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Want Americans to graduate college? Make it affordable.
Research from MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative found making college more affordable cut dropout rates and boosted degree attainment.
The benefits bestowed by a college degree are well-known. Degrees open access to job opportunities and, with them, economic stability. The average earning potential of a college graduate is roughly twice that of someone with only a high school diploma. Graduates are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to be married, and more likely to be satisfied with their life and career choices. And the number of jobs that require a degree or postsecondary school training continue to increase.
Many Americans can recite this litany, yet when it comes to attaining college degrees, the United States is woefully behind its Western peers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, America was the world leader in degree attainment by young adults a generation ago. Today, it ranks thirteenth. Nearly half of students who begin college don't finish within six years, with a quarter of low-income students dropping out by their second year.
Meanwhile, tuition continues to rise. Even after adjusting for inflation, the costs of attending a four-year public school have doubled in only three decades. Such ballooning expenses have spearheaded a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis.
For many young people looking toward a brighter future, college has become a gateway locked from the inside. As the Department of Education concluded: "Today, college remains the greatest driver of socioeconomic mobility in America, but if we don't do more to keep it within reach for middle-class families and those striving to get into the middle class, it could have the opposite effect."
Research has looked into the predicament and now suggests a daring, counterintuitive means of increasing degree completion among young people: We make college affordable.
The study groups
An aerial view of MIT and Harvard Bridge. The university's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative partnered with the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation for the study.
Credit: Adobe Stock
The study comes from MIT's School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative. Its researchers wanted to determine the effect scholarships had on degree attainment. As they put it,
"Financial aid is typically motivated by a desire to increase postsecondary attainment by making college more affordable. This raises the question of whether aid meets this test by boosting educational attainment. As with any sort of award or subsidy, it's worth considering the extent to which financial aid changes behavior. The fact that aid is motivated by the desire to increase schooling does not mean aid programs accomplish this."
To test this question, they partnered with the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, an organization that offers scholarships to first-time freshman attending public colleges in Nebraska. The researchers designed a partially randomized study around the Foundation's 2012–2016 scholarship applicants, a cohort of roughly 16,500 students seeking aid.
Because low-scoring applicants were unlikely to complete college, they were not provided a scholarship and were removed from the study. Similarly, while high-scoring applicants were awarded a scholarship, they too were removed from the study as their degree completion was likely with or without the financial abetment. This left a middle pool of applicants, each sporting a comparable level of need and college-readiness.
The Foundation awarded scholarships randomly to this middle group of applicants; those who did not receive scholarships served as the controls. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the available aid, no student was artificially denied a scholarship for the study's sake. All told, the study included 3,699 scholarship-awarded participants and 4,491 controls. Most sought degrees at four-year colleges though some matriculated into two-year schools.
As this group was comparable in areas such as GPA, colleges attended, and expected family contributions, any statistically significant difference between the recipients and the controls would provide some evidence of a causal connection between financial aid and degree attainment.
Easing the six-year itch
The researchers followed the students' college careers, from freshman year to spring 2019, and found that the scholarships did change behavior. Enrollment was only slightly higher for the aid recipients than the controls—98.7 percent compared to 96.1—but as the two groups' college careers continued, a noticeable difference emerged in dropout rates. By the end of their fourth year, only 71.6 percent of the control group remained, a dropout rate of 24.5 percent; meanwhile, the scholarship group only declined by 18 percent.
The scholarships also bolstered degree completion. Though bachelor degree completion was roughly even by the end of the fourth year, the aid recipients began to pull ahead after that. By the end of their sixth year, 71 percent of the award recipients received their degree, 8.4 percentage points more than the control. This suggests that as degree completion began to drag on longer, the infusion of extra financial resources made the final push more manageable.
The researchers not only found that aid promotes full-time enrollment, but that it benefitted historically underrepresented groups most, including non-white and first-generation applicants. These findings support a growing body of research that suggests college affordability directly impacts student decision-making and degree attainment.
The study, titled "Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students," is part of an ongoing research study. Additional reports will be released as the study continues.
What does college affordability mean?
Scholarships are one way of making college more affordable, but they are part of a much larger conversation as to what affordability means.
The ballooning cost of tuition in recent decades is another concern. Factors for this surge include a massive increase in demand, cuts in state funding, new student services, and bloated administrative compensation. While colleges could certainly rein in some of their more extravagant expenses, and legislators agree to fund more, the question of affordability goes further still.
It concerns the quality of education, whether students are dependent or independent, their resources before matriculating, what they can expect from the investment after graduation, and how much of their future income they are willing (or able) to pay. The calculus must also consider available alternatives, their costs, and their potential outcomes. It's a multifaceted balancing act between what's available, what students can afford, and what schools can offer with the resources they have available—which, of course, ties directly to the funds that schools have available.
In an op-ed for Higher Education Today, Susan Baum, a senior fellow in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute, correctly points out that a "low-cost program designed purely to train people for an occupation that is unlikely to exist in 10 years, while appearing 'affordable,' is not affordable at all."
So then, how should we think about college affordability?
Baum recommends we start the conversation with need-based considerations at the forefront. "The financial resources available to a student at the time of enrollment are critical. Students have very different starting points for measuring outcomes and value depending on their circumstances," Baum writes. But it also requires us to think beyond funding; we need to consider the resources colleges need to provide a valuable education as well as the types of experiences that students want.
If we want more students to graduate, we need to discover the right balance between moderate spending, need-based aid, and program quality, a balance that will make college accessible to all who desire to attend.
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All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.