, emotionally, and financially just cannot be a mistake

2.  College Admissions

Let’s look at college admissions and at Dr. Tatum’s experience at Spelman, which we know to be a top-rated, highly selective HBCU (as we learned in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges in every state).  When asked what Spelman looks at in students’ applications during the admission process, Dr. Tatum replied that Spelman does look at ACT and SAT scores because they “give you some information, but not everything.”  She noted that Spelman staff members know that those test scores are correlated with family income, rather than with success in the first year of college—and yet those scores are still part of the admission decision process at Spelman, just as they are at most top colleges.

Dr. Tatum said that it was, in fact, better to look at applicants’ high school grades and at the rigor of the courses they had taken in high school—in other words, “did you choose the rigor and how did you do.”  This is something that we hear all the time, but I am glad to have it confirmed by a live college president in person.  Colleges understand, of course, that if a high school does not offer Early College courses or dual-credit college courses or Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate courses, for example, then an applicant cannot take them.  But were there honors-level courses available, and did the applicant take those?

A few weeks ago in Episodes 61 and 62, we spoke about the new report just out from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s project called Making Caring Common.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.  It was endorsed by about 60 of our nation’s top colleges and universities, including all of the Ivy League schools.  One of the things the report recommended was this:

Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas. While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process.  At the same time, it’s vital to increase access to advanced courses for large numbers of students in schools without access to adequately challenging courses. (quoted from the report)

Well, okay.  Which is it?  Should kids take as many rigorous courses as possible or should they concentrate on a couple of disciplines where they are most interested or perhaps most capable?  I said in that episode that I felt as though the endorsers of the report were a bit disingenuous.  In other words, the endorsers’ colleges could change their admissions standards at any time, without needing to get anybody’s permission.  So, why hadn’t they stopped looking for as many AP courses as possible from applicants?  Last week, our special guest Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards millions of dollars in college scholarships, agreed with me on that point.  As I said in Episode 62, what high school is going to be the first one to tell its students that it’s okay not to take as many AP courses as possible and what parents are going to be the first to go along with that advice?  So far, I haven’t seen it.  Until further notice, I have to believe that Dr. Tatum is going to continue to be right—rigor matters, and a lot of rigor is even better.  Parents, make sure that your kids are taking the most demanding courses they are qualified to take.  By the way, that also means tough high school math and science courses, right up through Physics, for example.

Spelman has a particularly insightful and unobtrusive way of judging the quality of the high schools that its applicants come from—apart from the rigor of the courses they offer.  Dr. Tatum said that applicants are asked to submit a graded essay from one of their high school courses.  Interestingly, this graded essay might tell more about the school than it does about the applicant.  Looking at an A on a poorly written essay tells Spelman something about the standards and rigor at that school, Dr. Tatum explained—and, of course, about the validity of the grades on that student’s high school transcript.  Well, that is one way to stop high school grade inflation—and maybe a very good one, at that.

3.  College-Going Culture in Elementary School

When does college-going culture begin?  Dr. Tatum explained that starting early is important.  She said that she knew as an elementary school student that she was going to college (she noted that her parents were educators).  She suggested that elementary schools partner with colleges and arrange to bring college students into elementary school classes to work with and mentor young students.  Spelman, in fact, has a community service hours requirement (as some other colleges have), so that certainly paves the way for such partnerships.  Dr. Tatum explained that, when those college students look like the elementary school kids (that is, when they come from the same kinds of communities and when are the same racial or ethnic background), it is motivational for little kids to see their “near peers”—older students like themselves—succeeding in college.

I have to say that I love that idea.  Parents, if you have a little one at home, suggest this to your child’s elementary school principal.  And if you have a bigger one going off to college in the fall, tell that child to see whether there is a program like this that they can get involved in on the college campus.

In an interview I did after our book came out, the interviewer asked me when parents should start talking to kids about college.  I remarked that I started doing that when they were old enough to understand words and could sit at the dinner table in their high chairs.  And I meant it.  But, I can live with waiting till elementary school.  Spelman has a great idea.

4.  Diverse Students Working Together

Dr. Tatum told us that she has been visiting college campuses while getting ready to update her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”:  And Other Conversations About Race 20 years later.  She said that many campuses—though not all—have gotten more diverse, but that colleges haven’t figured out how to help students from different backgrounds engage with each other.

Dr. Tatum said that she thought that the best chance to do that sort of engagement was in the college classroom.  It might be okay, she offered, if students stayed with classmates in their own population groups socially; however, faculty must think intentionally about how to get diverse students to engage with each other in the classroom.  Dr. Tatum explained that sometimes the content of the course might make that easy—for example, a sociology course, in which groups of people interacting with one another is a likely topic of study.  But sometimes it has to be done by pairing students of different backgrounds as lab partners or by making groups of students of different backgrounds work together on projects.  Dr. Tatum noted that high school students who go to de facto segregated high schools don’t have opportunities for these kinds of interactions, so they don’t come with those interpersonal and social skills.

Of course, high schools that do have diverse student bodies should pay attention to Dr. Tatum’s ideas.  And, parents, if you have a high schooler at home, you might start talking now about the importance of learning to work with diverse students of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and genders—before it is time for him or her to go off to college.  The sooner someone learns those skills of getting along and working together, the better—because those are the skills all students will need after graduation when they enter the work force.

How do we get K–12 teachers and college professors to pay attention to this issue?  According to Dr. Tatum, many teachers and professors do not have much experience with getting diverse students to work together, so they will need workshops and training over a period of time—meaning at least as long as a semester, if not a full year.  It will require helping teachers and professors talk about race and socioeconomic class, including reflecting on our history.  That is a tall, but important, order for the high schools and colleges your kids are attending, parents.

5.  Grading Standards

Let me end this episode by returning to grading standards for a moment.  Dr. Tatum told a story that was quite similar to a story that a friend of mine told me recently about the college where she teaches.  Dr. Tatum’s story went something like this.  When she was a professor, she gave a student a grade of C on a paper, but she also gave the student the opportunity to revise it and improve the grade.  The student was not happy with the grade or the opportunity and told Dr. Tatum that she had a string of A’s in other courses.  Dr. Tatum spoke to one of the student’s other professors, who said that the student worked very hard and thus had been given an A in that professor’s course.  Dr. Tatum explained that the student wanted to go on to graduate school and that giving her A’s for C work would not be helpful to her in the long run.

While that story is certainly a message to college professors and high school teachers alike about the downside of grading based on effort rather than based on the quality of the work, it is also a message to students and parents.  The message to students is this:  It can’t always be about getting a perfect grade the first time around; sometimes it’s about learning to improve your writing (which, by the way, can almost always be improved) and learning what tough, but fair, teachers and professors can teach you.  Parents, that’s the message that you should be giving to your kids.

Learn more about these organizations and people mentioned in this episode…

Learn more in previous episodes…

  • Episode 19: Senior-Year Courses
  • Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks
  • Episode 24: Having the Money Talk
  • Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One
  • Episode 62: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part Two
  • Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!

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