Heads Roll at Baylor University Over Sexual-Assault Reports

Updated on May 26 at 1:57 p.m. ET

Baylor University has demoted Ken Starr, its president, and fired Art Briles, the head football coach, over the handling of accusations of sexual assault on campus.

The university in Waco, Texas, said in a statement Thursday that Briles had been suspended and will ultimately be fired. Starr, the former independent counsel in the investigation into then-President Clinton, has been demoted; he will serve as Baylor’s chancellor and will remain a professor at the university’s law school, the statement said. Additionally, the statement said, Ian McCaw, the athletic director, has been sanctioned and placed on probation. Baylor named David Garland interim president.

At issue are complaints of sexual assaults that victims said the university had not taken seriously. An independent investigation of the allegations, conducted by Pepper Hamilton, the law firm, reported Thursday:

Based on a high-level audit of all reports of sexual harassment or violence for three academic years from 2012-2013 through 2014-2015, Pepper found that the University’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX, that Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures, and that in some cases, the University failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community.

The allegations came to light after Sam Ukwuachu, a former football player at Baylor, was convicted in 2015 of raping a student. During his trial, it emerged Ukwuachu had been investigated, but not punished, by the university. Several similar reports have since emerged, including at least five women who said they were raped by Tevin Elliot, another former Baylor football player, who was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison for rape.

The investigation by Pepper Hamilton found that two Baylor administrators, who were unnamed in the report, discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student-conduct processes, “or that contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment.”

“In one instance,” the investigation found, “those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”

The report singled out Baylor’s football program, saying the findings “reflect significant concerns about the tone and culture within” the program.

“Leadership challenges and communications issues hindered enforcement of rules and policies, and created a cultural perception that football was above the rules,” the report said.

Baylor failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University. In certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct

“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the university’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students,” Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents, said in Thursday’s statement from the university. “The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us.”

Ron Murff, chair-elect of the Baylor Board of Regents, added: “We, as the governing board of this university, offer our apologies to the many who sought help from the university.  We are deeply sorry for the harm that survivors have endured.”

Whom Do College-Affordability Efforts Help the Most?

Determined that he and his younger brother would go to college, Eduardo Medina’s parents put money away in a savings account to pay for the tuition.

It never added up to more than $5,000, and before he finished high school on his way to the Ivy League, they were compelled to use it for a different purpose: to help his grandmother avoid losing her home to foreclosure.

Much of the rest of the family’s income went to pay for the cramped two-bedroom apartment in a San Diego suburb where they moved because the schools were slightly better than in the city.

What has happened to Medina since is a case study in the way some government, university, and private programs to help Americans pay for college have become more likely to benefit wealthier students than even the most academically talented lower-income ones.

The Hechinger Report

At a time when the presidential primaries have refocused attention on income disparity, and new data show the socioeconomic divide on campuses getting wider, some policymakers want to change these programs to better help lower-income students. Without these students, the United States can’t meet its goal of increasing the proportion of the population with degrees, a measure by which several economic rivals now have an advantage.

But such reforms are given long odds even by the people who support them. Meanwhile, still more obstacles are being put up in the way of the same low-income students politicians and university officials say they want to help.

Medina’s father is an administrator at a Navy hospital; his mother, a Mexican immigrant who works for AT&T. Neither was aware of college-savings accounts called 529 plans that the federal government makes tax-free as a way of easing the burden of paying tuition. Only one in 10 families that earn less than $50,000 knows about 529 plans, a survey by the investment firm Edward Jones found; 70 percent of these accounts are held by households with incomes of $150,000 or more, according to the research and consulting firm Strategic Insight.

Next America: Higher Education

Understanding the opportunity and achievement gaps in U.S. universities
Read more

Accepted to Cornell, Medina, whose friends call him Eddy, didn’t apply for any private scholarships like those provided by Rotary Clubs and other civic groups and businesses. More than $16 billion a year is made available by organizations like these, College Board figures show, but the U.S. Department of Education reports that more of it goes to students from families that earn $106,000 and up than to those with incomes under $30,000. This is largely because wealthier families know to apply for private scholarships or their kids go to private or suburban high schools that have savvy college counselors. By comparison, Medina said he met with the overworked college counselor in his school only twice in four years.

which fall over time. To pay for the rest of the tuition, fees, and other costs, which this year totaled nearly $63,000 for out-of-state students, he took a work-study job, part of a more than $1 billion taxpayer-funded program to help students pay for their educations.

There was a limit on how much work Medina could get. Money for the federal work-study program is divided up under a 50-year-old formula based not on how many students at a university actually need it, but on how much the university received the year before, and how much it charges. So, a quarter of the students who receive it come from families whose annual income exceeds $80,000, and one in 10 from households with $100,000 in earnings or more, federal data show. And wealthier recipients get more of it, on average—$2,300 for students from families that make $100,000 or more versus $2,100 for recipients whose families make less than $20,000.

Medina’s parents also didn’t know they could qualify for federal tax credits to offset the tuition they were paying. The federal government gives $18 billion a year in tuition tax breaks to “make college affordable for all Americans,” as President Barack Obama put it when he pushed for them. But more than a fifth goes to families earning more than $100,000 a year, according to the Congressional Research Service, largely because those families tend to send their kids to colleges and universities that charge more for tuition. And those families get an average of $1,900, versus about $1,100 for the lowest-income households. (Another analysis suggests it’s people earning between $65,000 and $106,000 who disproportionately benefit from these tax credits.)

Eduardo Medina, a junior at Cornell (Cristina Acosta)

Medina and his family struggled to stay afloat. His mother had to take money out of her 401(k) to keep up with the bills from Cornell, paying a penalty to do it. With nearly $14,000 worth of federal student loans already, he applied this year for a $38,000 private loan to stay in school. Loans like those generally carry higher interest rates than federal loans, can’t be deferred, and don’t qualify for new types of repayment plans based on income. Only after he finally got one did he learn he couldn’t use it to cover the $6,500 he owed Cornell from last year, including late fees.

In January, documents provided by Medina show, the university kicked him out, and said he couldn’t come back until he paid. After weeks of hacking his way through further red tape, he managed to use his new loan to cover his old balance—and the additional $350 late fee the university charged him.

a new report from the University of Pennsylvania shows the proportion of wealthier students earning degrees continues to rise, while the proportion of lower-income degree recipients is falling. And a study by researchers at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that higher-income parents would send their kids to college even without help from such things as federal tax credits.

Proposals to reform these programs have had scant success. One bill that passed the House of Representatives would have lowered the maximum income at which families are eligible for the tuition tax credit from $180,000 to $160,000. It died without being taken up in the Senate. Nor has there been much support for an idea floated by a coalition of advocacy groups that would block the tax credits from being applied to tuition paid to institutionss with low graduation rates, small numbers of low-income students, and high levels of student debt.

The White House tried to reduce the $1.6 billion-a-year cost to the Treasury, in forgone revenue, of those tax-deductible 529 college savings plans—the recipients of which the U.S. Government Accountability Office says have a median household income of $142,000. The Obama administration wanted to tax withdrawals from the plans, which are now tax-free. That idea, which administration officials said was a response to the fact that the benefit does little to help the lower or middle classes, was branded by Republicans as a tax increase, and was dropped within days.

Now the president has proposed, in his 2017 budget, a seemingly insignificant change in the federal Pell program, which are awarded to students of families earning around $40,000 or less. Colleges and universities apply these grants to tuition first, leaving low-income students little or no tuition costs to claim under the tax credit. The Obama plan would let them use their Pell grants for living expenses first and tuition second, nearly doubling the proportion who would become eligible for those tuition tax breaks from 44 percent now to 82 percent, according to calculations by New America. The Obama budget has already been rejected by Republicans, however.

All of this comes against the backdrop of other money meant for low-income students relentlessly being shifted to their higher-income classmates. The financial aid given out by colleges and universities themselves, for instance, has steadily moved from lower-income to higher-income students. Wealthier students still pay more to attend, but the gap is closing as universities offer deeper discounts to families that can afford to pay the rest of the tuition and whose children went to better high schools and arrive with strong test scores and grade-point averages that are factored into rankings by the likes of U.S. News & World Report.

The proportion of the highest-earning families who get financial aid in the form of so-called merit grants from universities is up from 23 percent a decade ago to 28 percent today, the government’s National Center for Education Statistics found, while the proportion of the lowest-earning families getting aid has dropped from 23 percent to 20 percent.

States, too, have started awarding financial assistance based not only on need, but on grades and other measures, mostly to keep top students from moving somewhere else. Nearly a quarter of state financial aid now goes to students for reasons other than financial need, the College Board reports. As recently as the 1980s, none of it did.

Other state policies also take a toll on low-income students, researchers and advocates contend. The new movement by states to underwrite public universities based on things such as their graduation rates, instead of simply on the number of students they enroll, one study found, has pushed colleges to give even more financial aid to families that may not need it, as they try to attract the students most likely to succeed. Flagship public universities also are increasingly using financial aid as a weapon in their escalating battle to lure out-of-state students, who pay more than in-state ones. One in five public colleges and universities now gives financial aid to 20 percent or more of its freshmen who don’t have financial need, New America reports. Such policies leave fewer seats and less money for lower-income, in-state students.

To try and ease the burden of the loans taken out by 69 percent of undergraduates such as Medina—who now has borrowed $52,912 toward his education, with a year still left to go—the government has instituted a program tying graduates’ monthly payments to their income. Under the plan, which applies only to federally subsidized student loans, any remaining debt is forgiven after 20 or 25 years.

But even this well-intentioned scheme, called income-based repayment, tends to favor wealthier students. That’s because more of them go on to graduate and professional schools, for which even more borrowing occurs, studies show; though they’re more likely to earn high salaries as a result, the income-based repayment scheme slows down their repayments enough that they’re less likely to end up paying off their entire debts before the balance is forgiven, leaving the rest to be covered by the government. “That’s a high subsidy to someone who went to graduate school who isn’t poor,” Delisle said.

Graduates who earn lower salaries, on the other hand, could see the cost of their loans go up under income-based repayment, since it increases the duration of the loan and interest continues to accrue. A borrower making $35,000 a year with about $30,000 in debt would pay 26 percent more, when adjusted for inflation, than called for by the standard 10-year repayment plan, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

As for Medina, he’ll be spending the summer on a side project with a classmate: developing a micro-loan concept they call a “social collective investment option,” encouraging the working poor to save by letting them invest as little as $30 at a time in local small businesses with good prospects for returns. Medina said the idea was inspired in part by his own experience. “How can I fix this?” he said he asked himself. “How can I help my family maximize their income? Help people with very little money make more of it?”

Meanwhile, Medina expects to have to borrow even more next year to finish his degree in industrial and labor relations, with a concentration in developmental economics and social finance. After graduating, he plans to continue working on his social investment idea. At least he knows now how the college-financing process works, he said. But Medina said it still leaves him with self-doubt.

“Is this system really this hard to understand,” he asked, “or is it just me?”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

What Are Massachusetts Public Schools Doing Right?

When it comes to the story of Massachusetts’s public schools, the takeaway, according to the state’s former education secretary, Paul Reville, is that “doing well isn’t good enough.”

Massachusetts is widely seen as having the best school system in the country: Just 2 percent of its high-schoolers drop out, for example, and its students’ math and reading scores rank No. 1 nationally. It even performs toward the top on international education indices.

Education Writers Association

But as Reville and others intimately familiar with the Bay State’s school-improvement efforts emphasized in a panel at the Education Writers Association National Seminar earlier this month, the “Massachusetts story” is complicated. The Bay State’s famous successes are juxtaposed with stubborn achievement gaps and concentrations of poverty that have made across-the-board strides all but impossible. Income-based disparities in academic performance have actually grown over the last decade or so, and last year the state’s achievement gap was the third highest in the nation.

“On the one hand, these first-place finishes and so forth—which are all based on averages—are great, we’re proud of it, but it should be a pretty short celebration in light of the deep, persistent achievement gaps that look a lot like they did when we set out on this,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Massachusetts experiment with transforming public education traces back to 1993, when state leaders decided to set high standards, establish a stringent accountability system aimed at ensuring that students from all backgrounds were making progress, and open its doors to charter schools. And despite some hiccups, it was able to do so largely without all the partisan wrangling and interagency tensions that have notoriously confounded such efforts on a national scale.

The goal wasn’t just to boost performance in some pockets, but to “get everybody there,” Reville said. “Not just in our rhetoric, but in our intent, we said, ‘All means all.’” By 2000, the state also had doubled its funding of public education, when compared with 1993.

Still, as Hardin Coleman, the dean of Boston University’s School of Education, stressed to the EWA audience, the reason the state has struggled to achieve wholesale improvement has to do with phenomena that exist outside the classroom.

The widespread misconception is that “if you say poverty’s a problem … we’re backing off the issue,” said Coleman, who also serves as vice-chair on the Boston School Committee, the district’s governing body. Now that the improvement in Massachusetts is slowing down—and achievement gaps are widening—“I think there’s going to be a change away from a significant primary focus on academic-skill acquisition to those other aspects of what children need in terms of their social-emotional learning … being engaged in school, learning more about themselves, having access,” he continued.

Tommy Chang, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, said at the EWA event that he sees the conversation shifting, too, pointing to the district’s recent appointment of an assistant superintendent of social-emotional learning and wellness.

Echoing national trends, the school system is homing in on how childhood trauma can undermine achievement and developing means for helping kids cope with it. In fact, the district recently received a $1.6 million federal grant to address the early symptoms of trauma in students. Trauma is one of the many barriers, Chang said, that keep disadvantaged students behind. So are things like a lack of access among many low-income families to jobs that pay a living wage and quality health care. Dental disease, for instance, is one of the most common reasons kids miss school. All this explains why Chang and others are now thinking of achievement gaps as “opportunity gaps.”

Still, as much as external factors stymie efforts to lift disadvantaged students’ performance, Chang notably criticized certain district policies in Boston as contributing to those inequalities, including its approach to selective schooling and gifted-and-talented programs. (Chang became the Boston superintendent in July of 2015.)

“In BPS, we start segregating kids at very young ages,” he said, noting that children are separated by ability starting in the fourth grade in ways that often correlate with race and linguistic background. “We have to figure out how we stop doing that at such an early grade level. We are literally tracking kids still.”

It’s no wonder a forthcoming ballot measure that would lift the state’s cap on charter schools is so controversial.

To address the poverty-based obstacles to the goal of “all means all,” Reville envisions differentiating the classroom experience so that it meets kids’ myriad non-academic needs.

“Is it just a coincidence that all the inadequacy in education is aggregated around poor kids or is there something about poverty, which on average is just too strong for the relatively weak intervention for a school to overcome?” Reville asked rhetorically. “That’s one of the problems with our current delivery system: It dismisses or marginalizes or avoids coping with the impact of poverty on the lives of children.”

The kind of high-quality “common school” envisioned by the 19th-century political and educational leader Horace Mann, Reville said, isn’t “enough to rectify the massive inequalities in financial and social capital that exist outside of school.”

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools?

A research team in Chicago has spent a year studying whether students who are taught to be in touch with their emotions do better academically. And they say the initial results are promising.

Perhaps counterintuitively, when kids take a break from a classroom lesson on the solar system to spend a quiet moment alone watching a three-minute nature video, or participate in a teacher-guided breathing exercise with their class after lunch, they seem to become better overall students. That’s likely because the children have a renewed sense of focus, they handle transitions from one lesson to the next better, and they need less time to regroup if they become upset about something, said Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a child-development-focused graduate school in Chicago.

here, but the basic idea is to allow kids, as Moreno told me, to “slow down and not be on automatic-pilot and not be overwhelmed by all the things they could be focusing on.” The idea has been popular in some public and private schools for years, but there’s been little in the way of evidence to back it up as an effective academic intervention, and where studies exist, they’ve tended to focus on older students. Erikson says its ongoing research is the largest study ever conducted, and the only in the country to focus specifically on whether mindfulness exercises improve academic achievement for young kids of color from low-income families.

That focus is important because, if mindfulness proves effective, low-income children of color may stand to benefit disproportionately. Children growing up in poverty are more likely than their affluent peers to be exposed to violence and to experience long-term stress that can derail their academic progress. Some research has suggested that children living in high-stress environments (drug-addicted parents, abusive caretakers, neighborhood gun violence) are constantly on edge, ready to fight or take flight, which can lead to outbursts in class that turn into suspensions and even expulsions, all detrimental for learning. And recent brain science suggests that exposure to stress can shorten periods of brain development, meaning it’s especially crucial to limit stress in the early years when brain growth is rapid.

When disadvantaged kids aren’t focused in class, achievement gaps can widen, and, Moreno suggests, purely academic attempts to close those gaps miss the significant impact that the state of a child’s emotional and social well-being can have on his ability to learn math. For kids who have suffered from prolonged stress or trauma, mindfulness seems to offer a way of “short-circuiting” the fight-or-flight response, Moreno said. It helps kids with the greatest self-regulation challenges adapt to slower, more methodical classroom settings. Moreno said she’s heard from teachers with students who have gone from five or six tantrums a day to none because they know they can go to their classroom’s “calm spot” whenever they feel like they’re spiraling out of control.

Moreno pushes back at the idea, levied by critics of mindfulness in the classroom, that it is a craze designed to turn kids into compliant robots or a form of victim-blaming. “[Proponents] see mindfulness as a way to amp up an education system that will create compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school. Such students can then turn into passive, unquestioning consumers and cooperative workers who will help their corporate employers better compete in the global economy,” wrote David Forbes in Salon. That is not the case, Moreno said. Kids aren’t supposed to be robotic or unquestioning, but an angry or frustrated kid isn’t going to be able to learn as well as a calm, focused kid, so mindfulness is intended to give kids the tools they need to be active classroom participants. In other words, children are supposed to fail occasionally, Moreno said, but they need help learning tricks and techniques for getting back on track. “Mindfulness helps reduce their suffering,” she said.

But does mindfulness really work for little kids? Initial results seem to indicate it can when it’s taught in an age-appropriate way, said Moreno, who has a background in developmental psychology and insists she is “not a yogi.”

The traditional concept of social-emotional learning, a broad category that’s become an education buzzword these days, can be tricky for little kids to embrace because it asks children to think about how they acted in the past and how they’ll behave in the future. Consider a playground spat. After recess, a teacher might say to a first-grader, Why do you think you shoved Johnny off the swings and what would you do next time? Moreno says that’s not a bad thing and it’s proven effective in some cases, but there’s not solid data to suggest specific academic gains. Moreno says the Erikson study is more of a “complete equation” because it aims to take a particular type of social-emotional learning (mindfulness) and target it directly into classroom activities to study the academic impact.

Flanker test, which helps give researchers a sense of cognitive flexibility, something Moreno and other researchers think mindfulness has a positive impact on. Moreno and her team also talk to teachers about their ability to teach well to get a sense of whether mindfulness helps prevent burnout, something that is more prevalent in high-poverty schools than at well-resourced schools.

In the first year, Moreno’s team says the mindfulness program seems to be helping schools that already have a good sense of community, where teachers and students are supportive of each other and committed to learning, go from “good to great.” For the schools that are really struggling, the program “can only do so much,” she acknowledged.

In the Chicago study, the kids are even encouraged to get up in the middle of a lesson if they feel they need to and “refocus” by visiting their classroom’s designated “calm spot.” In an age where teachers face incredible pressure to make sure their kids are reaching certain academic markers, Moreno said that mindfulness was sometimes a tough sell in the beginning. But after a year, she says feedback has been positive and there are signs that suggest mindfulness decreases suspensions and expulsions by giving kids the tools to process their emotions in a productive way. “We should not be using imperfect skills as reason to disqualify kids from membership in the group,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the students in her study have been spending anywhere from 10 to 12 minutes per day on mindfulness exercises. But classes appear to be gaining more instruction time as a result because there are fewer outbursts and disruptions. Some teachers have told her that where their classes used to need half an hour to settle down after lunch, a three-minute mindfulness exercise is now enough. (Moreno was careful to say that the team is still testing this theory and it’s too early to know for sure yet.)

And the notion that mindfulness requires those practicing it to be entirely quiet is false, she said. Kids in Chicago have been participating in music scribble exercises, where they listen to everything from African drumming to classical tunes and then scribble what they feel on paper. Some do stretching exercises, she said. A representative from Chicago Public Schools was not immediately available for comment.

Moreno is pleased that mindfulness is something the government and Chicago schools are open to studying. Teachers face so much pressure to “go, go, go,” she said, that the fact that the school system and Education Department are recognizing that educators need to focus on children’s inner lives to get anything into them academically is “powerful.” But the practice may find its way into more schools around the country because the nation’s new federal education law asks schools to consider some non-academic measures, such as school climate, in evaluating how students are doing. “There’s a productivity to it and a humanity to it, and people are beginning to realize the two are quite compatible and necessary for each other,” Moreno said.

She and her team are under no illusion that mindfulness is going to solve all of a school’s problems, and she’s upfront about the fact that the study is in the early stages. But Moreno’s initial results do seem to indicate that where little kids feel comfortable making mistakes because they have tools for getting back on track that don’t involve a trip to the principal’s office, they are better prepared to succeed as students.

‘The Point of College Is a Credential’

Some remaining thoughts from readers on the question:

This summer I accompanied my mother to her 65th college reunion. Part of the weekend’s program was a video about the Cornell University Class of 1950, the first class that came in with a large supply of veterans on the G.I. Bill. The film had some inspiring cameos about veterans who would never have gotten to college otherwise and the lives they made for themselves as a result. I wonder if our preoccupation with credentialism and the faith in the bachelor’s degree as a gateway to success and wealth is a legacy of that postwar crop of veterans.

Another reader:

I have observed the 20-year trend toward arbitrarily requiring college degrees for jobs that do not truly need them.  I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Human Resources as a profession.

A company’s HR department usually handles recruiting functions, and it serves as the gatekeeper over which skills and credentials are required for a given position.  The trouble is that they have no idea of what it takes to perform well in those positions, and they are absolutely the wrong people to create the requirements.  The actual department heads who are hiring are often very busy and appreciate the HR gatekeepers because it means they have to look at fewer resumes.

I entered the professional workforce in 1979 as a general bookkeeper and later, between on-the-job training and self-study, became a controller.  My husband was an electronics technician and ultimately started his own business.  The ranks of college-degreed professionals in the workforce was a small percentage, and my husband and I, along with many degreeless others, had good careers without a college degree.  It was common.

In the mid-late 1990s I noticed that more and more jobs in finance and accounting wanted bachelor’s degrees in “a related field.”  The CPA designation, once available to anyone who took the appropriate coursework, was changed to require five years of education in accounting.  Only the CMA (Certified Management Accountant via the Institute of Management Accountants) was available to me—but then only if I had a baccalaureate degree.

I did go back to school, majored in history (for the love of it), and obtained my CMA. Once I had a BA, I had opportunities I never had before. My career took off.  Still, even now, although I have been a CFO and now serve as a Corporate Controller for a mid-sized companies, I am viewed to be unqualified for many lesser accounting jobs because I do not have a bachelor’s in accounting or finance.  It’s absurd.

My last two great hires have been experienced professionals without a college degree.  I frequently see articles about open jobs that can’t be filled because of skill deficits and mismatches between the needs of business and the employment pool.  That is also absurd.  Businesses are allowing a department (HR) that doesn’t understand job requirements to set the standards for those candidates.  This harms business and shuts out a lot of really talented, qualified people, relegating them to perpetual underemployment.

Keep stoking this issue. This needs to be changed for our long-term prosperity.

Another would prefer we stop stoking:

So since you’re someone who’s asking the perennial “is college worth it anymore?” question, I thought I’d ask you to look at it from a different angle. My own fascination isn’t with that question, which to my lights has been answered positively, again and again and again—here’s an absolutely massive trove of recent data on the question, for example.

No, my interest is in why journalists are so eager to ask the question over and over again despite the durability of the “yes” answer. It strikes me that our media is really predisposed to find that the answer is no, despite such large empirical confirmation of the value of college.

And I think that’s more interesting: Why do so many journalists and writers want to say that college isn’t worth it, particularly given that almost all of them went themselves?

I, for one, would not say that, especially since I actually used my B.A. in History to a practical end, meaning my first salaried job out of college was writing about history. Eleven years after graduating, I’m still paying off student loans, but they’re definitely worth it, all things considered. The question of whether an M.A. is worth it—that seems much less doubtful, especially given stats like these:

Catey Hill / Market Watch

Indeed, between 2004 and 2012, the amount of debt carried by a typical borrower who had a master of arts degree rose an inflation-adjusted 70%, according to an analysis of data by the New America Foundation. The report says this surge may be thanks to a 2005 congressional move that lets grad students borrow nearly unlimited money for school.

Personally I was fortunate to slip into journalism without going to J-school and rack up more debt. Instead, I got a paid internship at The Atlantic back in ‘07, working part-time to make ends meet and living in a rickety group house. So an M.A. definitely would not have been worth it to me. If you have strong feelings about the M.A. question from your own experience, let me know. Update from a reader:

Your reader who points to a “massive trove of recent data” settling this question should perhaps go back to college himself to learn about statistical inference and the difference between correlation and causation. All the data he points to documents advantages gained by college graduates, but makes no attempt to correct for confounding variables, of which there are many plausible ones.

The most obvious would be family income: people’s whose parents were rich tend to go to college more than those whose parents were poor, and they tend to have higher incomes and better other outcomes later in life. Is it really likely that higher education explains all or even most of those differences? Matt Yglesias ably explains this fallacy.

Furthermore, even if we knew with certainty that college education made people more productive, we couldn’t say with any certainty that it’s worth how much we invest in it, from a social perspective. I made this argument in more detail on my blog a few weeks ago.

I think, taken holistically, it’s pretty clear that getting a college education is worthwhile for most people, but it’s a valid question, and the concern about the growing requirement of bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t really require them is a hugely important issue to discuss.

A University That Prioritizes the Students Who Are Often Ignored

Newark, N.J.—Protests focused on entrenched racism rocked campuses around the country this year. Many top colleges enroll small numbers of black students, and the four-year college graduation rate for black students is half that of whites.

In response, many admissions officers have been scouring the country—and the globe—to attract “qualified” black and brown students, striving to meet diversity targets while avoiding students they consider “at risk” of dropping out.

But a growing group of colleges and universities think that the calculation for who is “at risk” is fundamentally wrong. They not only accept students often turned away by other four-year universities, but also aggressively recruit them, believing that their academic potential has been vastly underrated.

Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey has a graduation rate for black students that is far above the national average. But instead of offering out-sized athletic scholarships or perks to potential out-of-state students, the university is doubling down on a bid for students who are often ignored—low-income, urban, public high-school graduates with mediocre test scores.  

The Hechinger Report

Rutgers offers free tuition for low- and moderate-income Newark residents and local transfer students, regardless of their GPAs and test scores. Its newly minted honors program doesn’t consider SAT scores for admissions. It has put emotional and financial supports in place. Course offerings have been enhanced.

And administrators don’t see their efforts as charity.

“We’re a land grant public institution with a commitment to our state and our city, and that’s the talent we should be cultivating,” said Nancy Cantor, who has been chancellor at Rutgers-Newark for two years. “There’s phenomenal knowledge and talent out there, and that contributes so much to the institution. We don’t have the traditional view that we’re somehow ‘letting these kids in’ to be influenced by us.”

In 2015, Rutgers-Newark’s six-year graduation rate was 64 percent for black students and 63 percent for white students, according to administrators, compared with 40 percent and 61 percent respectively at public institutions nationally.

highest black male graduation rate in the nation in 2013 and the fifth-highest black graduation rate overall. It also had a much higher percentage of low-income students and African American students than the four universities above it.

“These are very talented students who, for a variety of reasons, rarely having to do with their own issues, are going to get bypassed if we don’t draw them into the education system,” Cantor said.

Bashir Ali is one of those students who slipped through the cracks for a long time.

Bashir Ali student at Rutgers-Newark (Meredith Kolodner)

“Growing up in Paterson, I sometimes felt that there weren’t many options,” said Bashir, 52, who will graduate from Rutgers-Newark in December.

He attended a year of community college after graduating from high school in 1982, but it was difficult to find work and pay tuition at the same time. He left to join the Navy, believing it was a better path to a secure future and because it seemed safer than staying in Paterson in those days.

“Race did play a role in my decision not to go to college,” he said, “although not as a personal attack. I watched my peers going to prison, getting shot. I’ve been stabbed … in Paterson it wasn’t easy. Finances, life, it all got in the way.”

Ali meant to finish his degree when he was discharged, but he had bills to pay and eventually two kids, so he went to work. After volunteering at a local school in Newark with children who had discipline issues, and loving it, he was convinced he needed a degree to get a more meaningful and well-paying job. He got his associate’s degree from Essex County Community College and transferred to Rutgers, which he chose for its connection to Newark and so he could study with urban historian Clement Price (who died in 2014).

Ali is vividly aware of how easy it is to get thrown off track, and he credits college faculty for encouraging him and seeing his potential. He also reaches out to other African-American students, especially older males, to help guide them and for support.

median SAT score at Rutgers-Newark is only a few points above the national average.

“You read about honors colleges filtering out students with narrow predictors of success. So who is deemed deserving and capable of an honors education?” said Corlisse Thomas, vice chancellor of student affairs at Rutgers-Newark. “We’re building global leaders from Newark in Newark.”

“A lot of places put a huge amount of emphasis on SATs and ACTs that don’t predict well for these groups,” said Cantor, the chancellor. “If you have a commitment to cultivating this kind of talent, why would you pay attention to those things?”

This year’s HLLC class of 60 was chosen from an applicant pool of 740 students. About three-quarters are from Newark, more than half are first-generation college students, close to half are transfers from community colleges and 80 percent are black or Latino, according to a university dean.

Students in the class Black Lives Matter: HBO series “The Wire” (Meredith Kolodner)

Adegoke Fakorede is one of them. He chose Rutgers because it is close to home, is affordable and has a good debate team. On a Tuesday afternoon in April, he was sitting in a class called Black Lives Matter: HBO Series “The Wire,” listening to an animated debate about how the fourth season of that drama, which focused on Baltimore’s public schools, showed how some characters in the first season—a heroin addict and a gang leader—came into being.

“The kids are going to turn into the adults that the system already failed,” said one student. “The system keeps reproducing the same outcome.”

A professor referenced a previous assigned reading by Frantz Fanon. A young woman described what she saw as the “performance of masculinity.” Some heads nodded, more hands shot in the air. Disagreements ensued and discussion was passionate during the three-hour class.

“I watched the show with my older brother two years ago, and for me at that time it was purely for entertainment purposes, like any other thriller… like The Godfather or Scarface, ” said Fakorede, 18. “We saw drug dealing and killings and these are things that existed around our neighborhood every day outside, but I guess it was better to see it on the TV screen.

“When I got into the class I saw a whole different kind of environment,” he continued. “We’re not watching this for entertainment purposes, we’re watching it because of correlations between issues in the show and issues that exist in society right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s sociological, economic, political issues in it.”

“One question I have is, does the show actually highlight issues or does it make black life a spectacle for people who don’t have to live in that reality to look in and watch and be entertained?” said Fakorede, who graduated from a magnet public high school in Newark.

The students in the classroom were about half African-American and the rest a mix of other ethnicities—Arab, South Asian, white and Latino.

“More than anything I learned tolerance in this class,” Fakorede added.

Part of the Rutgers-Newark overhaul of the last couple of years has included a challenge to the faculty—welcomed by many—to create courses that will better engage students from diverse backgrounds and develop critical thinking and writing skills.

“I worked at Columbia [University], and a lot of those kids are given permission to think critically, but not all of our young people have been,” said Marta Esquilin, the new associate dean for the HLLC. “Traditionally used canons are dominated by white males. You can gain the same skills—critical thinking, civics, writing—through different content that feels more relevant.”

Classes such as Shakespeare and Race, Literature and Controversy, and Love Stories Old and New (taught by a professor of medieval literature), have been added to the course catalog.

Faculty and staff object to the idea that this approach will in any way bring down the academic level in the classrooms.

“Are we dumbing down when we talk about meeting students where they’re at?” asked Sherri-Ann Butterfield, the senior associate dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and a sociology professor who co-teaches “The Wire” course. “Why is that necessarily a lower quality or less rigorous? That’s not what we think.”

Several students said they took practical lessons from the class about Black Lives Matters and “The Wire.”

“What The Wire tries to teach you is that there’s an issue, but it’s not as simple as it seems,” said Austin, who, like Ali, hopes to get a job after graduation helping improve the prospects and opportunities for young people in Newark. “It’s not necessarily a bad cop, it’s the system of how they’re being taught, and how they perform what they’re told to do; the obedience they kind of require and that they’re protected by their own. … You can’t really change the system until you understand how it works.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

One of my children is spinning in a circle, creating a narrative about a princess as she twirls. The other is building a rocket ship out of a discarded box, attaching propellers made of cardboard and jumping in and out of her makeshift launcher. It is a snow day, and I’ve decided to let them design their own activities as I clean up and prepare a meal. My toddler becomes the spinning princess, imagining her character’s feelings and reactions. What seems like a simple story involves sequencing, character development, and empathy for the brave princess stuck in her tower. The rocket ship my first grader is working on needs a pilot and someone to devise the dimensions and scale of its frame; it also needs a story to go with it. She switches between roles and perspectives, between modes of thinking and tinkering.

This kind of experiential learning, in which children acquire knowledge by doing and via reflection on their experiences, is full of movement, imagination, and self-directed play. Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement. A study from the University of Virginia released earlier this year found that, compared to 1998, children today are spending far less time on self-directed learning—moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose—and measurably more time in a passive learning environment.

With so few years under their belts, my 3- and 6-year-old daughters are still learning to inhabit their bodies. They are learning how to maneuver themselves physically, how to orient themselves in space. As Vanessa Durand, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, says, freedom of movement is necessary for children to meet their developmental milestones: “Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.”

Movement allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error. “If you walk into a good kindergarten class, everyone is moving. The teacher is moving. There are structured activities, but generally it is about purposeful movement,”comments Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the author of Taking Back Childhood, describing the ideal classroom setup. In the classroom culture she advocates for, “[Kids] are getting materials for an activity, they are going back and deciding what else they need for what they want to create, seeing how the shape of a block in relation to another block works, whether they need more, does it balance, does it need to be higher, is it symmetrical. All of these math concepts are unfolding while kids are actively building and moving.”

Research has shown time and again that children need opportunities to move in class. Memory and movement are linked, and the body is a tool of learning, not a roadblock to or a detour away from it. Any parent who has brought home a kindergartener after school, bursting with untapped energy yet often carrying homework to complete after a seven-hour day, can reasonably deduce why children today have trouble keeping still in their seats. Many children are getting 20-minute breaks, or none at all. (In Florida, parents whose children have no recess have been campaigning to legislate recess into the curriculum.) Recess, now a more frequent topic of research studies, has been found to have “important educational and developmental implications.” Schools that have sought to integrate more movement and free play, such as short 15-minute recess periods throughout the day, have seen gains in student attention span and instructional time. As Carlsson-Paige points out, “Recess is not a separate thing in early-childhood education.”

Pedagogy of Play initiative at Harvard’s Project Zero, observes that even when adults do incorporate play into learning, they often do so in a way that restricts free movement and agency. “The idea that there should be formal instruction makes it no longer play,” says Mardell. “In play the player is choosing to participate, choosing a goal, and directing and formulating the rules. When there is an adult telling the kids, ‘This is what we are supposed to do,’ many of the important developmental benefits of play get lost.”

The role of play has been established not just as a part of learning, but as a foundation for healthy social and emotional function. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has published widely circulated position papers on the need for developmentally appropriate teaching practices and for reversing the “unacceptable trends in kindergarten entry and placement” that have been prompted largely by policy makers’ demand for more stringent educational standards and more testing.  Some teachers are enacting changes, seeking ways to bring movement back into the classroom. Lani Rosen-Gallagher, a former first-grade teacher for New York City public schools and now a children’s yoga instructor, explains the shift in thinking: “I would have [my students] get out of their seats every 15 minutes and take a Warrior Pose or Lion’s Breath, and then I could get 15 more minutes of work out of them.” This kind of movement, she said, also gives children space to develop self-awareness and self-regulation, to get to know themselves as thinking individuals by connecting with the body.

Play-based preschools and progressive schools (often with open room plans, mixed-age groups, and an emphasis on creativity and independence) are seeing increased popularity. Enrichment programs engaging children in movement with intention (yoga, meditation, martial arts) are also gaining traction.

These kinds of methods seek to give children back some of the agency their young minds and bodies crave, as less play and mobility lead to an uptick in anxiety in ever-younger students and even, according to Durand, a growing number of cases of children who need to see occupational therapists. Mindfulness practices such as guided breath and yoga can help mitigate the core symptoms of ADHD in children, (an increasingly common diagnosis), while the arts encourage self-expression and motor-skill development.

Emily Cross, a professor in the School of Psychology at the United Kingdom’s Bangor University, explains the impact of movement on memory and learning: New neuroscience research, she said in an email, shows that active learning—“where the learner is doing, moving, acting, and interacting”—can change the way the brain works and can accelerate kids’ learning process. While passive learning may be easier to administer, she added, it doesn’t favor brain activity. Cross, whose research focuses on pre-teens and young adults, said she’s found “very clear evidence that when learners are actively engaged with moving their own bodies to music, in time with avatars on the screen, their performance is vastly superior to when they’re asked to engage in passive learning … [There are] striking changes in brain activity when we combine dance and music in the learning context.” In other words, people absorb a newly acquired skill-set better while doing, engaging their bodies rather than simply observing.

These research findings echo the observations and methodologies of educators who promote active learning. As Sara Gannon, the director and teacher at Bethesda Nursery School, a highly regarded play-based preschool in New Haven, Connecticut, that favors experiential learning over direct instruction, in an email notes: “Unfortunately, there has been so much focus on forcing the academics, and young children are being asked to do what they are just not ready to do … Of course, we do teach letters and sounds, numbers and quantities—but through experiences and within a context.  That means, hands-on: counting the number of acorns a child found on the playground, building with unit blocks, sounding out a child’s name as they learn to write it, looking at traffic signs on a walk.” Yet while such developmentally oriented programs may benefit children, for now they’re unlikely to become widespread given the current focus on assessment and school readiness, particularly in underserved communities.

As my girls continued creating their own activity stations and imaginary worlds, the contrast between how children operate versus what is often expected of them was apparent. It would be unwise and impractical to pretend that children do not need any structure, or that academic skills are unimportant in school. Yet it is necessary to recognize that the early-childhood classroom has been significantly altered by increasingly rigorous academic standards in ways that rarely align with how young children learn.

The Challenge of Educational Inequality

Two years into a demanding new era for the American education system, its defining 21st century challenge is coming into sharper focus.

That new era began in September 2014, when for the first time, kids of color constituted a majority of America’s K-12 public school students nationwide. That tilt will only deepen: The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2025, whites will shrink to 46 percent of public school students. Because this shift is most advanced among the youngest children (kids from minority groups already constitute a majority of Americans younger than five), most high school graduates are still white. But the NCES projects that by 2024 minority kids will represent a majority of high school graduates as well.

This demographic transformation frames the education system’s key coming test: extending the opportunity it already provides to kids from the best neighborhoods to those trying to climb from the most troubled communities. Asian American students now equal (or exceed) whites on most key achievement measures. But African Americans and Hispanics, who comprise the vast bulk of the new non-white student majority, still face troubling gaps.

Though long implicitly tolerated, that imbalance has grown unsustainable because those young people constitute an increasing share of our future workers and taxpayers. Unless the U.S. can equip more black and brown young people to succeed, it will face widening inequality, a skills shortage, and growing pressure on Social Security and Medicare as fewer workers earn the middle-class wages that sustain the payroll taxes underpinning those programs. Only boosting the young people already best positioned to scale the ladder won’t meet the economy’s needs anymore.

Recent trends offer some reason for optimism. Since 2000, with little notice, the gap between both African American and Hispanic students and whites has narrowed in the 4th and 8th grade tests in math and the 4th grade reading test conducted for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s common yardstick of student performance. On 8th grade math, the gap since has narrowed for Hispanic but not black students. That’s a significant improvement from the 1990s when African Americans and Hispanics failed to gain ground on most of those tests. Similarly, after changing little from the 1970s through 2000, high school graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students have climbed steadily since 2002 to the highest levels ever recorded.

These results suggest the U.S. may have too quickly abandoned the No Child Left Behind legislation that President Bush signed in 2001 (and President Obama modified with a waiver system that allowed states to trade more flexibility for greater accountability). That law faced opposition from teachers and some parents over its requirements for annual student tests and mandated intervention in struggling schools. But it also required schools to publicly report test results for each racial group and prescribed clear penalties if they failed to improve performance for all students. The test and graduation trends for minority students suggest that pressure had a positive (if often resented) effect.

Under its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act that Obama signed last year, schools still must test annually and report the results by racial group. But now districts will decide how to intervene in under-performing schools. The law will succeed only if communities feel as much urgency about lifting all of their students without the pressure of federal penalties if they don’t.

Even with undeniable gains since 2000, the racial disparities in educational outcomes remain imposing. While 87 percent of white students, for instance, graduate from high school on time, that number falls to 76 percent for Hispanics, and 73 percent among African Americans. And although white, African American and Hispanic students are now about equally likely to start college immediately after completing high school, black and brown students remain much less likely to complete a BA within six years. That disparity hints at the large enduring difference in the quality of the K-12 preparation many minority students are receiving.

Truly leveling the playing field will require difficult changes in the education system, such as greater efforts to ensure that more of the best teachers are assigned to the schools facing the most obstacles rather than those enjoying the most advantages. But it also requires a realistic acknowledgement that schools alone cannot overcome all of the headwinds confronting minority and low-income students.

The gaps in educational opportunity for kids are inextricably linked to shortfalls in economic opportunity for adults. Today about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income. (For whites, the proportion is only about one-third.) As the Stanford University education professor Sean Reardon reported in a path-breaking recent study of test results from every school district, “Of the 1,000 poorest districts in the U.S., only 68 (6.8%) have mean test scores at or above the national average.” Reardon’s powerful findings show that school reforms “might be necessary but … they are not sufficient” to close the achievement gaps, as Southern Education Foundation President Kent McGuire told me at an Atlantic forum on education this week.

Without strategies (from affordable housing initiatives to school-assignment policies) that also combat the economic isolation of so many African American and Hispanic students, the U.S. is unlikely to ever entirely close the racial and income gap in its educational performance. In an information-based global economy—where jobs and opportunity flow to the nations nurturing innovation and skills—all Americans would pay a mounting price for that failure.

The Power of Friendship in Education

AUSTIN, Tex.—Most of the people who grow up in Roma, Texas—a small ranching town on the Mexican border—don’t go to an elite four-year college. The ones who do must move at least six hours from everything they know. They are usually the first in their families to attend such schools. They arrive knowing almost nothing about life in a big city or at a major state university.

“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, told me as we sat at a table in the basement of the University of Texas-Austin with a group of Roma High School graduates who now live in Austin and San Antonio. “It was also liberating.”

I first met Jesús when he was a seventh grader at Roma Middle School, in a town where nearly every family was Mexican American and where I taught English for two years as a Teach For America corps member. When I attended the high-school graduation for Jesús’s class, 88 of my 131 former students picked up a diploma. Of those, many have earned two-year degrees or are working on vocational certifications. Facebook tells me another is a pilot. There is more than one definition of success.

The Hechinger Report

But, against the odds, Jesús and a small number of his classmates pursued and earned degrees at world-class universities. I wanted to know how they did it.

Jesús met up with me at his alma mater sporting running shorts and an acid wit. His friend, and fellow UT-Austin graduate, Tomás González, 23, is tall, thin, and thoughtful. He’s now in medical school. Perla de la O, 22, the only one of the four I taught directly, loves Harry Potter, musicals, and any sort of free festival she can find in Austin. She teaches at a Montessori preschool. And Eduardo Rios, 20, is still in school, studying business. He has a way of catching you off guard with thoughtful ideas you wouldn’t have given such a young man credit for understanding.

“It was a huge culture shock,” said Tomás of moving from Roma to Austin, where Latinos “are 20 percent at most. That’s the first thing I noticed.”

Statistically, there was a depressingly small chance that any of these kids, English-language learners from low-income families living in a rural town, would make it to and through college, let alone a college as prestigious as UT-Austin. Only 51 percent of low-income high-school graduates even enrolled in a two- or four-year-college in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s an ongoing discussion as to how many low-income students graduate, since the government’s first crack at calculating that number last year was way off, but the figure is estimated at between 24 and 68 percent, depending on the institution and whether students take four, five, or six years to complete their programs.

When you ask the young people from Roma what got them through, their answer is unequivocal: friends. And these friends are very serious about being friends. They even named their group “La Raza.” Literally, “la raza” translates to “the race,” but for most Latinos, the meaning is deeper.

“It’s like, ‘our people,’” Tomás said.

“Our gang,” added Perla. Though not a criminal gang, they hastened to explain, giggling a little.

“We just call it ‘the group,’” said Eduardo.

The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial-aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help. When they join other groups—fraternities, the Hispanic Business Association—they go to the first meetings with another La Raza member.

“We help each other with anything,” Perla said.

“You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester—that’s what gets you through, Tomás said. “We are missing a really important power,” he said of arriving on campus as first-generation students from a small town no one’s ever heard of. “Networking.”

Eduardo, the business student, nods. “We have to start our own networks from scratch. That’s what La Raza is.”

At The Hechinger Report, which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic, we’ve written about dozens of attempts to get kids like my former students to and through college: microgrants, college counselors, programs to help students graduate in four years, community-college guaranteed-transfer programs, pushy moms, and investing in individual students like they’re a promising stock option, to name a few. But one of the biggest factors in whether a student graduates from college is almost entirely out of college leaders’ and nonprofit do-gooders’ control: the students’ peer groups.

“We know peer groups are either a key positive motivating force or a key negative force,” said Victor Saenz, an education professor at UT-Austin who studies the effect of peer groups on male students of color. (Saenz, incidentally, grew up in Starr County, Texas, a few towns over from Roma.)

And yet, getting young people to decide to hang out with “the right crowd” is a feat of social engineering few adults have mastered. Campus clubs, intramural sports, and theme-based residence halls are long-standing collegiate traditions, all aimed at helping college freshmen find “their people.” And programs meant to bring students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds together aren’t new either, though the urgency around them is growing.

“For first-generation students, it’s difficult to know what they don’t know,” Saenz said. “We need to do a better job demystifying the process.”

It can seem to adults immersed in the system—professors and administrators—that basic good habits like attending professors’ office hours when students have concerns about class should be obvious. Middle-class students, though they may be in the know, are no better as potential mentors than these adults. It certainly would never have occurred to me at 19 that a classmate didn’t have health insurance or know how to sign up for it. Frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that her parents weren’t handling that for her, as mine were.

Moreover, first-generation students, used to being top students back home, can be afraid to ask questions that make them feel dumb. They’re already well aware they don’t fit in and many are struggling to keep up. Asking for help can feel like an admission of failure.

And there’s enough of that in the first year already. The members of La Raza told me that upon starting college classes they’d quickly realized most of their high-school teachers hadn’t been fully prepared to teach courses like AP Calculus, even though many AP courses were offered at Roma High School. On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent.

“It was a slap in the face,” he said. “We just don’t want to let anyone down. When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure.”

The pressure to succeed that kids like Jesús bring to college can be immense. They are blazing the way into the middle class for their families; families who care deeply, but who are not familiar with the higher-education system. Tomás’s parents, for instance, aren’t sure why he has to spend another four years in school to become a doctor when he just spent four years in school to earn his bachelor’s. That’s not how things worked in their native Mexico. At the same time, Tomás credits his parents and their support for his drive to push harder and higher.

“When you factor in the family piece, the pressures and the guilt, that’s a whole other level than a typical college student deals with,” Saenz said.

When I went away to college and left my Massachusetts suburb behind, I felt no guilt. But leaving Roma is harder.

Seeing friends who have stayed in the area, gone to the local community college, and who live with family doesn’t make Eduardo feel superior. “It makes me kind of jealous,” he said.

“It’s not like we don’t want to be back home,” Perla said.

“We have everyone complaining that ‘We have brains leaving Roma and not coming back,’” said Tomás. “But we can’t come back.”

When I lived in Roma, I imagined the solution to the town’s woes would be for the best and the brightest kids to return and fill the teaching positions held by out-of-towners like me. If only the students here had more teachers from the area, teachers they could look up to, teachers who understood the culture, I thought, they’d be better off. The young local teachers were by far the most popular ones on campus.

But here in the student union, 300 miles north of Roma, the students say the best jobs in their hometown are hard to get if you aren’t chummy with the right people. None of the current teachers are likely to leave what are considered plum jobs, and besides, none of the group members have chosen to become teachers through Teach For America or another alternative certification program. And, they remind me, there are very few other legitimate jobs in Roma for people like them: people with college degrees.

I have written about the complex role of Teach For America in towns like Roma; there are benefits and downsides. But these students, the ones who wanted to go that next mile, to tread the path less taken, say they enjoyed having Teach For America teachers, or “TFAs,” as they called us. We were interesting because we were from elsewhere. We’d left our normal lives for a broader experience of the world, just as they yearned to do. We’d also majored in the subjects we were teaching, so we could better satiate their intellectual curiosity. And they were generous enough to appreciate our fumbling efforts to help. They appreciate the help they’ve had at UT-Austin as well.

The group ran through every helpful program they’ve found here: Freshman Interest Groups, which are now mandatory; Summer Bridge, a program that helps low-income students get used to campus before the first day of school; the Valley Longhorns, a student association for kids from their region; TIP Scholars, a program of the College of Natural Sciences, and so on. They keep going. There are special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors, and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your college,” Tomás said he tells younger students now. “There are resources, though they may not do a good job of putting their name out there.”

“Don’t be afraid to join organizations,” Perla added. “Freshman year, everyone needs help.”

“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.

Saenz hopes that schools and professors can start doing a better job of reaching out to students like Eduardo and his friends, so they aren’t left to find everything themselves. “We have to step up,” Saenz said. “We have jobs because they’re here.”

But the young people I spoke with don’t expect others to step up for them. In fact, their big idea for what could be done better for kids like them is that they—the members of La Razashould establish a more formal mentoring program for high-school kids in Roma who want to go away to college.

And though the group is happy to share credit for their success with everyone who ever lent them a hand, it seems clear to me that they did the hardest work themselves. It’s incredible, I told them, that they had independently formed the best possible organization to get them through college.

They smile, shrug.

“I thought we were unique,” Eduardo said, “but then I met a lot of people from El Paso.”

Turns out, there are El Paso parties, El Paso potlucks and an El Paso Facebook group. There are more students from that much bigger border town and they have different accents, but as far as looking out for each other, Eduardo said: “They are just like us.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Being Black at America’s Elite Public High Schools

On Martin Luther King Day in January—a day set aside to honor a man who fought against racial injustice—two black students at Boston Latin School (BLS) launched a social-media campaign to expose the racially hostile school climate they say exists at America’s first and oldest existing public school. #BlackatBLS soon cast a spotlight on a string of shocking alleged incidents: from verbal slights that disparaged black students’ intelligence and identity, to classmates posting racial slurs on Twitter and Facebook and “saying nigger without fear of being reprimanded,” according to a YouTube video posted by two members of Boston Latin School’s Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge.

The resulting social-media storm touched off a range of responses. Mayor Marty Walsh promised to investigate the allegations. Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang called for systemwide professional development to train school officials to respond to and handle complaints of racism. “In recent months, BLS has taken steps to improve cultural proficiency at the school,” said a spokesperson for Boston Public Schools in an email. “This has included providing educational opportunities for students, faculty, and families to engage in dialogues around issues of race, diversity, and social justice in safe spaces; improving procedures to report bias-based incidents; and mandatory professional development on cultural proficiency among other efforts.” And the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston announced an independent probe into possible civil-rights violations at Boston Latin School. Meanwhile as the events in Boston unleashed a series of difficult conversations on racism and campus climate, the national dialogue on black and Latino students in highly selective high schools remains centered on access and admissions.

In March, New York City’s Department of Education released the demographic breakdown for next year’s freshman class at its eight “elite” public high schools, where admission is based exclusively on test scores, and the numbers continued a dismal trend. Black and Latino students comprised a tiny fraction—according to Politico New York, just over 3 and 5 percent respectively—of the students admitted, in a school system where black and Latino children are 70 percent of all enrolled students. An unscientific analysis by Slate found similar patterns in other districts, such as New Orleans and Fairfax County, Virginia. Black and Latino youngsters were vastly underrepresented in selective high schools as compared to their numbers districtwide, and Asian students were significantly overrepresented—underscoring the complexities among student-of-color groups. Yet as educational-rights activists and elected leaders focus on diversifying enrollment in highly competitive schools, scant attention is being paid to the racial and cultural atmosphere in these institutions, and how welcome black and Latino students are made to feel once admitted to some of the country’s most elite public schools.

The Cutthroat World of Elite Public Schools

Omekongo Dibinga graduated from Boston Latin in 1995, and said up until the 10th grade he felt invisible. “I barely had any black teachers. The only time I seemed to get attention was if I was getting in trouble.” He moved from year to year “unnoticed and unacknowledged” until his sophomore year when he got more involved in student leadership. By senior year, Dibinga was the president of the student council and recounts his last few years at BLS as “unapologetically black.”

However, when he ran for senior class president, things took an alarming turn. As he wrote in a January blog post, on election day some of his white classmates allegedly put white sheets on their heads—distinctive attire worn by the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan—to protest his candidacy. “A typical day at Boston Latin for me does indeed dovetail with what I read from current students,” he said, including the complacency and inaction of school administrators following incidents of racism like he experienced.

Earlier this year, similar accusations were leveled by black students at New York’s Brooklyn Technical High School—a highly ranked selective public high school—who charged the principal and faculty with minimizing acts of racism at their school. In the aftermath of #BlackatBLS, headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta apologized for her “lack of urgency in addressing racial tensions” and reaffirmed her commitment to providing a safe and discrimination-free school environment.

loss of affirmative action because of a court ruling in the late ’90s. Since then, the percentage of black enrollment has plummeted: of the nearly 2,400 students enrolled at Boston Latin, 9 percent are black and 12 percent are Latino; blacks and Latinos represent 76 percent of students in Boston public schools overall. “The more of us there are, the more impact we have,” said Martin, a 1997 BLS grad. “There will always be enough white kids. Most of them will never experience what it’s like being the only one.”

Balancing the underrepresentation of his culture inside school with cultural pride outside school is something that Matthew Mata, a Latino senior at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, navigates daily. Throughout his high-school years he says he’s witnessed the equivalent of what was reported at Boston Latin. “The fact that only a few Latinos get the opportunity to receive a fully resourced education [which means] extracting me from my culture … and people who I can easily identify with” only accelerates racial tensions, said Mata, who travels from an “artistic Mexican neighborhood” to attend one of the most selective schools in the city.

To better meet the needs of its students of color, Payton hired a director of student engagement and formed a club—Payton People of Color—as a place to talk through racial and social issues affecting students. Mata sees it as an attempt to be more inclusive, but believes a club can only reap limited benefits: “There shouldn’t need to be a club so students feel safe [but instead] classroom environments where they feel safe.” He added that what elite schools like his need are opportunities for school staff to grow in their racial and cultural consciousness, through student testimonials and mandatory teach-ins on racism. “I believe that in order to confront an oppressive system, you must at times confront [administrators and teachers] with uncomfortable conversations to hopefully get your message across.”

On the heels of the controversy at Boston Latin, faculty at Boston University’s School of Education initiated a series of dialogues to jumpstart exactly what Mata advocates. Sherell McArthur, an assistant professor at BU, said the timing was auspicious. As she and her colleagues contemplated how to engage the BU community in critical conversations on racial justice, the group learned of the racial tensions at Boston Latin.

“Schools of education must do a better job of ensuring that issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice are values of their teacher education programs,” said McArthur, noting that they otherwise run the risk of producing teachers who ignore, or don’t know how to tackle, racial discrimination and bias. “We have the language to discuss bullying, except for when race is involved,” she said. When white students use the n-word in the classroom, hallway, or cafeteria, and it is heard by educators or brought to their attention and disregarded, McArthur said it “makes those educators complicit in the verbal, psychological, and emotional assault on [black] students.”  

One of McArthur’s partners in the project was Christopher Martell, a clinical assistant professor, who said BU’s education school has refocused its courses and student teaching to specifically prepare teachers for urban and multicultural contexts. As a white teacher educator, Martell sees it as part of his mission to prepare beginning teachers to be allies for students of color. “It means helping teachers learn to listen to their students and their parents … and think of ways they should address issues of inequity. It is making this a main theme in our teacher preparation courses, instead of an add-on.”

Dibinga, the Boston Latin graduate, now works as a diversity and inclusion consultant, leveraging his years as a black student in an elite public school into helping schools like his alma mater become more culturally competent. “As a student, I gave it all I had, but as an alumnus, I hope to provide guidance, leadership, and perspective to anyone I am able to reach. Principals and teachers need to realize that it’s not about creating safe spaces, but rather free spaces for their students.”