equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Educational Equity: The American Families Plan

In President Biden’s American Families Plan, he proposes increasing free education by four years (2 in pre-school, 2 in community college) and increasing college affordability by raising the maximum Pell Grants by $1,400. Halleluiah! As our nation rebuilds for a post-COVID world, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to that oh so necessary component of our economy, education. It is clear that Biden and his team recognize that access to education is one of the most important equity issues in America.

Equity in the pre-K world is essential and we have long known that students who have access to quality pre-K options do better than those who do not. Starting with the need for lots of interaction so that the right paths in the brains are developed to the muscles developed when holding crayons to the social skills like sharing, taking turns, and playing together, pre-school is just wonderful for child development. We have long understood the benefits of this investment as we supported Head Start for low-income families and pre-K for students who have identified learning needs. But access to Pre-K is inconsistent and the quality of programs varies. Putting pre-K into our assumptions about what public education means can invigorate conversations about what pre-school should be and how it might align with the larger goals of K-12. So, yes, pre-K for everyone. Let’s take the leap.

Free community college is great, too. There are very few careers that do not rely on some education beyond K-12. Yet, access to education, even at the reduced costs of most community college systems, can be elusive for many families. Here in Connecticut our community colleges offer a variety of straight to career options, advanced manufacturing and RN degrees, for example. They also provide lots of support for English Language Learners, which is vital for students and the state. And, most important for my university, they provide a pathway to the four-year degree. Like many states, we have worked on Transfer Articulation Pathways (TAP) to ensure that students who start in community college can move on to the four-year degree without having to backtrack on various degree requirements. This important effort is benefitting students throughout Connecticut.

If you dig in further, you’ll also note that Biden’s plan reflects a much more informed understanding of higher education than we’ve seen in, well ever. Perhaps it is the influence of Dr. Jill Biden, but someone is finally reading the data and realizing that the way we have been evaluating university outcomes incentivizes creating more barriers to entry instead of improving support for the many students interested in striving for an undergraduate degree. It is easy to have great retention and graduation rates (and therefore rise in the rankings) if you simply do not admit students who may need support beyond financial aid. Those of us who have been supporting students who have those needs know this only too well. We’ve been ignored or punished for years, by way of inadequate funding and low rankings, while we strive to meet these needs and make access to public education a reality for the many, not just the few. We try to squeeze retention efforts into our existing budgets, often sacrificing other university needs or underfunding these programs. So, I was thrilled to see that 62 million dollars in the plan is being focused on retention and degree completion. This must be what the world looks like when we actually commit to equity in education.

Finally, the new plan will increase Pell, $1,400. This is long overdue, of course. Pell has not increased at anywhere near the pace of the cost of education. Students from families of limited means desperately need these funds to keep them from having to skip college or, worse, try to succeed while working three jobs. While I am proud of our students who are managing this juggle, too much work often leads to slower progress to degree completion, which just costs more money in the end. Sufficient funding at the start is a much better approach.

As thrilled as I am with all of this, though, there is just one more piece that I’d like to see. For public universities, the cost of education has increased because our fixed costs have risen. This is just normal living wages for those who work in higher ed and the cost of maintaining our facilities – not extravagant salaries and lazy rivers. As those costs have risen, our state appropriations have not kept pace, and we have had no choice but to raise tuition. I want to be clear; we are not doing a lot of “nice to have” things. We are simply supporting quality educational experiences, aligned with the expectations of regional and specialized accrediting bodies. We are working hard to be as efficient as possible, but education is a labor-intensive endeavor and you just can’t job it out to packaged learning products. The ever-increasing costs of tuition at public universities is making higher education a stretch for the middle class, not just low-income families.

So, here’s the ask– let’s fund the state universities enough so that we do not exceed $10,000 a year in tuition and fees. It is true we’ll still have to charge another $10-12,000 for residential experiences, but for the many (majority) who commute to our campuses, this cap will mean a cap on the debt they will acquire as they piece together their contributions and some student loans. It is still a lot of money, but even if a student needed loans for all of it, the earnings benefit from completing their degrees would make this manageable. I don’t love it, but it is so much better than the endless creeping up of tuition and fee costs for students.

What is invisible in the funding of free community college is the way that it disrupts the four-year economic model. There is just no way for us to keep our costs low and take the enrollment hits as students opt for the free two years. Add to that shifting demographics and the fact that state colleges and universities are increasingly tuition dependent as the percentage of our funding from the state has dropped, and you can see the extent of the strain we are feeling. The entire mess is leading to the reality that we will need to reduce the number of programs we offer and keep raising our costs. This does not further educational equity.

So, let’s re-write the way we fund four-year state colleges and universities. Instead of just looking at the number of students enrolled, let’s add keeping tuition and fees to $10,000 to the formula. We will have to increase the percentage of state funding to meet this target. I know that this is difficult for our elected officials who manage many constituent opinions about education, but if we talk about the benefits to all families and to the state economy, I think it just isn’t that tough a sell. While we’re at it, align the maximum Pell with that tuition number so all students can choose two- or four-year programs from the start. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Or we could go ahead and make the four-year universities free, too. But I’m guessing that’s too much to dream of at this time.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

An Invitation to Consider Difficult Things

About 15 years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate course focused on the ethics of communication. This was one of the core courses in a sprawling discipline that addresses all sorts of human interactions from our internal monologues to mass persuasion. In an effort to help our students understand the power and responsibilities of our communication practices, both personal and professional, our curriculum included this course to provide a framework for thinking through the ethical issues that are part of all communication. It was a challenging but rewarding course.

This morning, as I read that Boise State has suspended its mandatory course on diversity amid concerns the potential discomfort some students may feel, I remembered my experiences in Communication Ethics. The narrative about the course at Boise State is one we’ve heard countless times over the last several years, with assumptions about discomfort, blame, and even accusations of disloyalty. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not really buying the stories of classrooms that call out certain groups, asking particular students to absorb that blame. Reports of that kind of behavior usually end up being a misquote, or a selective piece of conversation that doesn’t fully represent the full discussion. These stories generally reflect a politicization of higher education that distorts the real work going on in classrooms all over the country. Nevertheless, there are moments when our conversations about diversity and equity do lead to tough realizations about our own biases, no matter what culture or group we feel we represent. At some point someone will feel uncomfortable.

As I think about the conversations that are really going on in many classes, not just a mandatory course on diversity, I am remembering the most profound experience I had when I was teaching that communication ethics course. We had lots of the usual debates around honesty, ends vs. means, situational ethics, and ideal vs. real world ethical challenges. They were fun, but they stayed a little abstract. There were no real risks in the classroom version of these decisions, so students participated but were not necessarily transformed. I hoped it was going ok, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then we came to the chapter about stereotypes, and the conversation shifted.

Stereotypes come up in communication classes all the time because they are ever-present and generally relevant to the topic at hand. You cannot consume media without noticing stereotypes. You cannot conduct research in communication without wrestling with decisions about categories of analysis, which leads to conversations about stereotypes. You cannot produce communication thoughtfully without considering stereotypical messages. All of this is true, but there was still a kind of detachment in our approach to this topic. You see, my students knew that “stereotyping is wrong” and so felt that they could just dismiss the conversation right there, with that morally absolute but practically impossible sentence. I needed to find a way to break through.

I had an idea, and I took the risk. Instead of starting the conversation about stereotypes with an introduction to the topic and the usual discussion of archetypes vs. stereotypes, I invited my students to participate in an exercise. I asked everyone in the room to write down five stereotypes that they felt had been applied to them. I suggested that no matter who we are, something applies, and it is likely that we had experienced a moment of discomfort because of this. Students began writing and so did I. Then, when everyone seemed done writing, I shifted the assignment. I asked everyone to look at the five they had listed and consider when they had used those stereotypes to categorize others. Eyes looked up, uncomfortable giggles ensued, and there was a hesitation to begin. I reassured everyone that I was not collecting those pieces of paper, nor would I ask them to report on what they wrote. I got busy addressing my own list.

This proved to be an incredibly powerful moment in this course. The simple “stereotyping is wrong” no longer worked as a dismissal. I did share some of mine to help mitigate the shame everyone was feeling. It became clear that stereotyping is what we are in the habit of doing and it needed to be examined. It also made everyone understand that we all have work to do. This was an invitation to engage, not an accusation and assignment of responsibility. What I hoped for was that the engagement would help us determine our responsibilities and, ideally, our next steps.

My little exercise is one of many that my colleagues have developed to help us have rich and informative conversations about power, oppression, and what a just society might look like. These conversations happen in biology and chemistry, history and art, or education and accounting (and everywhere else), because the truth is, we find assumptions that stem from stereotypes everywhere. In many ways, stereotypes are the easiest path to discovering structural problems around power and influence. These conversations frequently lead to moments when some of us realize we have held ideas (categories/stereotypes) that may be supporting a less than just society. These are hard moments, and they sometimes lead to discomfort. But these conversations aren’t about blame or about marginalizing anyone: They are about discovery and, in the best cases, finding a path forward.

It is easy to find a bad sentence in a textbook or a syllabus or a lecture. As far as I can tell, social media demands bad sentences on all topics, especially those that might divide us. Selective information dominates the headlines about equity on college campuses. This selectivity is easy fodder for outrage and a clear misrepresentation of what we actually do.

What is much harder to do (and absolutely rejected by news and social media), is to take the time to see words and ideas in context and navigate the challenges to our world views that they might represent. This is the challenge and the luxury we have in the classroom. We are not speaking in tweets or 10-, 15-, or even 60-minute increments; we are using a semester and even a full four years to think about these things.

I am sorry to hear that the course at Boise State was suspended because I cannot believe that stopping the conversation is an appropriate answer. We need to have lots of these conversations, not to oppress but to enlighten. These conversations take time and continued exploration. They are the very opposite of headlines, and must remain so. These conversations are education.

equity, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cultivating Equity

As I awoke to the many tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning, I happened upon an editorial by Martin Luther King III, in the New York Times. He draws our attention to MLK Jr.’s efforts to address poverty. With stark images from the Poor People’s Campaign, King III points to his father’s commitment to advocating for policies that lift people out of poverty. He concludes his piece with a call for the creation of a Cabinet position focused on fighting poverty and the urgency of passing a universal basic income. Amen.

Supporting access to education will never offer relief from systemic racism if people remain hungry. It is clear at every level, from pre-K to higher education, that people who struggle with food and housing and healthcare also struggle in school. Our claims of the benefits of education, in terms of social mobility, are limited by this essential barrier. While thousands of students do manage to earn high school diplomas and even college degrees while hungry and homeless they are tasked with having to work twice as hard as their better funded peers, usually carry greater debt, and frequently hover near academic suspension because they cannot keep up with it all. Succeeding under these conditions is nothing short of miraculous. It sure as hell isn’t equal or equitable. No, without an end to poverty there will be no equity in anything.

But we have been fighting, at all levels of education, for that equity for many years. Indeed, the Head Start program (started in 1965) is one such effort. Giving under-served preschoolers access to reasonable pre-kindergarten programs is a great idea. Indeed, it is so important, one wonders why we do not yet have universal pre-k programs.

We have free lunch in the K-12 system as well, and the importance of this was never so clear as in this pandemic. Many districts scrambled to get breakfast and lunch to families in need while schools were closed. It was an excellent effort. Still, I wonder why we ask schools to solve the hunger problem, when other family members may also be hungry. It is a burden schools take on, but it doesn’t feel like good policy.

We have Pell Grants to allow some of the neediest students to attend college at no cost. Well, sort of, because when we factor in the cost of food and housing, these funds are in no way sufficient. It seems like this program, though well intentioned, just masks the funding problem. If we had free higher education (instead of these last dollar “free” programs, that just play shell games with costs and loans), perhaps we could focus on addressing the real costs of college attendance.

I know, I have said variations of these things lots of times. Today, though, there is one tiny but significant thing I would like to point out in King III’s essay. He calls for the establishment of a Cabinet position to fight poverty. I agree, but I would like to suggest that we abandon the word “fight.” I want a Cabinet position to cultivate equity instead.

We have already had a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, and a War on Terrorism and not one of them has been a success. Each one may have led to winning a small battle or two, but they never ended poverty, they never stopped the use of drugs, and fighting terrorism just seems like an impossible and endless task. No, we need a new metaphor that abandons the battle stance.

Lakoff and Johnson’s classic work, Metaphors We Live By, lays out the ways in which our metaphors shape our understandings of the world around us and the tasks at hand. Battle/war/fighting metaphors may be useful for short term struggles. They help build energy and bonding against the “other” at hand. But for long term thinking, well battles are too draining. We lose soldiers over time and without some clear wins, the esprit de corps wanes while the hatred remains. Ending poverty and supporting equity are ongoing and long-term. Wars and fighting will never suffice.

So, I am asking for a Cabinet position that draws on a growth metaphor. Let us cultivate the relationships and commitments necessary to build a poverty free world. Let us understand that poverty is a (the) root cause of inequity and examine all of the branches of our society that are contributing to sustaining poverty. Let us understand our policies as the life supports of an ecosystem that needs constant attention and nurturing, and plan for continuous review so that system never gets so out of balance again. And most of all, let us understand the fundamental need for collaboration, because nothing grows in isolation.

Yes, Mr. King, III, I agree with the need for this important Cabinet position. And I agree wholeheartedly, with your father’s statement that “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” But let us avoid the fighting and start cultivating instead. We have been fighting long enough. It is time to nurture that poverty-free and equitable world together.

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

Simplify FAFSA? How about no FAFSA.

This morning’s higher education news is filled with comments about the finances. Secretary of Education DeVos has extended the pause in student loan repayments for another month. This is in response to COVID-19 and the number of people in financial distress right now. Good. I just wish it would be for longer than a month because we all know it will take longer than a month for folks to get back on track with careers, rent, and general economic security.

Universities are considering various downsizing options in the face of strained finances or as a new strategic plan, but implementation of these plans is in question. Faltering enrollments are causing administrators to consider streamlining major offerings. Others appear to be reconsidering tenure track faculty, although the comments were later deemed “flippant” and insensitive.

Then, there is the drumbeat of inequity in access to higher education. This morning’s big contributions were a discussion of family debt on the College Scorecard. Some of the biggest family debt (parent plus loans), happens at HBCUs. Then there is the story on how our first generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups do not get enough information to know they can appeal financial aid decisions. And of course, Senator Lamar Alexander is still trying to simplify the FAFSA. Yes, please. It would be grand to get this done.

But here’s the thing, if you look over months of articles and data, it is clear that our access to education problem for families of lesser means, and yes that skews families of color, is persistent and pervasive. As a culture we get ourselves trapped in circular arguments. We believe in merit and equal opportunity, but we recognize that there are structural elements that are barriers to those opportunities. Then we try to right those wrongs with subsidized student loans, access programs, and admissions practices that attempt to improve the diversity of our student bodies. Then we get mad because those steps start to look like something other than merit, which makes us angry and we start to scale it back. That anger may be misplaced, of course, but that is the cycle of the arguments. The same people end up losing every time.

So simplifying the FAFSA is a noble goal, but it will not get us out of this cycle. As far as I can tell, those subsidized student loans are mostly helping the haves, not the have nots. They bridge the gap to elite colleges, perhaps, and would be nowhere near enough money for those colleges if the families did not have funds to contribute or the university did not supply lots of additional scholarships for those families who can’t contribute. Parent Plus loans make me shudder because those who need them tend not to be able to afford them. No, this system is not doing what we want it to do for access to education.

So, let’s really simplify. Make public higher education tuition and fees free. No FAFSA required, just free. Set a reasonable cost per student rate, that takes regional cost of living into account, and provide that funding to the state colleges and universities. Then fix the state and federal tax codes to make sure that all of us are paying our fair share to support that public higher education state by state. A progressive tax system will be based on earnings, so that takes care of the problem of people with degrees who work in lower paying careers (social work, education, and many other civic focused jobs come to mind). We don’t need different pay-back rates or loan forgiveness. Just tax appropriately. Graduates who move into higher paying careers will pay more, of course. Students who fail to graduate (an unfortunate scenario, but it will happen even when education is free), will not be saddled with debt they can’t repay and bad credit that keeps them from surviving. They will just limit their access to careers that pay higher wages (perhaps). Progressive tax structures still work for this.

Now some will jump to accountability questions and I do believe in those. The quality of education can still be evaluated, so can degree completion rates and how universities monitor this. Students can still be asked to leave college – free doesn’t mean forever. We can think through how we address graduate education, perhaps. None of these questions should be barriers to free education, because the equation is still simple. Education tends to lead to higher wages, higher wages should lead to higher tax contributions that should be directed back to education. The system should support itself. I understand the political complications, but the rest makes sense.

As for FAFSA, save that simplified form for the cost of housing, I suppose. That might be useful.

equity, Hope, Inclusion

Desegregating Education

This morning I spent some time reading Eric Kelderman’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The College Degree is Dividing America.” In his essay he recounts the powerful narrative launched in 2016, by then candidate Trump, that pitted the educated voter (ostensibly democrats) against the uneducated voter (ostensibly republicans). Kelderman does a good job of digging into the nuances of this slant, acknowledging that it really does not reflect the complexity of the relationship between education and politics. The rhetorical strategy was powerful in the moment, but it does not reflect the reality that educational opportunity is important to people from all parties, and that is likely to continue to be true.

Nevertheless, the power of the “liberal bias” trope about education should not be underestimated. It sways opinions all the time. It rings true to many, even as we work to cultivate the diversity of opinions on our campuses. It is an easy summary that helps people feel justified in their distrust of others. But as I think back on that moment when candidate Trump said, “I love the poorly educated” I see a much more important divide to be addressed: segregation.

Harboring hostilities toward groups different from ourselves is deeply supported by the segregation that is the routine practice of our nation. We may have banned outright racial segregation, but economic segregation is clearly encoded in our zoning laws, affordable housing deficits, and income disparities. Unsurprisingly, income segregation also tracks to racial segregation because of the systemic biases that keep some groups in poverty. We also organize ourselves in ways that keep young and old from mingling, religious groups from mingling, and yes, educated and less educated people from mingling. What a perfect way to keep each group comfortable in its assumptions about the other groups.

Education can exacerbate this situation. This happens first in access to pre-K. Those of us lucky enough to have had pre-K opportunities for our children know that this was an important step toward developing the habits necessary for success in Kindergarten. Whether learning to hold a crayon (important for muscle development), pass a crayon (important for social development), or identify the color of the crayon (important for vocabulary development), even the simplest of pre-K experiences have advantages with long lasting effects. One of those effects is to have the less fortunate labeled as “behind” on the first day of kindergarten.

Then it happens in K-12 education as students in districts with lesser means struggle with hunger, supplies, and adequate support for an education that leads to opportunity. Far too many students in under-funded districts cannot go on to college. For those who do, we sort them again in higher education. Those of us in colleges and universities focused on accessible, affordable education know our students are working more than they should, which tends to strain their ability to succeed. Unsurprisingly, fewer of our students make it to the finish line than those attending more elite schools, because there are too many things thrown in their way. Not finishing keeps them from advancing to better economic opportunities and so it begins again with their children.

The thing is these educational differences usually track to neighborhoods and those neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race, politics, and income. In each of our neighborhoods we get comfortable in our assumptions about those who live in other neighborhoods, and the spiral that re-enforces our biases winds unrelentingly into the future. This spiral makes it easy for us to tap into and cultivate distrust between the educated and the less so. I feel despondent just thinking about how deep these divides are, but then I reach for the hope that education can provide.

What I am about to propose is not new. We’ve tried it over and over again, and then people find ways around it, but nevertheless we should try again, because each time we do, we get a little closer to where we should be. So here goes–let’s actually desegregate our schools. This cannot be incremental; we are failing with that approach. No, we need to make one simple rule that applies to everyone. Let’s make it illegal for a school district to serve only high need or low need students. If we start with that simple guideline, so many things fall into place. With an economically integrated school comes better funding, better advocacy, and better opportunities for everyone.

Here’s the thing, education is not the cure for our biased perspectives, it is the mingling of people with different ideas and experiences of the world that makes us more open minded. It is harder to convince people that whole groups are against them if they regularly interact with each other. We will never agree on everything, but regular contact with people who are lawyers, carpenters, teachers, and wait staff can go a long way toward reducing our negative assumptions about each other. At the very least, we will have the opportunity to learn about new perspectives on the issues we hold dear.

It is not fair to ask education to take on the burden of desegregating our society, but I see no other reasonable option. The pervasiveness of public education has made it the best vehicle for building a better, more inclusive world that we have. So, on this election eve, I suggest that we make desegregating education our next national priority (again). Doing so offers a path to a more equitable society. It also provides us with an opportunity to move away from the divisiveness that makes hateful slogans so effective.