It’s No Wonder We Can’t Fix Higher Education

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Karen Gross

A recent article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber focuses on how private colleges are reaching “back” to students they accepted after the traditional May 1 deposit deadline to lure these students into enrolling by sweetening financial aid packages. OK, at first blush, this article appears to be yet another piece on the enrollment strains in higher education, acutely felt among smaller private institutions. Higher ed, the piece suggests, is changing.

I agree with the latter statement but not for the reasons provided. Sadly, the article reveals something vastly more and vastly different than what appears on the surface. Let me quote the first paragraph of this piece in its entirety so it can then be deconstructed and examined for its deeper and more devastating meaning. My blood is boiling.

The piece begins:

“In the minds of parents and teenagers going through the college application process, May 1 is the magic date. At that point, you’ve sent in a deposit, bought a sticker for your car window and posted your choice on social media.”  

Start with this, college is not on the minds of many parents, particularly the parents of first generation, low-income students. Sadly, and it is embarrassing for our nation, many low-income, first generation, minority students have not even applied to college. And if they did apply (and complete the Free Federal Financial Aid form), they often did it without parental involvement. Add in students from deeply entrenched white poverty to that group. And, if they applied, they often did not apply to America’s elite ranked private institutions; indeed, these institutions were not on their radar screen – the well-described issue of undermatching. Parents did not visit campuses with them; parents did not get them executive coaches to work on application preparation including college essay writing; parents did not know about deadlines for notification.

So, my first suggested edit: delete the words “parents” or add the modifier, “some percentage of….”

Next, there is an assumption, suggested above, that the May 1 deposit deadline is well known – as in common knowledge. Really? Among what population? For starters, it is not the deadline for many colleges with rolling admissions. Many less selective colleges have long ago abandoned the May 1 deadline. A host of colleges – many of which offer quality two or four year degrees – admit students right up to the day classes begin. Really. And, of course, for those in the know, there is early decision, which has a date for committing way before May 1. And, for the record, many students do not apply to 5 or 10 colleges, given the cost of applying (in time and money); they are not advised – assuming they are well advised at all – to apply to ranges of schools. Many low-income students apply to one or two schools. Period. Full stop.

So, my second suggested edit: delete the May 1 date.

Proceeding onward, the paragraph notes that students have sent in their full deposit by May 1. Well, in truth, many students today cannot afford the deposit. Some send in their acceptance but not the deposit and wait for the college to do something. Some ask for a deposit waiver (risky for institutions on several levels) or pay their deposits in installments. Yes, that happens. And, sometimes those installments are small — $50 at a time.

So, my third suggested edit: qualify the deposit statement by adding “for those able to deposit…”

Moving right along, the first paragraph provides that parents and deposited children then get a car bumper sticker. Another really? This assumes that parents and/or children have cars. For many inner city youth, they not only do not have cars, they do not have a license. Indeed, they have not taken drivers ed. Forget affording a car; they cannot afford insurance.

Indeed, one of the initiatives I considered but never got to launch when I was a college president at a non-selective rural institution was to provide drivers’ education to our many inner city kids – so they get a license which could serve not only to enable them to drive but to have a suitable piece of identification. Forget addressing the issue of parental car ownership among low-income families in urban environs.

Oh, and where exactly does one buy that bumper sticker? It is not in a corner bodega. To get one (unless the college sends it to you), you would get it from the campus store (which means you are ON campus) or through the web (assuming one knows to go there to get a bumper sticker – something that may not be self evident).

My fourth suggested edit: delete the whole discussion of bumper stickers.

Finally, the paragraph ends with a reference to posting choices for college on social media. Yet another really? Doesn’t that depend on whether going to college is seen as a plus and whether one wants to share one’s choice if many of one’s friends have not applied to college, are not interested in college or think you have lost your mind because you are going to college? Yes, a subgroup of students will post where they are going but hosts and hosts of students will not – first generation, low income, minority or ethnically diverse students.

My fifth suggested edit: delete the references to social media.

With all of these edits, one is left with little in that opening paragraph and for good reason. That paragraph applies to a very limited group of graduating high school seniors — those applying to and accepted at America’s more elite private colleges and universities. The paragraph and the article that follows it do not apply to the vast and growing number of first generation, low income, minority students who are or will be attending post-secondary education — many of whom apply to non-selective two and four year institutions. And, many of these students are non-trads (actually more traditional than ever before), returners, transfer students, veterans, parents of all ages. Many do not travel far from home to attend post-secondary education. Many plan on using public transportation (that’s why the Dallas Community College system provides free public transport). Many are working over the summer to see if they can even afford one or two classes in the fall.

This Ron Lieber article and its first paragraph ignores Minority Serving Institutions, such as Hispanic Servicing Institutions, HBCUs, in addition to non-selective public and private two and four year institutions. Add to that, the article ignores certificate and technical training programs. Basically, more is ignored than covered.

Let’s be very clear here. Most first generation, low income, minority, ethnically diverse high school graduates and white students who are the product of deeply entrenched white intergenerational poverty are not going to the institutions listed in the article in the New York Times. Sure, a few are. But, the number of Pell eligible students attending America’s elite colleges numbers is in the hundreds of thousands (being generous). More than 7 million “others” go to college and there is nothing in the first paragraph of this article or the article as a whole that applies to them. Full stop.

So, if our focus on higher educational reform is on the limited audience to which the Lieber article applies – and it is emblematic of many – we are working to fix a wee piece of the higher education pie. Might we be wiser –we would be wiser– to pay attention to broader issues that involves way more students – the students who will be enrolling today and into the future? Might we actually write about how to improve education for at risk students – regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, geographic locale?

Here is one thing I can assure you: the parents of low SES children are not helicoptering for the most part; May 1 is a fake deadline; there is no car to which to affix a bumper sticker and no social media hoopla and certainly for some, there is not even an application let alone a deposit. This Lieber article is why higher ed is not improving; we are not focused on the audience for whom it needs to be improved. That’s an indictment if ever there was one: we are focused on the wrong group of students.

Can we collectively say: Yipes?

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

“You Are My Other Me”: Reflections on AERA 2017

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Alice E. Ginsberg

The American Education Research Association’s (AERA) annual meeting was noticeably different for me this year. After watching our country start rolling back civil rights at an alarming rate, and seeing so much unabashed racism drive our national dialogue, I went to AERA with hopes of feeling empowered. The conference did not disappoint me.

Today began bright and early at 8:15 a.m. at a panel discussion “College Curriculum at the Crossroads: Women of Color Reflect and Resist.”  According to the description: “With increased interest in issues of equity and access, there remains a dearth of scholarship focused on the complexities of women of color’s experiences.” The seven panelists were diverse in race, age, academic credentials, and surprisingly, gender too. (One panelist was an African American male, who spoke poignantly about being an advocate and ally across race and gender.) Although they taught at colleges and universities as geographically diverse as Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia, it was significant that none of the panelists were from Minority Serving Institutions.

The panelists each spoke about how difficult it was to be a woman of color in primarily white institutions as they navigated dissertations, teaching evaluations, publishing, and facing tenure review.   With remarkable honesty, they talked about what it was like to center issues of racism while standing in front of a classroom and staring into the eyes of a majority of young white faces.   When they left the classroom, they stared into the faces of white male colleagues who didn’t take them seriously as academics. As one panelist, Ebony Pope from the University of Oklahoma, declared: “As Black women walk into white classrooms, we are subjected to the terms and expectations of operating in whiteness – and to the judgment of whiteness. This includes teaching and learning in the right white ways that seek to invalidate our existence and disrupt the acknowledgement of one another’s existence.”

Panelist Marelsie Velazquez, also from The University of Oklahoma, likewise noted: “To teach in Predominantly White Institutions is to contemplate and internalize feelings of isolation, not only in the halls of academia and faculty meetings, but in the lack of curriculum interventions that would place us, our ideas, and histories, within larger curriculum meetings. Who we are and what we teach in always in question.”

Bridget Turner Kelly, from Loyola University in Chicago, agreed that: “Isolation often compounds essentialism as female faculty of color, often the only people of color in their program, department or college, are asked to teach the diversity ‘add-on’ that is perceived as not core to the academic mission.” Perhaps it was not surprising then, when the next panelist, Altheria Caldera, from Texas A&M – Commerce reflected before she began her prepared talk: “It’s just a powerful experience being surrounded by other academic women of color. That in itself doesn’t happen very often.”

Although I knew that sexism and racism have not been totally eliminated at Minority Serving Institutions, I was acutely aware that my experience working at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions affords me the privilege of listening to, learning from, and being immersed in the lives of academic women of color on a daily basis. Over the last three years I have been able to travel to and meet faculty and students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Asian American and Pacific Islanders Institutions (AANAPISIs) across the country and one of the most profound parts of these experiences has been seeing women of color at the center rather than the margins. I was happy for the panelists that — even for this brief ninety- minute session – they were surrounded by allies.

At the same time, however, there was an elephant in the room. The panelists were told that the session would be a roundtable. Instead, they sat in a straight line, behind a row of desks, while a mere eight audience members sat awkwardly in stray chairs in front of them. While I was very honored to be there I was also reminded why academic conferences are often not very powerful sites of social activism. Yes, AERA is a huge conference, with a phone-book size program of concurrent events, but still: Why did only eight people choose this session? Why weren’t we sitting in a roundtable? Forget the roundtable, why weren’t we even sitting next to each other? Why weren’t we looking each other in the eye?

The next panel I went to, immediately afterwards, was as different as night and day. The discussion was titled: “Linking Knowledge to Action Through Youth Participatory Action Research to Reduce Latino/a Educational Disparities.” While the discussants at this session were also from a PWI (The University of Arizona), their work was intricately “linked” to a marginalized and minoritized community. Their commitment to using youth participatory action research (YPAR) as the cornerstone of their own academic research mirrored many of the same methodologies that I have witnessed at MSIs. The community and the college worked together to produce new knowledge, and advocate for social justice, in a genuine partnership.

Indeed, the very organization of the session reflected the ethos of re-centering the voices of people of color.   While it was only slightly larger than the previous session I attended – there were about 12 attendees –the organizers immediately asked everyone to put their chairs in an intimate circle. One of the organizers then began by reminding us that we were sitting on Indigenous Land. [The conference took place in San Antonio, Texas]. Next, she then led us all in a common reading of “In Lak’ech: You Are My Other Me,” a Mayan law and greeting:

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.

This was an unusual and very emotionally moving experience for an academic conference, that was followed by an even more unlikely event. We went around the circle and shared our first names only, and what we felt we were each “bringing” to the discussion. To be clear: this was not about listing our qualifications and expertise. This was about a common interest in being challenged, in collaboration, and scaling good ideas. This was about honoring the coming together of the group, and making sure that everyone was listening and felt represented. I was reminded of my visit to Stone Child College, a TCU in Montana, where we began our “business” meeting with the college President listening to stories from a Tribal elder.

Although the larger discussion at this panel was about research methodology, typically dry descriptions of theory and numbers were grounded in beautiful illustrations of students’ community maps.   The presenters explained that they worked with Mexican American youth living in poverty to help them design and create their own maps of their neighborhoods, including places that symbolized college-going resources and college-going barriers. Resources, for example, included out-of-school time youth centers, library and schools, while barriers included high density of graffiti, vendors of alcohol, tobacco, and drug paraphernalia in their community.

As we talked about the maps, terms such as “homelessness” were redefined as “houselessness.” In other words, not having a house does not necessarily prevent someone from having a family, a community, and a lineage. Breaking from a deficit perspective, the presenters honored the fact that the young people they worked with – though poor, Latino/a and perhaps undocumented – had dignity, agency, and precious knowledge. At the end of their mapping, youth created new spaces in their communities, literally opening new avenues of access to college.

Thinking of mapping, after these two AERA sessions, I went to explore San Antonio. I visited the Alamo and visited a Mexican marketplace. I marveled at foods I had never tasted, and watched as families settled in to watch the upcoming Fiesta parade.  Aside from being very humid, it was a near perfect experience. A mingling of cultures combined with a strong sense of ethnic pride permeated the city.

I wish I could end this here. But something else happened today. I got back to my hotel room, turned on the television and saw Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania (my home state) to mark his first 100 days as president.   Every word out his mouth was one of hatred and divisiveness. As he talked about securing the border, and keeping all the “bad people” out, he outdid his own record of fear mongering warning that people who cross the border illegally will be in direct danger of being deported “back where they belong,” or put in jail.

Trump then read a poem called “The Snake” by Al Wilson, wherein a woman shows compassion for a hurt snake, bringing him into her home and giving him sustenance, only to be bitten mercilessly and mocked by the snake for being so gullible:

“I saved you,” cried that woman
“And you’ve bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

The moral of the story being that certain people will always be bad to the core, that we shouldn’t try to help other people, and that if we do, we have only ourselves to blame for being so stupid. Trump told the story with great relish, savoring the anticipation of the moment when the snake is once again vilified and the old lady humiliated.

As I tearfully watched his supporters stand, cheer, and chant “build the wall,” I was reminded that I began the day reciting In Lak’ech with a group of total strangers at an academic conference.   If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. What would our future look like if all Americans could say these words with the same conviction that Trump and his supporters brag about eradicating the enemy by any means necessary?

I didn’t leave AERA with the answer, but, as I’d hoped, I did leave feeling more empowered to keep fighting for social justice – inside the academy and out. I also left feeling more grateful than ever to be representing the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, where I do not have to travel to a national conference to gain wisdom from, and hear about the first-hand experiences of academics of color.

Alice E. Ginsberg is Assistant Director for Research at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She also teaches urban education and teacher research in Penn’s Teach for America masters program.