A Q&A with CAPR Keynote Speaker Bridget Terry Long

Bridget Terry Long's headshot

You can read a Q&A with Teachers College President Thomas Bailey, who will also give a keynote address at the CAPR conference, here.

Bridget Terry Long is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and will give a keynote address focused on rigorous research and equitable practice at the CAPR conference this November. An economist by training, Long has spent her career focused on issues including postsecondary access, student success, and system complexity. Ahead of her talk next month, we spoke to Long about how her work dovetails with the conversations happening around developmental education, the ways researchers can advance equitable practices, and where she hopes to see the field go.

The conversation below has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What does your research focus on, and how does it intersect with developmental education?

I’ve been concerned about college access and success and trying to understand the factors that not only get people into school, but what school they’re choosing and what their outcomes are. Going far back, I was really concerned about issues of affordability, but we know it’s not just affordability, particularly when we think about issues of success. So then I started to focus on issues of academic preparation. That’s when you come to realize just how prevalent developmental and remedial education is in higher education, particularly for populations I care dearly about: low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students. It had almost been this dirty little secret for so many colleges. Going back 15 years to when I was first starting on this topic, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of large-scale research done on developmental education. There was a great deal of smoke and hints at a major problem but not fire.

Another dimension that my research has thought about in terms of developmental education is the importance of information and the complexity of navigating systems. Our developmental education system is oftentimes built on a placement exam, and students often don’t realize they need to take the exam. Or they’re taking it several years after they last saw the material, and they don’t realize how high-stakes it is. Information becomes really important. Process becomes really important. And in some research that I’ve done, you find that students who are more affluent and have more social capital are much more likely to know how to avoid developmental education by retaking the exam multiple times so they can pass out of the requirement. Meanwhile, other students just take the exam once, and it confirms their worst fears—that they’re not academically prepared for college.

Why should educators care about education research?

That’s kind of an obvious question, because it’s like asking why do we care about having clean water? I think education is very complex, and if you’re an educator, you know it’s not as simple as standing up and feeding knowledge to students. Pedagogy and practice matter. The students are diverse and heterogeneous in what their needs are and what they bring to the table. Context matters. There’s just a great deal of complexity. And there are some things we know about education. There are some things we suspect or hypothesize. And then there’s a bunch of things we’re just really not sure about. And so research and the growing number of people who are really interested in education are trying to address these challenging issues.

What does equitable higher education funding look like, and what role do researchers play in making that vision a reality?

In some ways, it’s hard when you’re mapping dollars to educational outcomes, because, yes, we can measure returns in terms of jobs and wages, but that’s only part of the puzzle. We don’t have really, really great measures of actual learning, and it’s not as simple as if we were just thinking about a for-profit company that made widgets or something.

So what does equitable funding look like? Well, we know we’re very far away from it. The way that resources are distributed is segmented. There are massive differences in funding that do not correlate to what students’ needs are—and not just financial needs but academic needs and other kinds of support needs. We need to think about where we would get the most bang for our buck. I think that’s what researchers can help the field understand. What would actually improve persistence? What would actually improve other outcomes? Research can help us understand the challenges that students are facing. Sometimes they are the obvious academic preparation supports, but sometimes it’s less obvious. It’s bus passes and scheduling and so forth. With limited dollars, where should you make investments?

How are students in general and those in dev ed courses in particular affected when researchers apply an equity lens to their work?  

I think you have to be careful about it. I think the best research highlights the challenges large numbers of students are facing. Researchers can help systems understand how to meet the students where they are and not assume that they are full-time, full-year students who are dependent on their parents. In reality, they are actually balancing all of these other demands, and research can help bring more of that lens. Hopefully, it’s done in a careful way, and the factors in students’ lives are not just seen as deficits. For most students, education must fit into a rich life with many other demands, so how are they able to balance them?

How has attention to equity in education research changed over time, and what would you like to see from the field moving forward, specifically in developmental education?

I think equity is something that we definitely talk about a lot more in research, and this relates to what’s happening across the country overall. Right now, we have the highest levels of inequality since the census started measuring inequality. This is something we’re seeing in multiple dimensions, whether it’s work or housing or health care, but it’s so, so obvious in education. And we think of education as being a solution to some of these problems of inequality. So there’s definitely much more attention to equity, and as the population has become more diverse and as research has highlighted the diversity of students, you start to understand equity in a very different way. Not all students need the same things. They need very different things to have the same outcomes. Instead of just thinking about the average effects of a policy, we really need to think about the effects of a policy or intervention for different kinds of students. We’re just considering things with much more nuance, which I think is really important, and I’d like to see the field continue to go in that way.

Research is at a point where we realize all systems are not created equally, and so we also need to make sure we are thinking carefully about developmental ed. What are the characteristics of more successful systems, and for which kinds of students? My hope is, going forward, that we’ll continue to think in nuanced ways about what works for whom in what context.