equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

Undermatching

Today’s Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed are reporting on a study that explored the impact of “nudges” to encourage low-income, high ability students to apply to competitive colleges.  This comes on the heels of last year’s report on chronic undermatching of these students with more prestigious opportunities. The results were, in my view, predictable.  The nudges did not help.

So, to the predictable part… nudges with little cultural or financial framework are simply ads that we need to delete.  While the College Board waived application fees so that low-income students didn’t have to bear the cost of applying to schools, this is just a small part of the ways that those more competitive (elite) schools might not seem inviting.  Let’s face it, we’re all talking about college costs and how to contain them.  Students looking at colleges, low-income or middle-class, are really worried about debt.  Tuition prices are more or less knowable, but the availability of financial aid awards is largely hidden and difficult to pin down.  So, why go through all of that work to understand the complex formulas under the costs of education, and potentially be disappointed, especially when an apparently reasonably priced alternative exists?

Culturally, there is more.  Students need to have a vision of themselves at a school to want to be there.  If everyone looks affluent, well, it just doesn’t look welcoming to a low-income student.  I’m not even getting into all of the issues of diversity that face these competitive/elite schools.  If we just focus on the dollars, there is plenty to scare a student away.  The solidly middle-class tend not to notice the extra-curriculars they can afford, the internships they can afford to not be paid for, the volunteer time they can afford to give, and the many little add-ons (trips to museums, spring break events, concerts) that keep the less affluent from full participation in this version of higher education.

Then, of course, there’s the rest of it.  Students may leverage local universities so they can avoid housing costs.  They may wish to not go too far from home so that they know they have a support system within driving distance.  Some may choose a school that seems to have students that have had experiences of the world like theirs so that the unfamiliar world of higher education is made more familiar by virtue of peer groups.

All of this is the “duh” component of these findings.  It was a well-intentioned effort, but really reduced the complexity of college choice and access in un-nuanced ways.  But I am much more troubled by they very notion of undermatching.  You see, I’m not sure what’s wrong with my less competitive school.  Our admissions standards are lower than the competitive schools in the College Board study, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that my school is not a great option for students from all backgrounds.

Here’s the thing: it is true that a public school like mine does not have as much money to invest in special programs for first-generation and low-income students as an elite school.  That means we have to be much more thoughtful about our investments.  Working with faculty and other support staff, I find that we talk through the needs of our students with a broader view than the special population.  We ask questions about how to improve tutoring overall, how to demystify college expectations for all students, how to best deploy peer mentors for all students.  We don’t focus on niche, because we can’t, but the result is a sustained effort to help all students succeed.

It is true that my retention and graduation rates are and will continue to be lower than a more competitive school, but the experience of education will not be lesser.  We have all the same accreditations for business, nursing, education, chemistry, social work, and all of our arts programs, as the elite schools have.  This means our curriculum meets a standard of excellence that one should expect from higher education. Our graduates win Fulbright scholarships (our 6th this year) and Goldwater scholarships (our first since I’ve been here) and our winners are frequently the first in their families to attend college.  They get jobs, start businesses, go to medical and veterinary schools, become teachers and nurses, and performing artists. In other words, their education positions them for success.

While they are enrolled at WCSU, our students encounter many people who look like them and many who do not (we are a wonderfully diverse campus).  They work on projects with students who are first in the family to go to college, or second or third generation WCSU.  They co-author research with faculty, volunteer when possible, and intern when available, usually while juggling at least one job.  The pervasiveness of that juggling allows them to feel it is normal to have to make decisions not to volunteer or take on an extra opportunity if their circumstances don’t allow. Lots of our students are trying hard to make ends meet without taking out a lot of student loans, and they know how to prioritize.

In other words, low income students are set up to thrive here.  We are a public university, with strong academic programs that meet the needs of our community.  Our outcomes are not as strong as we’d like, but in terms of economic equity we are awesome.  We know that not all of our students are ready to go through in four years in a row.  We help them exit and re-enter as they work through their own educational and life decisions. That is our commitment to them.

We are not often the first choice for families that aspire to more status-conscious schools, but we are often where they finish their journeys when they realize the quality of all that we do. The support of Connecticut citizens helps us to be relatively affordable, and we hope that the support continues so we can be a university that nurtures learning for all, not just the lucky few. That is the value of what we do, and we do so with pride and aspiration for all of our students.

So, really, I reject the very notion of undermatching.  It’s a classist argument and the study that ensued was based on all of those classist assumptions.  Instead, I’m going to keep supporting the students we have, working toward support for the many, and improving our success rates one student at a time.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Supporting Diversity: We must do better.

Well, I just finished reading the Chronicle Review’sBeing a Black Academic in America.” Sadly, it was unsurprising.  The many stories told in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere, that focus on biases in the classroom, on campuses, in yearbooks, and invited speakers all tell us that we are nowhere near achieving equity in higher education.  The faculty members who tell their stories in this issue, report issues that have been reported so many times that I can feel nothing but shame that we haven’t figured it out yet.

Indeed, I’ve been in conversations about these issues with students for over 20 years.  The perception that affirmative action is an unfair or unearned advantage has been voiced by students (and some faculty) in subtle and unsubtle ways as long as I’ve been in higher education.  They confuse the terms equality and equity, and get lost in the false logic of merit.  To be clear, merit can only be considered in context.  Simple indicators of hard work and talent must be scaled to the starting blocks in that race to secure a seat at the table (or in the classroom).  So, if you start with no money, attend a poorly funded K-12 school, and have parents who did not attend college, and then you manage an average score on an SAT, well you deserve to have that score raised to meet the average scores of those who had SAT prep tests, pre-schools, and honors programs.  That might be the start of some kind of equity, and trust me, that student has demonstrated talent and a strong work ethic.

But of course that’s just economic equity. The fact that the advantages and disadvantages are distributed along racial lines is the deep and enduring shame of it all.  That’s where we seem to be getting really lost in our merit logic.  We don’t like the idea of a person getting a score adjustment along racial lines, even though the economic disadvantages are disproportionately distributed along those lines.  Our belief in a system that only rewards hard work is so strong that we just don’t can’t see the different placements of the starting blocks.  And then we fail to make progress.

The stories in The Chronicle detail the difficulty of being a faculty member under these conditions. Every person interviewed reported the ways in which they have received messages about their “unearned” place in the academy.  Whether as students or as faculty members in predominantly white colleges (which describes most colleges), the uniformity of the narratives was clear…biased behavior is alive and well.  We are not paying attention to the ways in which we are replicating the systemic racism in the culture of higher education. We are not mindful of the ways bias manifests itself in student evaluations.  We are not attentive to the (lack of) diversity in our curriculum.  We have not attended to our committee structures (elected and appointed) and how they may be excluding voices.  We have not examined our assumptions about how the unspoken expectations for success in higher education may be obscuring those pathways for those new to the world of higher education, simply by being unspoken.

What we really haven’t begun to address is the intertwining of class, power, and race in all that we do in higher education. We have a push and pull between our commitment to access and our notions of excellence. We want to be the pathway to an equitable society, but we fail to notice that we have defined excellence in terms that represent the views of those already in power. We are frequently getting stuck in our own faulty merit logic, assuming that since we are all products of Ph.D. programs, we all have access to the same knowledge. But it isn’t that simple.  We aren’t seeing the staggered placement of our starting blocks.

And even saying all of this causes me discomfort, because I don’t want to suggest that faculty of color need special accommodations to succeed. Like all faculty, they are smart and talented and have earned their place in higher education.  Like all faculty, opportunities to study a topic deeply and enlighten students are the tasks they have set for themselves. But something isn’t going right, so questions must be asked.

It made me sad to read the Chronicle Review this morning.  I can see just how difficult it is going to be to make real change and I am sorry to have been so ineffective so far.  But I am listening and trying to find a path forward.  I have been calling for curricular change, but it is time for me to think bigger and plan the overhaul in our practices that is really required.  I’m not sure what my next steps are, but I do know that there will be next steps in short order.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

The Biases Within: Getting our House in Order

Over my morning coffee I read the disturbing account of yet another incident in the long list of incidents where our students of color are targeted.  The Inside Higher Ed account, Entering Campus Building While Black,  includes troubling video footage and a list of similar events on other campuses over the last year.  In every case, those involved felt they were just being vigilant, just following usual protocols, yet these events rarely (never) seem to happen to our white students. It’s time for a little self-reflection folks.

The cascade of stereotypes that provoke these incidents are pervasive and exhausting.  Our words may speak to inclusion, but our deeply held experiences of “other” are driving our behaviors.  When we add the variable of gun violence in education contexts, it gets even worse.  We see something/say something, but we don’t seem to see whom we’re saying something about. In recent years, large bodies of research have shown us that our incarceration practices are littered with racists assumptions and practices, and I’m grateful that we are starting to see some real reforms.  It’s time to turn that attention to our own practices.

I’m not going to sugar coat this folks, here’s the deal.

Elite campuses are more likely to end up in this awful harassment cycle because the numbers of students of color are small.  Admissions practices, unequal access to quality K-12 education, and plain old money makes this so. When numbers are small, people notice the otherness of the non-white student more intensely.  They appear out-of-place (largely because we’ve not really made a place for them) and then they become the focus when we enforce our rules related to safety and security.  It becomes a series of natural seeming steps, that reinforce our biased assumptions and practices.

But elite campuses are not alone.  Even on more diverse campuses like mine, there are other kinds of targeting that routinely occur.  Our Muslim students are called upon to explain Islam. Our African-American students are asked to explain racism.  Our LGTBQ students must share their coming out stories. Our women are frequently asked to adjust to environments that are distinctly male. In our attempts to be inclusive, we end up creating uncomfortable situations where students are asked to be representatives of that “other” culture, asking them to speak for the whole.

Our faculty are not yet diverse enough and so those who are from backgrounds other than white and middle class are faced with the same burden that our students of color face.  They become the representatives of their cultures, while at the same time serving as a refuge for students of color, who seek mentors who understand their experiences. As these faculty try to juggle the ordinary burdens of teaching, publishing, and earning tenure, the extra responsibilities of being the representative of a specific group, puts a strain on their time, making the path to tenure more strenuous than that of their white peers. And by being put in the position of being the representative of their cultures, we continuously repeat the message, you are other.

And our curriculum, well don’t get me started on that. If all of the above represents tokenism (and it does), our curriculum is the epitome of that practice.  Somehow we think a few focused courses on particular groups are enough to address the long history of exclusion.  We congratulate ourselves for noticing an absence in our offerings, write a course to address it, and then go one with the usual approaches and subjects.

Yikes!

Clearly my encounter with the news this morning made me angry.  I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way.  We did not become educators to perpetuate the structural racism in our society.  Most of us just wanted to immerse ourselves in the fields we love and most of us thought when we did that, that systemic bias was not really part of that immersion. Unfortunately we were wrong.  Absolutely nothing we do is immune to the socio-cultural biases in which we operate.  Yes, even scientific inquiry has biases built-in, so, no exceptions here.

But I’m never one to stop with just observing a problem.  What are we to do? The list is incredibly long, but here are the first three steps we can take to get started.

  1. Don’t save meaningful encounters with diverse peoples for special occasions.  Let’s develop practices that weave real encounters with people and perspectives different from our own into the everyday life of the campus.  College is the ideal place to grow these habits.  We engage with people who are seeking new ideas and experiences by virtue of being here, so let’s redesign how we organize assignments, groups, spaces, and time so that these conversations are not the exception, but the rule.  Research suggests that just plain exposure can make a difference in our habit of stereotyping, so let’s orchestrate continuous exposure to all members of our community.
  2. Be much more thoughtful about curriculum.  Let’s not be fooled into believing that the stories and facts we have gathered represent the totality of the human experience.  Whose discoveries are we celebrating?  Whose histories are we exploring?  Which artists are we featuring?  We all know that the digital universe has given us ever more access to information and discoveries.  Our challenge is what to address right now.  If we just remember that the goal is to help our students figure out how to evaluate well and argue with information, then what we argue about is really not that important.  There is plenty of room in the curriculum to be more intentional about the diversity of narratives, discoveries, and social structures.  Rather than being fixated on the usual stories, let’s get obsessed with just how many stories we can tell.
  3. Think about the habits within our disciplines that may be excluding people.  Is the baseline knowledge for admission to your field something that everyone is likely to have encountered? If not, reconsider your baseline and build bridge programs where necessary.  Are the paths to graduate education clear enough that anyone could figure it out? If not (and no one should be answering yes to this), find ways to make the paths more transparent for all so that we might cultivate new voices and colleagues from many backgrounds.  Are the rules for academic success in your discipline (department) clearly articulated and supported? If not, make it so.  That’s not just for our students, that’s for all of our peers.  If we move from the informal to the formal articulation of the rules, we help level the playing field.

There is so much more to say and do, but I’m asking us to just start here. These things are within our control and they have the potential to transform our campus cultures. If we get serious about these three steps and take action, the next three steps will reveal themselves and we might be able to start cultivating the habits we need to truly transform our institutions.

I’m tired of waking up to these horrible news stories and I not satisfied with thinking this is someone else’s problem.  It’s time for us to get our house in order.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Are You Kidding Me?

Last week, as the news broke about the “admissions scandal,” I thought it was just old news.  The many, many ways that the wealthy have unfair access to, well everything, is just not surprising.  Inside Higher Ed has nicely summarized the list of ways that access manifests itself in higher ed in the article “Wealth and Admissions.” From good K-12 schools, to tutors, to summer programs, to family legacies, to just plain financial wherewithal, there is nothing equal about access to elite higher education.  We save a few spots for new talent (talent from families not already part of the elite) and get on with our protected pathways for those who have already made it to the upper middle class and above.

None of this is new.  None of this is surprising.  Some wealthy people have found a new way of garnering access, but really, what did we expect?  We set up the system this way and it isn’t pretty.

So here’s the “are you kidding me” part. Media outlets spent a week talking about this, as if that proportion of coverage was warranted in the sea of other news we should be attending to. Celebrities were involved, so were sports, so here we go. Meanwhile, legislators are considering ways to rectify the unfair advantages that this scandal unearthed.  The Wall Street Journal reports statements and proposals focused on limiting tax-deductions for university donors who have children attending the school; regulating early-decision since it undermines the ability for students to juggle offers and privileges those who can pay; fining colleges with the lowest proportion of low-income students; and, of course, limiting affirmative action.  Why are we allowing this bluster to go on? These practices have long been scrutinized, to no avail, and they are only focused on the lucky few.

It isn’t that I don’t understand how rigged the system is.  Nor is it that I don’t understand how invested we are in the notion that merit is the way that students get into elite schools. That belief helps us nurture the hope that upward mobility is real and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is the clearest path out of poverty.  Of course this belief is true, once in a while.  Some of the students admitted to those elite schools really did work harder than the rest to gain admission with a status of unknown, under-represented, and under-resourced.  I should add that many of the wealthy students enrolled also worked hard and had no idea of the advantages their socio-economic status brought them.  They were honestly engaged in the studying and volunteering and extra-curricular activities necessary for admission to an elite school.

What I don’t understand is why we allow this to pull our attention away from the daily inequities that plague the majority of students in the United States. Approximately 73% of all students in colleges and universities in 2016 were in public universities, and the majority of those institutions are focused on being accessible and affordable. Most of the students in these public colleges come from public K-12 schools.  In every one of these public colleges and universities, a portion of the students is truly struggling with finances or adequate academic support or navigating the mysteries of higher education with no family history of higher education to help them find their way.  Those colleges and universities are trying to manage decreasing funds to support the needs of their students. This is where our attention needs to be.

If legislators want to focus on education at all, then the focus should be on making sure that there is really access to our public institutions.  This means adequate funding from pre-K through 12th grade.  Let’s find ways to truly invest in primary and secondary education so that students from all neighborhoods are adequately prepared for college.  Then let’s reinvest in our public higher education.  The erosion in funding over the last 25 years is making it a challenge to meet the needs of all of the students enrolled. Frequently these gaps in funding hit the neediest students the hardest. This dis-investment needs to be reversed so that when those properly supported K-12 students get to college, the support doesn’t disappear.

You know, public education was one of the best ideas this country has ever had.  It has supported social mobility and, after many a battle, it is becoming inclusive.  But it isn’t perfect yet.  We aren’t meeting the needs of all communities and despite the progress toward greater diversity and inclusion, we are still leaving too many students behind. And we do so at our peril, because many of the jobs in our emerging economy rely on an educated workforce. When we under-fund accessible education, we under-invest in the economic health of this nation.

So, let’s not get distracted by the unfair access to the elite schools.  We can let the courts sort that out.  Let’s get obsessed with meeting the needs of the many instead of the few. Those of us working in public education are out here trying to make the promise of America real, but we could really use some more support.