Monday, May 31, 2021
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
A commitment to the welfare of broad numbers of Americans is an idea imbedded in democracy and romanticized in the "American Dream." Yet, obsession with protecting a competitive capitalist meritocracy is embraced by many Americans, both rich and poor. This obsession across class was graphically reinforced in the electoral base that supported Donald Trump's election and bid for election in 2020.
While political conservatism celebrates capitalism and the competitive spirit that supposedly supports it, many conservatives are skeptical of higher education. The recent survey of the Association of American Colleges & Universities and Bipartisan Policy Center found that "Seven in 10 Democrats say that a college degree is 'definitely' or 'probably' worth it, compared with only 53 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of independents." The survey results also reflected a sharp division related to the importance of a commitment to social justice, with 45% of Democrats, 28% of Independents, and 19% of Republicans endorsing social justice as part important to long-term career success. This division is an important backdrop to consider in relation to the Gates Foundation's Post-Secondary Value Commission report. The Commission report was "designed to catalyze an equitable value movement, which will help reshape the higher education system in the United States by combating access and completion barriers, sparking economic mobility, dismantling racist practices and structural inequalities, and building a more vibrant and just society." The Commission report raises question of individual, institutional, as well as governmental responsibility for correcting inequities that exist.
The Gates Foundation report is hailed as lifting up the long-held assertion of educators that access, equity, and completion of educational goals has to be a central goal of a democratic society. Why? Because informed and talented citizens pay off in numerous ways - responsible participation, innovation, service, and economic vitality. The cost of inequity is too significant to ignore and the solution isn't only gaining access to higher education but the role it plays in equalizing opportunity. Illustrating this point in the bellweather setting of LA, a recent report of Los Angeles County's public education system reveals some hope in the diversification of enrollment to include Black and LatinX students but persistent problems with degree and certificate completion.
It has long been clear that privileged Americans are taking care of themselves by preserving access and networks through elite higher education. The Gates Foundation seeks to highlight how investment to benefit those without this privilege can be achieved - by "providing stronger academic and wraparound supports - including better academic and career counseling and mental health services; more comprehensive assistance with personal and financial needs, including tuition, childcare, food and housing; and stronger transfer pathways - to ensure that these students can reach their educational goals." Gates Commission members Anthony Carnevale and Kathryn Peltier offer the sobering conclusion that "The chances of earning a college degree and finding a good job in young adulthood are often determined more by a student's family socioeconomic status than by early achievement - for American children, it's better to be rich than smart." This is evident in the unfulfilled promise of commensurate opportunity that many students face, especially those of lower socio-economic means.
At the center of equality of opportunity is the question of what it costs to get a college degree and, especially an assessment of the return on investment. Funding from significant financiers is driving inequality to greater levels as they fund private and elite institutions. The coffers of the Ivy League are so profoundly out of proportion to other institutions that the graduates of these institutions, regardless of their own families' economic status, graduate with less debt than students at all other types of institutions.
A companion to the Gate's Foundation Value Commission report is a tool to assess what students can expect to make after graduation in the Equitable Value Explorer. Unfortunately, numerous institutions offer degrees that incur debt far beyond students' ability to pay off loans they took out to attend. However, the director of the Center for Education and the Workplace said that "College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential." The Center's analysis determined that lack of degree completion ends up with a net loss in economic return, the result of paying for education that ultimately did not lead to degree-based advancement.
When considering policy related to inequity in education, it's important to focus on the breadth of educational opportunity, not just the programs that prepare students for work. The balance between career preparation and life readiness is difficult to strike and perhaps is most evident in the focus of community colleges on workforce development. Karen Stout, president and CEO of an organization of over 300 community colleges, declared that the equity statement for Achieving the Dream calls members to pursue "institution-wide and transformational change that eliminates systemic barriers, addresses student needs, and increases social justice and equity,"
Steve Mintz' review of Montas's book, Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, asserts, "I find it bitterly ironic that many of the staunchest advocates for a faster, cheaper education had, themselves, the benefits of a liberal education. Now, in the name of access, affordability, and credential attainment, too many call for a cheaper, faster, career-focused education, dismissing a liberal education for the masses as a fool's errand."
Adam Harris' book, The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How to Set Them Right, asserts that "From its inception, our higher education system was not built on equality or accessibility, but on educating -- and prioritizing -- white students." Drawing conclusions from Harris and other authors, Steve Mintz proposed seven issues that could help explain the failures of higher education in correcting racial disparities and wealth inequality. The fact that elite institutions have consistently served as "inequality machines" is one of the most difficult barriers to overcome.
”It's abundantly clear that the United States has not created the equitable democracy that offers opportunity to all regardless of background. Abandoning the unsubstantiated assumption of competitive capitalism, without educational opportunity and talent development, appears to be a way forward for all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status. Advocating for change could, or should, be part of the economic recovery planning that the Biden administration has launched and both the individual and community impact of economic development should be recognized. John Macintosh asserted that the U.S. higher education system, with 125 years of decentralization, allows only incremental change, when "steps to better serve students by exploring things like shared services and infrastructure, joint academic offerings, even mergers or preplanned, well-funded teach-outs" are actually required.
Harper, Culver, & Keazar propose that the process of change and creating more equitable and justice-focused processes of design must be cultivated if higher education institutions are to make progress, but redesign is difficult when key systems are in place that thwart it. The idea is to apply design thinking to problems that colleges and universities face, striving to identify power differentials and inequities that impair the process of decision making that are used while the policies and systems are being critically examined.
The National Association of System Heads (NASH), begun in 1979 with 42 public systems in 29 states and designs to expand, has begun to look at how systems can improve their effectiveness. The "initiative will aim to improve credential completion and social mobility and to reduce student debt by tackling issues and efficiencies in five key areas of higher education: learning, talent, equity, investment and 'systmness,' or the practice of fostering cohesion over competition among different systems."
Levine and Van Pelt say that the transformation of higher education is already occurring at the margins and that this is where innovation is most likely to continue. In their view, the future will be more focused on outcomes, individualized, and low-cost, conditions that also drive expansion of online approaches that allow for learning any time and place. Higher Ed Dive reinforced the importance of these issues by identifying 7 trends that are likely to impact institutions on an ongoing basis. Other industries such as music, movies, and newspapers have innovated a future that prospective students now expect from education. Matt Read questioned the analogy to profit-driven industries (e.g. entertainment) versus the public responsibility of state-supported institutions by saying, "Although Levine and Van Pelt acknowledge the difference in passing, the fact that public higher education is nonprofit... suggests that it serves a mission other than its own growth... It serves a civic mission, based both on equity and on a notion of democratic citizenship."
Friday, May 7, 2021
Aside from the education of undergraduate and graduate students, research productivity and advancing the boundaries of science is one of the most important outcomes of colleges and universities. Pursuit of research is achieved through support of individual faculty but it often involves cooperative ventures across institutions and even further cooperation across state jurisdictional and national boundaries.
Over 20 years ago, European educational leadership "envisaged an E.U. where 'people and knowledge can circulate more freely,' the integration of scientists in eastern and western Europe, and for countries to 'coordinate' what type of research they funded to avoid policy 'overlap.'" Reflections on this purpose now conclude that shared research across the E.U. is an unfinished project. The causes are many but some of it relates to the source of funding - 90% coming from nation-states and only 10% from the E.U. The newly created "European Universities" struggle to implement joint research due to differences in labor, tax, and social services across countries and many nation-state institutions hunker down to protect their own interests.
Thursday, May 6, 2021
The 2021 Student Voice survey (conducted by Inside Higher Education) provided important guidance to educators about students' views of campus climate and action regarding racial justice. The update later in the year indicated that racial justice continued as a strong focus and added growing evidence of students' political advocacy as well as interest in career preparation. With 65% of all students either agreeing or strongly agreeing that higher education has a role to play in addressing racial justice and equality, educators have a clear mandate. This mandate is complicated by the fact that when the data is segregated by political inclination, 63% of students who lean Democratic and only 6% of those who lean Republican strongly agree with the mandate.
The survey (including 1,100 white and 800 students of color) found that most students either don't have a clear perception about what their institutions did to address racial issues or were somewhat disappointed. In particularly, students found the responses to police killing George Floyd "underwhelming." A common perspective was that there are lots of statements of sympathy and understanding but far fewer real actions to bring about change. The driver for social justice action is sometimes external to higher education institutions, with 44% of students reporting that community groups and media were their primary sources of information. Student activists can make a real difference in advocating racial justice and some institutions stand out in their effectiveness, demonstrating that change is essentially a matter of institutional will.
Increased Fall 2021 enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) perhaps reflected Black students' view of campus climate. The increases could be the result of a variety of factors but one likely cause is that Black students see HBCUs as more responsive to their needs and more likely to address racial justice questions than predominantly White colleges and universities.
More Asian American students are now joining fellow Black students in recognizing and voicing concerns about the discrimination and aggressions they face. Interestingly enough, Asian American students were also the most likely to have participated in institutionally-sponsored racial justice initiatives. Sometimes sponsored by institutions and at other times just part of campus life, students indicate that race comes up more often as a topic of discussion. Nathan Reddy, a 2019 Cornell graduate, reinforced the importance of discussions about race, noting that they have raised consciousness, causing people to be "wary of committing microagressions, afraid of insulting someone because of their race." These discussions have created a safer space for exploration of race but one sometimes encumbered by the "need to express all the 'right' thoughts." Reddy called for "more openness to make mistakes and make candid statements."
Jeffrey Herbst, President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles, warned of the threat of rising anti-semitism on campuses in the wake and continuation of the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. There is clear evidence that anti-Israel groups add to the hostility by vilifying Jewish students. He reports that anti-semitism doubled since May and that higher education institutions need to get out in front of what could be rising activism and another polarizing issue on campus. Seventy percent of openly Jewish students experienced some form of anti-Semitism during the last 120 days in a recently launched reporting site. Another survey by Hillel Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League documented that 43% of Jewish students either experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism in the last year, sometimes in the form of swastikas displayed at Queens University of Charlotte and other times in disparaging remarks or overt actions. The rise of anti-Semitism can be challenged legally, as evidenced by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights opening an investigation of Brooklyn College and on the rising number of members of Congress who advocate Education Department action. Jewish students have increasingly sought solidarity in the face of rising anti-semitism by joining Chabad communities on campuses throughout the U.S.A. Other Jewish students strive to promote dialogue about the persistent conflict between Israel and Palestine. A number of college and university presidents gathered in April 2022 to discuss the increases in anti-semitism that they observed on their campuses.
The lingering impact of stereotyping and fear-mongering following 9-11-01 also contributes to a hostile climate for Muslim students. The Trump administration years saw significant increases in anti-Muslim sentiment in higher education and elsewhere. Particularly for Muslim students in the U.S.A., the Center for Education, Identity, and Social Justice recommended that institutions "invest and create a centralized mechanism to identify discrimination and hate directed at Muslim college students, investigate incidents of hate and discrimination, and follow through with actionable steps to address and resolve the issue."
Student views, which generally support social justice work, need to be understood and factored into clarifying the role for higher education in addressing racial justice as more campuses reopen in fall of 2021 with more in-person encounters. With over 80% of students reporting that racial inequality is a difficult subject to discuss but more than 50% saying that they self-censor in campus discourse, one barrier to racial justice appears to be simple - having conversations about it. In order to counter this self-censorship, institutions must inform students of their "rights to express their ideas, encourage the expression of controversial beliefs and discourage the idea of 'reporting' students with bad beliefs." Other educators warn that accepting self-censorship as an excuse for not engaging in relevant and challenging conversations should be discouraged. Clarity about the purpose and actions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion will be central to moving forward deliberately and effectively. Of immediate note is that Black faculty have had a lukewarm response to campus Juneteenth programs and observances, skeptical that window-dressing rather than substance may be the focus.
Some educators assert that nothing short of decolonizing the academy must be undertaken, a process that would include 1) revamping the curriculum, 2) reimagining our syllabi, 3) reimagining classroom dynamics, 4) rethinking our pedagogies, and 5) bringing all students to mastery. Opposition to critical theory has become a rallying point for conservatives but faculty report favorable responses from students and assert that advancing critical theory is central to quality and historically informed education.