Full text of professor Terrell Strayhorn’s talk: Inalienable Rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging at TEDxColumbus conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Inalienable Rights – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging by Terrell Strayhorn at TEDxColumbus
Good afternoon. I am, in fact, Terrell Strayhorn.
What an honor to be among such a talented cast of speakers that you’ve had all day long. And much like Rufus already told you — most speakers would not reveal this — I remember when I got my first TEDx e-mail. It arrived when I was in the middle of conducting a national study of African American and Latino men in STEM fields, this e-mail kept popping up, TEDx. And I didn’t know who TED was, and I didn’t know what TEDx was.
The only thing I remember is, “I don’t know who Ted is and I don’t have time to talk to him!”
So I resisted the e-mail for quite some time, until actually some of my graduate students and, yes, my University President informed me that, in fact, TED is not a person at all. And much to my surprise, TEDx is not the distant cousin of Malcolm.
But rather, it’s a popular network of forward-thinking speakers all advancing these big ideas like knowledge is connected, nothing is coincidental, or in fact, stories are golden.
And I’m sure most of you can tell from the way my clothes fit, that I spend an enormous amount of time in the gym bodybuilding, either that or I shop at babyGAP. But, in fact, I spend most of my time as a social scientist at the Ohio State University conducting research, looking at the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality and other social identities affect the experiences of people in educational context. All of that work, for me, is done so that I can help administrators and educators understand ways that we can enable the success of students.
One thing I’ve learned about TED audience is — is that many of you have been to college. For example, by a show of hands, how many of you have spent at least a day in college? You see what I’m saying? All of you, tons of you, spent time in college. But just because you’ve been to college doesn’t necessarily mean that you are familiar with the national data in trends on student success. So I’ll review a couple with you now.
Today there are over 19 million college students enrolled in this country. That’s an incredible number. And we have incredible capacity in this country to educate large numbers of individuals. 19 million. And have you seen these people? Where’s Chad? Over to my left — Hi Chad! I saw you in the bathroom. Chad have you seen these people? These college students? They are sort of tall, but not always. Some of them are smart, but not always that, either.
Many of them wear book bags, sort of look like that turtle from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but not always that, either. You can find college students, usually at your local bar, or brewery, on a Thursday night, gulping down some liquid motivation. But not always. Actually, that one’s not true. That is always, you can always find a college student on a Thursday night.
19 million of these students. And so, a few months ago, I donned my babyGAP clothes again, and decided I was going to go and see what it was like to be a student in college.
And so I went to the classroom, all dressed up, with my baseball cap and hoodie and I sat in a classroom, and watched a professor, like myself, give a lecture. What a bore! I mean it’s no wonder that students report to my survey “bored to death and disengaged in classrooms by large.” I mean, I sat here and listened to these professors sort of entertain themselves with all these facts that meant nothing, and not applying it to any sort of real world problem or application.
And I sat beside students, you know, students don’t pay attention all the time in class. And so I watched students fall asleep. Some of them skyped to the person sitting next to them. Many of them quite busy friending and unfriending people, right in the middle of class, ending friendships forever. And this professor was completely, blithely unaware to all of this happening in front of him.
And I too was bored. And I started checking my e-mail. Says Mohammad, and Tom, checking my e-mail. Looking at Facebook. And then I remembered, I’m a fake, I’m not a real student. I don’t have to sit here and take this crap. I got up, I took my babyGAP clothes, and I ran out of that classroom. And I’d laugh.
19 million college students enrolled in college today. 55% of all college students complete their degree. Not the best measure of success for a system as large as ours. But 55% of college students complete their degree within a 5-year period. And those rates can be startlingly lower for women and racial and ethnic minorities. In fact, we know from research, some of which is my own, that two thirds of all black men who enter college, leave before their degree completion.
And in response to these trends, President Obama, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the White House Initiative and private foundations, like the Gates Foundation, have all joined forces and are pushing this national agenda for a degree completion. That we would increase the number of Americans who complete Higher Education degrees by 50% by the year 2020.
And to get there we’ll need to do a numbers of things. Not just continue to enroll large numbers of students, but we will actually have to retain and graduate the 19 million backpackers that I talked about earlier.
So research tells us a couple of things, academic preparation matters, time spent studying, access to rigorous courses in high-school, mastery of content, like math and science matter. But what’s really interesting from research is that over the decades we’ve learned that academic factors actually only account for 25% of post-secondary outcomes. 25% of the leaving.
So what else matters? Most people’d say, well — Strayhorn, of course — finances matter. Yes, money matters indeed. And in fact many students need financial support to go to college today. And that support comes in the form of scholarships and grants and loans, with loans representing the increasing proportion of support that we offer to students in this country.
But what’s really interesting, is even when you control for, or subtract out the effect of financial aid, a significant number of students still drop out of college. I am going to argue that when you put this two together, academic factors and financial factors, that together they only explain about 40% of the problem, leaving 60% unexplained. So then, what accounts for that 60%?
Today I’d like to talk with you, in the time that remains, about another factor that I don’t think we pay enough attention to, and that is students belonging in college.
Now, before I remind the concept of belonging, I’d like to introduce you to a story here. A story about a guy named Xavier. I met Xavier when I was conducting research in Nashville, Tennessee. Xavier grew up in Providence Park, a low-income neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother, his sister, his brother, his aunt and his uncle.
During my interview I asked Xavier, “What was it like for you growing up?” And he recalls waking up very early in the morning, tiptoeing through the living room not to wake his aunt and uncle, on his way to the bathroom to start the water for his younger siblings, so they could prepare for the day.