A new book, Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Education, by Buffy Smith, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas, argues that colleges should help low-income students by trying to help them navigate American higher education’s “hidden curriculum.” Because, in theory, once the historically disadvantaged understand the hidden rules of college, then they’ll get it and succeed.

There is a reason this sort of idea is compelling—the historically disadvantaged do struggle and seem out of place at traditional American colleges—but it’s ultimately all wrong and focuses on many important symptoms of low education attainment among the poor, rather than the cause, which is that college is just too expensive.

According to a piece at Inside Higher Ed:

The hidden curriculum, Smith writes, consists of the “norms, values, and expectations” that govern interactions among students, faculty, staff and administrators. To excel in college, at-risk students must navigate a world of new social norms – typically those of the white middle class, she argues.


This sort of solution is similar, in many ways, to the “personal life coach” strategy proposed recently by Congressman Paul Ryan as a way to end poverty in America. Because if everyone sets goals and has someone following up with them, then surely high achievement will follow.

As Smith explained in an interview with Inside Higher Ed:

One way mentors can avoid the cloning process is to be intentional and explicit about affirming and validating their students’ home cultures in words and actions. Mentors and mentees should have honest conversations and decide together on the most effective approach for integrating home culture with school culture. Good mentors never implicitly or explicitly encourage mentees to ignore or replace their multiple cultural identities; rather, mentors empower students with the necessary skills to adapt to and succeed in their academic environment. Simply put, mentors should promote acculturation (i.e., adapting to the culture of higher education) not assimilation (i.e., adopting another group’s cultural identity). For example, mentors should teach mentees how to talk with professors in a polite and respectful tone without implying that students need to change their dialect or style of speech.

But is that really the most important thing to fix?

This is not to say that setting goals per se is wrong (successful people are good at goal setting, after all), it just treats low education achievement as an essentially personal problem, rather than a systemic one.

The life coach solution assumes that the cause of poverty in America is poor planning. Well, when the poverty rate was lower and chances for social mobility were higher was that because working-class people did a better job making plans?

Of course not. They just had a better safety net, higher wages, and great opportunities for social advancement because public policy was more targeted toward the achievement of the working class.

Similarly, the problem here is the cost of college, not “navigating new social norms.” Most Americans attend low-cost public schools near their parents, where they’re mostly filled with people exactly like themselves. The barrier to completion isn’t social norms.

Indeed, we’re been sending generations of students to college for the first time in their families. In the aftermath of World War II we sent millions of Americans to college where the whole idea of higher education and professional life was foreign to them.

Did they need to worry about the “most effective approach for integrating home culture with school culture”? Of course not. They could do a damn good job “integrating home culture with school culture” however they needed to, because college cost them next to nothing.

Today the average public university will set someone back $3,120 a year. And we wonder why the poor have trouble there. It’s just cost. They drop out of (and often don’t attend) college because they can’t afford it. The social norms aren’t more complicated; it’s just that college is a lot more expensive.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer