The Town That Decided to Send All Its Kids to College

BALDWIN, Mich.—College was never much of an option for most students in this tiny town of 1,200 located in the woods of the Manistee National Forest. Only 12 of the 32 kids who graduated high school in 2005 enrolled in college. Only two of those have gotten their bachelor’s degree.

That was just a decade ago. Now, nearly everybody who graduated from the high school here in June is off to a four-year college, a community college, or a technical school. Kindergarten students talk about going to college. High schoolers take trips to campuses around the state and, at a raucous assembly each spring, reveal to the school which colleges they’re going to attend.

So what changed? How did one of the poorest counties in Michigan, a state that’s struggling, accomplish such a turnaround?

What changed was the introduction of the Baldwin Promise, a fund which in 2009 offered to pay up to $5,000 a year for any student from the Baldwin public schools to attend a public or private college in Michigan. Now $5,000 might sound like a pittance when compared to the $31,000 private college now costs annually. And it’s not much when compared to the Kalamazoo Promise, unveiled in 2005, which was funded by anonymous donors and, as a “first-dollar” scholarship, pays for 100 percent of tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in Michigan and can be added on top of Pell Grants. The Baldwin Promise is a middle-dollar scholarship, which means it comes after the student has applied for Pell Grants and institutional scholarships.

But the Baldwin Promise came with a change in the way the community talked about education, something that may have been more valuable than cash. From the day students start kindergarten, they’re coached to excel so they can go to college. In elementary school and middle school and high school, students, their parents, and the community, think about college and life after Baldwin schools. If nothing else, the Baldwin Promise effectively marketed college to a town that seemed fairly ambivalent about it before.

It’s unclear if the Baldwin Promise will have long-lasting results—students may yet drop out—but its successes and failures are important as states such as Tennessee and Oregon launch programs that try to market college to their residents by making two years of community college free. President Obama proposed a similar plan in January, saying in his speech thatin America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few.” On the campaign trail, too, candidates say that every American deserves the opportunity to have a college education, and that the nation needs to educate its young people to stay competitive. The story of Baldwin begins to answer the question: What does it look like if everyone in a community goes to college?

 * * *

Baldwin is a town that swells in population during fishing season, when tourists come and catch trout, salmon, and bass. For the rest of the year, it’s a small place where everyone can’t help but know everyone else, since they run into one another at the town’s ice-cream shop or the baseball fields, where teams play on long summer nights. The school system is tiny, with the elementary, middle, and high schools located on one campus, the type of place where a kid on the football team can change clothes during halftime to take up his place playing drums in the marching band. (The then-president of the National Honor Society, Alec Wroblewski, did just that until he graduated in June.)

Passing through Baldwin on the way to a fishing trip, one might not think it’s the type of place that would dream big. The houses are small and some are in disrepair, and the busiest spots in town, at first glance, seem to be the gas stations. Baldwin is the county seat of Lake County, where 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty level, according to census data. That’s the second-highest poverty level in the state of Michigan. Just 8 percent of people living in Lake County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 25 percent of the state of Michigan.

But Baldwin did dream big. The Baldwin Promise was the brainchild of a resident named Rich Simonson, a Baldwin native who left the area for his career in politics, during which time he ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in Michigan. He returned to Baldwin to retire, and one day while having breakfast with friends at a local restaurant, Simonson came up with a proposal: Why not ask everyone they knew to give some money to the community so that every local student could go to college? His friends were skeptical, said Ellen Kerans, who was at the breakfast, but he was dogged, and went about asking everybody he knew for $500. The Kalamazoo Promise had wealthy anonymous donors, he said, but Baldwin had its community, and they cared about their town and wanted to invest in it.

The main street of Baldwin (Alana Semuels)

He convinced school employees to donate and summer residents too. People who couldn’t give $500 up front could enroll in a payment plan. The group set a goal of $140,000, and they surprised even themselves when they raised $160,000, Kerans told me.

“We thought this was the most important initiative we’d ever have, and we had to support it big,” she said. “It would revitalize the students. It would make them feel like they have a promise, they really could go to college.”

(Simonson passed away in 2012 and left an endowment that supports the Promise Fund.)*

The effort came around the same time that the Michigan legislature and Governor Jennifer Granholm passed a bill creating 10 Promise Zone designations, low-income communities, in Michigan. Being designated a Promise Zone by the state allowed districts a unique tax-capture mechanism that enabled the districts to keep revenue that otherwise would have gone to the state and instead give it to students in the form of college scholarships. Simonson successfully lobbied to have Baldwin designated as one of the 10 districts.

Taxes slumped during the recession, and by law a district was required to show it could fund the first two years of the Promise without state money. Few of the 10 designated districts could pay out money to students.

Not Baldwin. By 2010—the first year that Baldwin high-school graduates received the promise—14 students of the graduating class of 23 enrolled in college. The previous year, eight had enrolled out of a graduating class of the same size. Baldwin was the first district of the 10 to start giving out scholarships.

The Baldwin Promise is more than just $5,000 a year for four years of college. It brought with it a complete change in how the town viewed education. Just as elementary school and middle school were in Baldwin, college was a right for everyone.

Stiles Simmons came in as superintendent in 2011, and embarked on a huge curriculum overhaul. There was no coherent aligned curriculum, and no written curriculum at all when Stiles came in. So he hired a consulting company to come in, audit the curriculum, and work with teachers to create a new one. The new plan makes sure that students leave one grade level prepared for what comes next, in every subject, he said.

Then, Stiles focused on the discipline issues that teachers and parents said were distracting students during class time. He hired a “behavior-implementation specialist” and says that disciplinary incidents are down 60 percent.

Baldwin Senior High, as it’s called, recently added an AP class, in environmental science. It encouraged students to “dual enroll” in West Shore Community College, 30 miles away, and ran a bus from Baldwin to the community college. This year, it is offering a class affiliated with Ferris State University, which will take place on Baldwin’s high-school campus.

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Wroblewski, the football-playing drummer and National Honor Society president, took a math, history, English, and psychology class at West Shore Community College, and says he’s less worried about starting school in the fall since he’s had community-college experience.

“Things did change in school. Kids started to want to go to college and the teachers knew that and then the kids started to realize, ‘We have to learn that to be ready for the harder classes in college,’” Wroblewski told me. “That’s the biggest change here.” Wroblewski was the first Baldwin student to be accepted to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in more than 10 years. He decided to go to Eastern Michigan University and enroll in the honors program there.

Baldwin’s town center (Alana Semuels)

Stiles also overhauled the school calendar to reduce learning loss over the summer; now students have a six-week summer break, a two-week fall break, and a mid-winter break.

The changes go down to the kindergarten level. Now, when 5-year-olds enter Baldwin Schools, they’re tasked with creating an image of themselves, wearing a mortarboard, made out of construction paper. Those faces, black, white, and brown, are pasted onto a giant banner, “College begins with Kindergarten,” in the elementary school’s main hallway.

Sue Moore was a second-grade teacher at Baldwin’s elementary schools for 43 years, before retiring in June. I ran into her at a baseball field in town, where a bunch of Baldwin residents were watching their team battle a neighboring town for a softball championship.

In the past, elementary-school teachers wouldn’t really speak about college, Moore told me. But now, students learn about opportunities outside Baldwin from the time they start elementary school all through middle school and high school, she said.

“I think the kids are more aware of their opportunities now,” she said. “Before, they didn’t know what to expect after high school. Now they know.”

Part of the reason they know is Ayana Richardson, an an effusive, put-together woman with two master’s degrees who runs the high school’s College Access Center. Richardson runs college tours for Baldwin’s middle- and high-school students—day trips to close-by schools for the younger kids, and overnight visits to Detroit or other far-off campuses  for ambitious students who had applied. She invites representatives from different Michigan colleges to speak at the high school on Tuesdays, and next year Eastern Michigan University is offering on-site admission at Baldwin Senior High, meaning a representative will come to the school, let the students apply, and inform them whether they’ve been accepted the same day. She created college events on almost every day of the week, including College Culture Wednesdays, at which people come in and advise students on budgeting and living on their own and College Rep Tuesdays, when representatives from universities come and visit the school. And she also instituted Decision Day, a big assembly where seniors walk out into an auditorium and announce where they’re attending, to cheers.

Baldwin’s Decision Day board (Alana Semuels)

The College Access Center, the room where Richardson works with students on their applications, was just white walls when she arrived, she told me. Now, its walls and ceiling are decorated with Michigan college mascots and its drawers are jammed with pamphlets about scholarships and brochures from universities all over the state. In the hallway, just below the photos of graduating classes dating back more than 50 years, a bulletin board features pictures of members of the graduating class and a list of the colleges that accepted them.

All of this support and coaching can have a profound effect. As Daekwon Fisher, a 19-year-old who graduated from Baldwin Senior High in 2014 put it, the Promise “put less fear in people’s hearts about going to college.”

“It took a lot of stress off me,” he told me. “Stress off my momma too—she didn’t have to worry about it as much.”

Once students leave and head off to college, Richardson stays in touch, sending them follow-up emails and letters to make sure they’ve met with their academic advisor and that they utilize the resources available to them on campus. If students start college and drop out, the community’s investment is wasted, she said, so it’s in their best interest to make sure their students succeed.

“We want to make sure that our investment is actually working,” she told me. “I think it’s a whole pipeline.”

And this has been something of a challenge for the Baldwin Promise. It’s a lot easier to enroll in college than it is to finish it.

Students miss home, or decide they want to take a break from school and earn some money. They find that living away from home is expensive, as are books, and that it can be difficult to focus on schoolwork. Students must have a 2.0 GPA in their classes to continue to receive the scholarship. Only two of the 14 students who enrolled in the fall of 2010 have received bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

But though that number may seem low, data shows that Promise scholarships have very real results on college completion. In Kalamazoo, for instance, students who received the Promise were one-third more likely to graduate college within six years of finishing high school compared to their pre-Promise peers, according to a study released in June by the Upjohn Institute.

Middle-dollar college scholarships also have a big effect, said Michelle Miller-Adams, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University and a research fellow at the Upjohn Institute who has studied the promise movement. She calls it the “trading-up” phenomenon: Students who once would have gone to community college now try out a four-year college, those who might have thought college isn’t for them will try out a community college or technical school.

“A bunch of students who would not have gone previously are giving it a try. Those who used to go to community college and transfer now go straight to four-year,” Miller-Adams said. “All along the range of academic ability, there’s this trading-up phenomenon.”

Clockwise, from top right: Reese Drilling, Jheresa Lewis, Nicole Mooney, Alec Wroblewski (Alana Semuels)

That was the case for Jheresa Lewis, a quiet student who is the eldest of five children, who breaks into a smile when she talks about her college plans. Her father was incarcerated for much of her life, and money was always tight—she’s working a construction job this summer to earn money. Lewis applied to and was accepted at a number of schools, including West Shore Community College. She was leaning towards going there, since she could still live at home and because her father had said it seemed like a good deal when they visited there on a college tour. But during one of Baldwin Senior High’s college visits, Lewis also visited Oakland University, near Detroit, and loved the campus, the school, and the graphic design program there.

So Richardson pushed her to apply to scholarships and keep Oakland in her sights. With the Promise and other scholarships, Richardson argued, Oakland was within her reach. She could follow her heart and not worry so much about money.

“Not to say that going to a two-year is beneath someone who has a high GPA, because everyone goes to a two-year for different reasons,” Richardson told me. “But I think, and always thought, that she would do well at a four-year institution.”

Lewis is attending Oakland in the fall.

Some of the changes haven’t been popular with all Baldwin residents. Lynn Murtland lives across the street from the school, and has a daughter and two granddaughters in the Baldwin school system. She says the school district has started to kick kids with disciplinary problems out of school, forcing them to go to another town. Her daughter, who is about to enter ninth grade, says the school only cares about students who get good grades or have money or excel at sports. The college trips, she says, are only for the kids without any disciplinary problems.

“They don’t try—they just kick them out and send them somewhere else when they’re a problem,” Murtland told me.

And there is some controversy about Promise-type programs, and even about programs like Tennessee’s that pledge free community college tuition. Most low-income students can already get mostly-free community college, after all, since they can get tuition breaks and Pell Grants to cover the cost of tuition. It’s living expenses and books that are expensive, and many students end up dropping out because they can’t afford the books, said Debbie Cochrane, research director for The Institute for College Access and Success.

To some, the promise is just a “wrapper,” a way to simply market the idea of college. But in Baldwin, that wrapper is a big deal. That’s because it comes with the knowledge that the community is pulling for you.

This is important for students as well as parents. After Richardson started working in the College Access Center, parents would come in with their kids and tell her they didn’t know how to fill out a financial-aid application form, because they hadn’t been to college and didn’t know the procedure. They thank her for her help and say they want their kids to go to college.

“I think what has happened is that everyone is talking about this college thing, saying, ‘Mom I want to go on this trip to XYZ, we’re going to visit this college’,” she said.  “Just the pure communication change of the things going on makes the parent want to know and understand.”

The difference is easy to see in Baldwin. I met with a parade of students who are in Baldwin public schools or just graduated, and their ambitions seemed boundless.

Nicole Mooney just started her senior year in school, and is looking at schools in Florida and Tennessee. She wouldn’t be allowed to use the Promise at those schools, because they are out of state, and both of her parents work at a grocery store, but she’s hoping to get scholarships based on her grades and test scores. She’s already looking forward to the opportunity to study abroad, maybe in Brazil, and thinks she may want to eventually be a doctor or a nurse and work for Doctors without Borders.

Baldwin schools (Alana Semuels)

Reese Drilling is a hyperactive sophomore whose mother is a teacher in the school system. He’s already signed up for dozens of college brochures and emails, and has decided he’s going to get a free ride to whatever university he chooses. He attends school board meetings religiously, and already spends much of his day at the College Access Center. He remembers watching the local news when the Promise was announced, and hearing a student interviewed who wanted to be a video-game designer, and now could go to college to pursue that ambition, thanks to the Promise.

“I’ve never forgotten that. Here’s somebody who never thought they could go out and do what they wanted to do,” he told me. “In that moment, to see somebody say, ‘Hey, I can do it, and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me.’ It was amazing.”

Drilling says if he doesn’t go in-state to the University of Michigan, he might want to go to Harvard or UCLA.

For a school where no one had been accepted into the University of Michigan in years, those sound like big ambitions. But with the changes since the Promise, they just might be attainable.

That’s the other thing that Miller-Adams’s research indicates. Promise scholarships can bring together a community and make it pull together in ways it never has before.

“The pool of money serves as a catalyst for a lot of other things,” she told me. “At least as important is that messaging: ‘We believe in education, we’re going to support our youth.’ That’s just as important as the money itself.”

That message made all the difference for Shavonne Copeland, who was raised by a single mother and, though she always wanted to go to college, struggled in high school to believe that it was possible. She nearly dropped out of high school, and “was ready to give up on myself,” she told me. Then Ayana Richardson told Copeland that she saw potential in her, and that she wanted her to go to college, and coached her to apply.

“She made me cry. She made me realize how much my potential was, and I couldn’t see it,” Copeland told me.

Copeland applied to community college, and then, when her mother got sick, decided to stay in Baldwin and work for Richardson and the College Access Center for a year. She started Muskegon Community College in 2013 and is about to finish up there and transfer to Michigan State, where she plans to major in political science and minor in photojournalism. She’ll be the first person in her family to attend a four-year college. She works two jobs, one for a counseling center at the school, another on the night shift at a group home.

She hopes to become a Supreme Court justice someday.

This article has been updated to clarify that Simonson’s bequest supports the Promise Fund along with other initiatives.

Why School Should Start Later in the Morning


The CDC weighs in: Early class times are taking a toll on adolescents’ health and academic performance.

Jason Reed / Reuters

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For the first time, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging education policymakers to start middle- and high-school classes later in the morning. The idea is to improve the odds of adolescents getting sufficient sleep so they can thrive both physically and academically.

The CDC’s recommendations come a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to adjust start times so more kids would get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of nightly rest. Both the CDC and the pediatricians’ group cited significant risks that come with lack of sleep, including higher rates of obesity and depression and motor-vehicle accidents among teens as well as an overall lower quality of life.

“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” Anne Wheaton, the lead author and epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Population Health, said in a statement. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

In more than 40 states, at least 75 percent of public schools start earlier than 8:30 a.m., according to the CDC’s report. And while later start times won’t replace other important interventions—like parents making sure their children get enough rest—schools clearly play an important role in students’ daily schedules, the report concluded.

While the federal recommendation is making headlines, the data on the potential risks of chronically tired adolescents isn’t new information. Indeed, the research has been accumulating steadily for years, including some recent large-scale studies.

As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported in April, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement “finally put to rest the long-standing question of whether later start times correlate to increased academic performance for high-school students”:

Researchers analyzed data from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming and found that shifting the school day later in the morning resulted in a boost in attendance, test scores, and grades in math, English, science, and social studies. Schools also saw a decrease in tardiness, substance abuse, and symptoms of depression. Some even had a dramatic drop in teen car crashes.

Here’s what the research shows: Adolescents’ “internal clocks”—the circadian rhythms that control a human’s responses to stimuli and determine sleep patterns—operate differently than those of other age groups. It’s typically more difficult for adolescents to fall asleep earlier in the evening than it is for other age demographics. And while teenagers are going to bed later, their school start times are often becoming earlier as they advance through middle and high school.

In a landmark study  in 1998 of adolescent sleeping habits, the Brown University researcher Mary Carskadon followed 10th-graders who were making the switch to a 7:20 a.m. start time, about an hour earlier than their schedule as ninth-graders. Despite the new schedule, the students went to bed at about the same time as they did the year before: 10:40 p.m. on average.

Carskadon’s team found that students showed up for morning classes seriously sleep-deprived and that the 7:20 a.m. start time required them to be awake during hours that ran contrary to their internal clocks. Fewer than half of the 10th-graders averaged even seven hours of sleep each night, which is already below the recommended amount. Indeed, Carskadon’s team concluded the students bordered on “pathologically sleepy.”

So, if the science is so strong, what’s getting in the way of changing the policy?

Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior, notes that passionate arguments abound on both sides of the debate—just about all of which she’s heard over the years. In some districts, the start times are largely dictated by local transportation companies, with school boards and superintendents contending they lack the funds or authority to change things. Meanwhile, parents are often reluctant to have teens start later, whether because they rely on having older children at home in the afternoons to take care of younger siblings or because they’re concerned that it will interfere with extracurricular opportunities. Indeed, there’s always a vocal chorus warning that later start times will hurt high-school sports.

But none of those worries override the reality that, as Carskadon put it, “everybody learns better when they’re awake.”

Implementing later start times can be feasible without causing major disruptions, as many school districts have demonstrated, Carskadon said. But it requires that all stakeholders commit to what’s often a time-consuming process of finding creative solutions, which, she added, isn’t always easy.

The medical writer and mother of three Terra Ziporyn Snider, who’s emerged as a national advocate for later start times, also cited widespread challenges hindering schools from making the switch. Getting school systems to change takes more than just presenting scientific evidence, said Snider, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Education Writers Association.

Does Going to a Selective College Matter?


For many majors, not so much.

Jason Reed / Reuters

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It’s a familiar scene, a high-school student anxiously opening an email or letter that hopefully contains good news: admission to his or her college of choice. The ritual has become a recognizable part of American culture, one that plays out in movies and hyper-emotional commercials. Economists agree that going to college matters a lot for future earnings. But does the sender of that envelope matter?

That depends—for certain majors, going to a top-tier institution is invaluable. But for many career paths, it just doesn’t matter where a person got his or her education, according to a recent study from Eric Eide and Mark Showalter of Brigham Young University and Michael Hilmer of San Diego State University. The researchers compared the earnings of individuals from schools with different selectivity rankings, controlling for their majors and their level of degree attainment (e.g. those with solely bachelor’s degrees were compared to other’s with solely bachelor’s degrees) 10 years after they completed undergrad.

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According to their results, school choice matters the most for business majors. Those who attended top schools earn 12 percent more than their peers who went to schools that were in the middle of the pack. And grads from those mid-tier institutions earned 6 percent more than their peers who went to the least-selective schools. For social science and education majors there was also a significant boost that came from attending a better-ranked school.

By contrast, engineers who went to the most selective schools enjoyed only a marginal earnings benefit over their peers at mid-tier institutions. And while humanities majors at the most elite schools enjoyed higher earnings than peers at the least selective schools, there was virtually no difference between top-tier and mid-tier earnings. For science majors, the prestige of a school mattered least of all. The authors found that the sciences exhibited the “statistically weakest earnings differences for a given major across college selectivity types.”

Though they don’t provide conclusive reasoning for these discrepancies, the researchers do share a few thoughts. For instance, they suspect that business majors at the most prestigious schools may benefit from better internship opportunities and more robust networks than their peers at lower-ranked schools. And sciences may involve more standardized major requirements, meaning that the core competencies taught are essentially the same no matter where a student winds up. That can mean that for many careers, majors trump alma mater when it comes to earnings.

So should Americans just forget about their entrenched beliefs about prestigious colleges?  It’s not quite that simple. Ten years out, those who graduated from highly-ranked schools earn more than their peers who went to less selective schools. That’s because there are lots of other factors at play. For instance, those who go to high-ranking schools are also more likely to obtain advanced degrees. Though a student who graduates with a degree in chemistry at Harvard would probably wind up earning about the same as someone majored in chemistry at a lower-ranked  state school, the Harvard grad is more likely to go on to obtain a Master’s or Ph.D., pushing their future earnings higher. And attendees of the nation’s top-ranked schools are more likely to graduate in the first place, according to Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

For those headed toward careers where elite networks rule, school choice is more important since selective schools provide access to the companies and individuals necessary to further one’s career.  Who attends these schools? Largely, wealthy kids who’ve had better access to the types of education, test preparation, and extracurricular activities that help them gain entry, says Kim Weeden, a sociology professor at Cornell University. Rich kids also have the ability to build their resumes via unpaid internships, an easier proposition for students whose families can help support them.

These are important considerations especially given the rising cost of a college education, and the increasing amount of debt young people are taking on to graduate. Carnevale says that while more elite schools can boost a student’s standing in a particular region or industry, for most people just graduating from a college is what matters most.

How States Rank on High-School Graduation Rates


Nationwide, the percentage of students getting their diplomas is at an all-time high. But while some states have made incredible strides, others have struggled to keep up.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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More students are graduating from high school than ever before, and that number could rise again with this year’s seniors.

The national graduation rate for the 2012-13 school year was 81 percent, which was up from 80 percent the year before and 79 percent the year before that, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This sort of growth is possible as a result of the huge improvements in the numbers of black and Latinos getting their diplomas. But it’s also due to specific state improvements.

Where Dropping Out Is Going Up

If this trend continues, the national graduation rate could reach 90 percent by 2020, according to a report from Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins University, which is part of a coalition that’s spearheading the initiative to meet that goal. But stagnation in certain states could keep the national average down.

National Journal ranked and graded the states based on how their graduation rates changed between 2011 and 2013.


1) Nevada

2011: 62 percent

2013: 71 percent

Grade: A

Despite having a graduation rate well below the national average at 71 percent, the state has improved drastically from its 62-percent graduation rate in 2011. Part of that growth is due to the 11.4-point increase in Latino graduation rates over the three-year period.

2) Alabama

2011: 72 percent

2013: 80 percent

Grade: A-

Alabama is on track toward reaching a 90-percent graduation rate in the coming years, boosted by improvements among its large black enrollment. The gap between black and white graduation rates was narrowed by 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2013.​

3) New Mexico

2011: 63 percent

2013: 70 percent

Grade: A-

The graduation rate among Latinos in the state rose 9 percentage points over the three-year period. Considering that Latinos comprise 57 percent of enrollment, that gain was a boost for the state’s overall numbers. Poverty remains a difficult issue for the state. Around half of its students live in high-poverty areas, well above the national average of 20 percent. The overall graduation rate is still low, at 70 percent.

4) Utah

2011: 76 percent

2013: 83 percent

Grade: B+

Part of the growth in Utah is due to the 13.4 percentage-point rise in Latino graduation rates between 2011 and 2013. The state already has an above-average overall graduation rate of 83 percent, and it continues to rise.

5) Georgia

2011: 67 percent

2013: 72 percent

Grade: B+

Around 3 percent of the nation’s high-school students live in Georgia. With one of the largest enrollments in the country, growth in the Peach State certainly helps the national average. But the state’s average still lags at around 72 percent.


1) Arizona

2011: 78 percent

2013: 75 percent

Grade: F

Graduation rates among Latinos dipped into the 60s, hurting the state’s overall graduation rate, as Latinos make up more than 30 percent of high-school enrollment. A state-level phenomenon could also be to blame for the decrease, since each school district in the state went down.

2) Wyoming

2011: 80 percent

2013: 77 percent

Grade: F

Wyoming is one of the 10 worst states for graduating low-income students, despite its small population. The graduation rate for Latino students also went down 3 percentage points.

National Journal

3) Illinois

2011: 84 percent

2013: 83 percent

Grade: D

Considering that 4 percent of the nation’s students live in this state, the graduation-rate stagnation should be concerning for the overall outlook of U.S. graduation rates. The gap between white and black graduation rates continues to widen, along with that between low-income and high-income students. The graduation rate among black students declined 3 percentage points as well.

4) New York

2011: 77 percent

2013: 77 percent

Grade: C

New York’s four largest districts are seeing declining graduation rates, while the state’s average, at 77 percent, is still below that for the country as a whole. The graduation rate for Latinos is 20 points below the overall national average. (South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington would also get a C for their stagnant graduation rates.)

5) Wisconsin

2011: 87 percent

2013: 88 percent

Grade: C+

Even though the graduation rate is well above the national average, the state still didn’t do much to close the gap between black and white graduation rates.

Beyond the Pros and Cons of Redshirting


When it comes to delaying kindergarten entrance, there’s lots more at stake than a single child’s competitive edge.

Ted S. Warren / AP

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If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you probably remember the argument he makes in the book’s first chapter: In competitive situations, a person who’s relatively older than the others will probably be the one who wins.

Gladwell centers on a real-world example in which almost all of the players who had been selected for a Canadian Hockey League team had birthdays in the first four months of the year. Why? In Canada, Gladwell reasons, the cut-off age for participating in the sport is almost always January 1. A child who, say, turns 11 on January 4 would still play alongside a child who turns 11 much later in the year—and at that stage in life, there are typically significant distinctions in physical characteristics and abilities between two such kids. Gladwell concludes that in Canada, the world’s hockey capital, this policy puts the two children on two very different paths from the get go; the older, more physically developed one gets selected for all-star teams, which means better coaching, resources, and practice opportunities, and, ultimately, a better shot at the pros.

This phenomenon, according to the 2008 book, extends far beyond Canada and hockey. Hence, Gladwell’s famous case for academic redshirting: the increasingly popular parental practice of delaying kids’ entrance into kindergarten. According to some research, between 4 percent and 9 percent of kindergartners are redshirted annually. And while some scholars have suggested that redshirting doesn’t do much of anything—at least in the long run—Gladwell contends that this assumption is false. Rather, this dynamic persists in insidious ways, locking “children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years,” he writes, pointing to a widely cited 2006 study that found that cut-off dates can even have an impact on whether or not a child ends up going to college.

The Outliers and the 2006 study are often credited with putting redshirting on the public’s radar. But some experts say its origins trace back as far as the 1980s, amid increases to kindergarten-age requirements and shifts in parenting culture. Up until then, kindergarten was seen as a lighthearted environment where youngsters would be engaged in playful, creative activities while being gradually acclimated to basic academic topics (like shapes and colors) and skills (holding a pencil and using glue). Kindergarten attendance still isn’t required in 35 states, and nearly a fourth of kindergartners nationwide are only enrolled in half-day programs. Despite all that, early-childhood education has become a source of some of the most polemical debates surrounding American schooling.

The emphasis on high-stakes testing of education-reform initiatives such as No Child Left Behind exacerbated what researchers in 1988 identified as escalating academic demand in kindergarten classrooms. In part because of those public-policy changes, though also because of fiscal incentives and mindset changes, more and more states started moving up their cutoff dates. In 1975, just nine states required students to be 5 by the start of the school year; by 2005, the number had grown to 33. Data from 2008 shows that 17 percent of children entering kindergarten that year were 6 years or older.

Arguments for redshirting abound in academic journals, opinion pages, and parenting forums; arguments attempting to debunk those those theories are almost just as widespread. On top of a slew of academic studies, it’s been the subject of multiple posts in The New York Times “Motherlode” blog, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and ABC’s Good Morning America, among others. The Huffington Post even has an entire landing page devoted to the topic. It’s clear parents (and educators and economists and policymakers) want a verdict on the merits of the practice.

There are scholars who echo Gladwell’s conclusions, arguing, for example, that relatively young students are disproportionately diagnosed with learning disabilities or more likely to underperform on standardized tests. Yet there are other scholars who contend that relatively older students are more likely to drop out of high school or commit a felony offense by age 19 or that they tend to have slightly lower overall educational attainment. One study, meanwhile, found that age diversity in kindergarten classrooms is beneficial in itself; relatively young students, it suggested, have better outcomes when they’re learning alongside relatively older peers.

A new study published in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy offers perhaps the latest piece of evidence that redshirting is little more than a silly fad—or, as one pair of economists put it in 2009, a “suburban legend.” The new study, by Cornell’s Kevin Kniffin and Ohio State’s Andrew Hanks, looks at whether redshirting influences the likelihood that a child will eventually obtain a Ph.D. The fact that this degree is held by less than 2 percent of the U.S. population makes it a meaningful metric, the researchers say, because it reflects an exceptional combination of academic achievement and ambition; its exclusivity also makes it somewhat comparable to Gladwell’s hockey-selection data. The study found that redshirting has virtually no impact on Ph.D. attainment.

What’s more, it could even undermine a future Ph.D.’s potential lifetime earnings. Based on their analysis of approximately 14,500 freshly minted Ph.D. recipients, the researchers conclude that a student who isn’t redshirted could end up earning $138,000 more over the course of his or her lifetime than someone who is. Assuming redshirted students get their doctorates a year later than they would’ve had they not had their schooling delayed, they get a year’s head start on their salaries, which for a first-year Ph.D. recipient averages about $58,000. “The compounding effect” of that $58,000, namely annual inflation over 30 years, causes that difference to accumulate.

These findings clearly offer striking contradictions to previous analyses. And in a way that only complicates efforts to draw conclusions about redshirting. After all, a lot can happen over the course of a child’s educational trajectory: The age at which that child learns how to write the alphabet and count to 100 is just one among an infinite number of factors that could wind up determining his or her success, many of which are nearly impossible to control. Still, despite the cost of an extra year of childcare and the muddled research on its merits, parents continue to redshirt “as a voluntary act to gain a comparative advantage,” write Kniffin and Hanks, while others even time pregnancies to ensure their kids are relatively older than their peers.

The new study is compelling enough to suggest that all the kindergarten-age hullabaloo is, at the very least, a tad overblown. “People who were or are relatively among the youngest in their classes shouldn’t feel stigmatized or disadvantaged because of their age,” Kniffin said, noting that he and Hanks deliberately made the study free for anyone to access to ensure laypeople can peruse its findings, too. “We would like to think that [with] this evidence, parents would feel a little less anxiety; it should provide a dose of anti-anxiety medicine for them.”

But it seems unlikely that the new study will actually help parents loosen up as much as Kniffin would like. Many of today’s savvy child-rearers are entrenched in a cycle that starts with what some have coined “The Rug Rat Race,” employing a plethora of tactics aimed at giving their kids a competitive edge by the time they reach college. And in some ways that’s often because they feel like they don’t have much of a choice. Roughly half of all states now require schools to conduct kindergarten-readiness exams—as do selective private schools, where even kindergarten can easily cost thousands of dollars in tuition. “So-called success in school is a high-stakes enterprise that weighs on the minds of parents from the time the baby is born, or even sooner,” writes the Vanderbilt professor Stephen Camarata in his new book The Intuitive Parent.

This parenting phenomenon—and its unintended socioeconomic consequences—is where Kniffin and Hank’s study may hold particular relevance. Parents redshirt for a variety of reasons, typically because they fear their children aren’t adequately prepared for kindergarten. The concern is understandable, and often valid, given the range of developmental patterns at that age. And it makes sense that the practice is most common for children born within a month of the given state’s kindergarten cutoff date. (Children’s developmental variation also helps explain why state kindergarten-age policies—which range from July 31 of the year a child enters school to January 1 of the school year—can be so controversial.)

Nonetheless, redshirting is most prevalent among highly educated parents, as they’re the ones who are most likely to be aware of school-entry laws. These families are also the most likely to send their children to preschool—and afford an extra year of tuition. Children whose mothers have bachelor’s degrees or higher are almost twice as likely as those whose mothers have less than a high-school diploma to attend a center-based preschool program (79 percent versus 43 percent), according to a recent report from The Century Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. That could ultimately mean that, for many of the parents who opt to redshirt, their fear of sending underprepared children to kindergarten “is all a bit of a tempest in a teapot,” as the Cleveland-based New York Times contributor Sharon Holbrook put it earlier this year.

In fact, redshirting could mean that a preschool-educated 6-year-old is learning alongside a low-income 4-year-old who’s never stepped foot in a classroom—a kid whose vocabulary may be 30-million words smaller than her wealthier peers. Even if that 6-year-old was indeed a little “underdeveloped” at age 5, delaying his entry into school could contribute to the kind of incongruity that fuels detrimental discrepancies in achievement—gaps that expand and evolve over time. The Society for Research in Child Development reported in 2002 that, notwithstanding some evidence in favor of redshirting, doing so may be “disadvantageous for low-income children, who already begin school with relatively poor cognitive skills.”

So, while it may not clear up the redshirting debate, the new research might help spur the socially conscious parent to resist the temptation to redshirt—on the grounds that doing so is not only unnecessary but can put educational attainment further out of reach for the child’s less-fortunate peers. Maybe The Outliers is right in “drawing attention to [the] ways in which individual success is interdependent within an ‘ecology’ of others’ activities,” suggest Kniffin and Hanks. But it’s far from clear whether relative age has much to bear on a child’s future success. And absent a consensus, it may be best to hold off on redshirting, if only in the interest of playing it safe.

As Kniffin concluded, the new study’s findings suggest that “parents can relax a little.” In fact, perhaps the key takeaway is that they should.

Hillary Clinton’s Smorgasbord Approach to Student Loans

Hillary Clinton excels at devising policies tailored to appeal to wide swaths of the electorate, and her latest major proposal—reforming higher-education financing—is no exception. The plan is largely stitched together from other recent efforts to address the daunting $1.2 trillion owed by Americans with student loans, incorporating popular ideas from both sides of the aisle.

The New College Compact, her campaign estimates, would cost the federal government $350 billion over 10 years. It aims to make public colleges debt-free for students, to cut interest rates for people struggling with debt from loans taken out to pay for college, and to expand some existing aid programs to cover more people.

Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation last summer that would have allowed borrowers to refinance their loans at current rates. Her proposal was blocked by Senate Republicans because it relied on hiking taxes on millionaires. She and others argued that it made little sense that Americans can refinance almost any other type of loan, but not student loans. Clinton’s plan includes much of Warren’s refinancing proposal, but relies instead on capping tax deductions.

The Populism of Hillary Clinton

Warren’s plan was dismissed by many conservatives, including Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, as a political stunt. Alexander, though, was simultaneously pushing an alternative proposal, which focused on procedural reforms. His plan would have streamlined the application, helped families understand the loan process, and decreased the bewildering array of options for repaying student loans. Clinton’s plan pursues much the same set of goals.

Other items on the long list bundled into Clinton’s proposal include allowing low-income students to use federal Pell grants on living expenses, making sure students complete their degrees, and making two-year community colleges free—which President Obama proposed earlier this year. It also incorporates a version of Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal’s plan to help those duped by for-profit colleges reset their student loans, and to tighten the regulation of such institutions.

In addition to cobbling together elements of prior proposals, Clinton’s compact does, in fact, include some relatively novel ideas. It would expand the AmeriCorps volunteer program (started under her husband) from 75,000 to 250,000 participants, enlarge a program that aids veterans pursuing degrees, and allow nontraditional students seeking to advance or shift their careers to draw upon federal aid.

Bernie Sanders’s proposal for “free tuition” might sound more ambitious than Clinton’s “debt-free tuition,” but it doesn’t sound more viable. And Clinton offers enough to avoid alienating liberals who advocate moving toward the models of completely free college utilized by many European countries. On the right side of the aisle, she’ll have an easier time pointing to aspects of the plan that emphasize accountability and innovation—goals already being emphasized by GOP leaders. Either way, her campaign has put together a plan tailored to appeal to a variety of audiences, and designed not just for the campaign trail, but also for a legislative push.

Ironically, however, the breadth of the plan might ultimately prove its undoing. If Clinton were ever to succeed in bargaining for the bipartisan support necessary to pass Congress, a massive, federally led overhaul would reignite tensions by seeking to force regulations onto state and local entities.

After the Affordable Care Act was passed, lawmakers and governors of some states resisted implementing Obamacare—largely by choosing not to set up their own exchanges and by refusing to accept Medicaid expansion. Such resistance had a large price tag for many of those states: A Gallup survey released Monday shows that states that chose to fight Obamacare have much lower rates of insurance coverage than those that accepted it.

In order to receive the billions in federal dollars promised by the New College Compact, states would effectively be required to agree to stop cutting their own higher-education budgets, to gradually increase spending on colleges, and to ensure that no students will have to take out any loans to pay for school. It is easy to imagine conservative state and local officials rejecting this as a gross expansion of the federal government’s power. “Students, taxpayers and voters should react with great skepticism to any proposals that would amount to a Washington takeover of higher education and jeopardize the autonomy and independence that has made our higher education system the best in the world,” a Republican congressional aide already told Politico.

The effects of any resistance would be felt by schools and students in states that choose to fight back. If it follows the same pattern as Obamacare, this would leave states that are already underperforming on higher education with less to spend, even as it rewards many of those that are already excelling. But still, that fight is years out—should a version of Clinton’s plan even manage to make it through Congress.

When Knowledge Is Unforgettable


Adults remember more of what they learned in school than they think they do—thanks to an aspect of education that doesn’t get much attention in policy debates.

Rogelio V. Solis / AP

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I recently found a box of papers from high school and was shocked to see what I once knew. There, in my handwriting, was a multi-step geometric proof, a creditable essay on the United States’ involvement in the Philippine revolution, and other work that today is as incomprehensible to me as a Swedish newscast.

Chances are this is a common experience among adults like me who haven’t stepped foot in the classroom for ages—which might suggest there wasn’t much point in learning the stuff in the first place. But then again, maybe there is.

Research shows that people can often retain certain information long after they learned it in school. For example, in one 1998 study, 1,168 adults took an exam in developmental psychology, similar to the final exam they had taken for a college course between three and 16 years earlier. Yes, much had been forgotten, especially within the first three years of taking the course—but not everything. The study found that even after 16 years, participants had retained some knowledge from the college course, particularly facts (versus the application of mental skills). Psychologists in another psychology study, this one published in 1991, examined memory for high-school math content and had similar results.

These findings, among others, indicate that students forget less than they may think they do. And there’s value in what they remember. These conclusions carry important implications for the subject matter students study in school.

Naturally, knowledge sticks if it’s revisited. For example, one study of MIT students found that physics majors remembered material from a freshman course better than students who majored in subjects unrelated to physics. More striking, though, is that continued use can actually make knowledge indelible. In one rather remarkable study, researchers administered an algebra test among adults who had taken algebra anywhere from months to decades previously. Most of the adults struggled to remember how to do the equations, but those who’d studied math beyond calculus (subjects whose mastery requires an understanding of algebra) could still work basic algebra problems—even if they had not done so for decades. In other words, several years of practicing algebra in more advanced math courses made the former stick permanently.

So why do adults remember some facts they learned in school but not others? For one, the context of a memory—where and when it’s learned—might be forgotten even if the content is recalled. That’s what happens when one recalls hearing a movie is good, but can’t remember who said so. Likewise, a student may remember a fact but not know she learned it at school. And if she hears the same fact many times, figuring out where she learned it first can be especially hard; who first told her that there are four quarters to a dollar? A parent? A teacher? Someone on Sesame Street?

Other times a student remembers the context—he knows he studied French at school, for example—but falsely concludes that he’s forgotten everything. After all, it’s likely that some of the memory remains even if he recalls nothing. This invisible residue of old memories helps a person remember that same material again more quickly than before. Clever research studies on this phenomenon tested Mormon missionaries who learned a foreign language but didn’t use it again for decades; forgotten vocabulary was quickly relearned. Other research in more controlled laboratory situations showed comparable results.

Ultimately, this ability to retain some of that knowledge has practical benefits—and the reason for that has to do with the nature of intelligence.

Intelligence has two components. One is akin to mental horsepower—how many pieces of information a person can keep in mind simultaneously, and how efficiently that person can use it. Researchers measure this component with simple tasks like comparing the lengths of two lines as quickly as possible, or reciting a list of digits backwards. The other component of intelligence is like a database: It entails the facts someone knows and the skills he or she has acquired—skills like reading and calculating. That’s measured with tests of vocabulary and world knowledge.

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ. The question is whether it makes people smarter by building mental horsepower, by adding to students’ database of knowledge and skills, or some of each component. Recent research published in Psychology and Aging shows that people who stay in school for a longer part of their lives are no faster at simple mental judgements (like line comparison) than their less-schooled counterparts. Other research published in Psychological Science shows that high-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower. Instead, schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks.

The aforementioned research also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime.

Traditionally, some educators subscribed to the notion that it doesn’t much matter what students study, as long as it’s hard and they don’t like it. Through the early 20th century, educational theorists believed students should study Latin not because it was a useful language, but because studying it trained the brain to think logically. Although this theory was discarded in the 1920s, the 21st-century version arguably holds that technology has rendered memory unnecessary; what matters is learning to think. Both depict the mind as an all-purpose muscle that gains strength irrespective of the tasks used to exercise it. And both theories, it seems, are flawed.

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention. In other words, perhaps what matters most after all isn’t mental exercise.

Student Protests Around the World


Activists demonstrate against soaring tuition, police brutality, and education reform.

Protesters walk under a giant net and with their hands painted red during a massive march in Mexico City, Nov. 20, 2014. Dario Lopez-Mills / AP

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Students have a legacy of activism, spearheading protests against the Vietnam War and sit-ins advocating for civil rights. Their rallies, marches, and boycotts have been vital to conquering the status quo and advancing conversations on issues ranging from LGBT equality to financial reform.

In doing so, student protesters—in the United States and around the world—have frequently clashed with government and police: the fatal 1970 anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, and the more recent conflict between officers and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, to name a few. Law enforcement’s use of weapons such as pepper spray and Tasers to quell to student protests at University of California, Davis and the University of Warwick, among others, has caused public outrage.

Although American student activism seems to have waned since its heyday a few decades ago, at least one analysis suggests it’s experienced a renaissance in recent years—and that it’s as powerful as ever. In the past year, students in the U.S. not only led #BlackLivesMatter walkouts and “die-ins,” they’ve also tackled a spectrum of other issues, including high tuition costs, university divestment, and campus sexual assault. Roughly 160 protests occurred on U.S. college campuses in the 2014 fall semester alone, according to the analysis.

Unsurprisingly, student protests often highlight the failures of the education system, both domestically and abroad. Ballooning education costs in countries such as the United Kingdom have led students, and oftentimes their teachers, to condemn institutions focused on profits. Last year in Chile—where students have been protesting, mostly peacefully, since 2011—thousands gathered in Santiago to demand that President Michelle Bachelet prioritize education reform and include them in the decision-making process. Recently, two students died after police used teargas and water canons on a crowd fighting for the right to free and quality education in the country, where the postsecondary system is privatized.

A protester reacts as police use water cannons during a demonstration in Santiago this June to demand changes to Chile’s education system. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)
An Al-Azhar University student, member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporter of the ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi dances during a protest against the country’s military and interior ministry in October 2013. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)
A student demonstrator takes part in a march in Mexico City this past July to mark the 10-month anniversary of the disappearance of 43 teachers-in-training who were abducted and reportedly murdered by a drug gang working with corrupt police. (Reuters)
Student activists at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, stage a “die-in” last December as part of the nationwide “Hands Up, Walk Out” protests, demanding justice for the fatal shooting last year of the 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Adrees Latif / Reuters)
Students chant anti-government slogans during a rally in central Athens last November protesting changes to Greece’s high-school exam system. (Kostas Tsironis / AP)
Students attend a June 2015 protest in Santiago to demand changes to the Chilean education system. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)
Georgia Haynes of the Mistory Dance Co. waits before a protest in Ferguson, Missouri last week, one year after the police shooting of an unarmed black teen thrust the city into the national spotlight. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)
A student lights fireworks amidst clashes last month with riot policemen in La Paz, Colombia, during demonstrations protesting the industrialization of the region. (David Mercado / Reuters)
A student at the University of Cape Town takes part in a protest this past March against a statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes on the university’s campus. (Schalk van Zuydam / AP)
In Yangon, Myanmar, student protesters and police officers push each other as the students try to pass a police line during a June 2015 protest against the appointment of military representatives to the country’s parliament. (Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters)
Pakistani Shi’ite supporters of the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO) hold signs and chant slogans during an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 16, 2015, the anniversary of the day Israel was formed and recognized.  (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters)
An Indonesian student holds a poster of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a May 2015 protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta against what they say is the killing of Muslims in Myanmar. (Beawiharta / Reuters)
Students covered in body paint dance during a protest in Valparaiso in November 2011 against the Chilean government to demand changes in its public education system. (Eliseo Fernandez / Reuters)
Students occupy the area near Taiwan’s Ministry of Education in Taipei earlier this month protesting against changes to their curriculum and decorating the streets with white flowers to mourn for a student leader who killed himself. (Chiang Ying-ying / AP)
Demonstrators burn tires to block a street during protests against a bomb attack last month in Suruc, in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey. (Sertac Kayar / Reuters)
Activists of the left-wing All India Students’ Association shout slogans against the Madhya Pradesh state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan during a protest in New Delhi last month against a job scam. (Saurabh Das / AP)

Social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the ongoing battle for LGBT rights continue to shape American politics. They even came up during the recent Republican debate when the moderator asked candidates if they believed racial targeting by police was the “civil-rights issue of our time.”

For students entering college, some of them as young as 17, activism is one of the most effective ways to to influence public policy. Despite widespread skepticism of the feasibility of protest in effecting change, students are effectively harnessing it as a way to engage officials in conversations about the value of education and more.

When Success Leads to Failure


The pressure to achieve academically is a crime against learning.

A student identifies parts of speech in a Latin class. Jessica Lahey

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I’ve known the mother sitting in front of me at this parent-teacher conference for years, and we have been through a lot together. I have taught three of her children, and I like to think we’ve even become friends during our time together. She’s a conscientious mother who obviously loves her children with all of her heart. I’ve always been honest with her about their strengths and weaknesses, and I think she trusts me to tell her the truth. But when she hits me with the concern that’s been bothering her for a while, all I can do is nod, and stall for time.

“Marianna’s grades are fine; I’m not worried about that, but she just doesn’t seem to love learning anymore.”

She’s absolutely right. I’d noticed the same thing about her daughter over the previous two or three years I’d been her middle school English, Latin, and writing teacher, and I have an answer, right there on the tip of my tongue, for what has gone wrong. Yet I’m torn between my responsibility to help Marianna and the knowledge that what I have to say is a truth I’m not sure this mother is ready to hear.

The truth—for this parent and so many others—is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large—we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.

I look at this mother with concern on her face, her eager pencil poised to write down my words of wisdom. I struggle to find a gentle way to explain that the daily nagging about points and grades both perpetuates Marianna’s dependence on her mother’s tendency to problem-solve and intervene on her behalf, and teaches her that external rewards are far more important than the effort Marianna invests in her education. Marianna is so concerned with pleasing her parents that the love she used to feel for learning has been crowded out by her craving for their validation.

Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail

This mother’s hovering comes from a place of love—that’s clear. She wants the world for her children, and yet the very things she’s doing to encourage the sort of achievement she feels will help them secure happiness and honors may be undermining their future success.

Marianna is very smart and high-achieving, and her mother reminds her of that on a daily basis. However, Marianna does not get praised for the diligence and effort she puts into sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry. If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed—no matter what she has learned from her struggle. And contrary to what she may believe, in these more difficult situations she is learning. She learns to be creative in her problem-solving. She learns diligence. She learns self-control and perseverance. But because she is scared to death of failing, she has started to take fewer intellectual risks. She has trouble writing rough drafts and she doesn’t like to hypothesize or think out loud in class. She knows that if she tries something challenging or new, and fails, that failure will be hard evidence that she’s not as smart as everyone keeps telling her she is. Better to be safe. Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning? Kids who achieve academically, but are too afraid to take leaps into the unknown?

Marianna’s mother was extremely successful in school and in business, and she knows the value of that hard work in her own life. Her mother allowed her to fail and play and learn for the sake of learning, but now that she’s parenting her own child, she’s lost sight of the value of struggle. She is too worried about Marianna’s future achievements to allow her daughter to work through the obstacles in her path. She wants to give Marianna everything and yet she forgets that her best childhood experiences likely arose from the thrill of facing challenge, from the moments she lost herself in the trying and, when she failed, trying again to accomplish something all on her own, simply for the adventure and pleasure inherent in learning something new.

I know this mom because she’s just like me. And telling her the truth is hard both because I’m afraid she’ll get defensive and angry, and because it means I have to cop to all the same mistakes in my own parenting. Maybe it’s time to share some truths with her as I figure out where I went astray, and together we can help our kids rediscover their intellectual bravery, their enthusiasm for learning, and the resilience they need in order to grow into independent, competent adults. With a little luck, they will look back on their childhood and thank us; not just for our unwavering love, but for our willingness to put their long-term developmental and emotional needs before their short-term happiness. For our willingness to let their lives be just a little bit harder today so they will know how to face hardship tomorrow.

I take a deep breath, cross my fingers, and tell her the truth.

This article has been excerpted from Jessica Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure.

The Pension Crisis at Public Universities

The University of Illinois history professor Steve Hansen didn’t need an academic analysis to tell him his retirement income was at risk in a state struggling to narrow an estimated $111 billion shortfall in its public-employee pension fund. So, in 2012, at 63, Hansen quit his university job to lock in his benefits before they could be watered down. And another 1,007 fellow employees of the university system—twice the number who had left the year before—did the same.

Perhaps ironically, Hansen has since been called back to the university for a temporary position and is now dealing with budget and staffing issues from the other side: as the interim dean of its liberal-arts college while administrators search for a permanent replacement. Nationally, the retirement rate is on the rise in part because the population is aging.  But “we have started to lose faculty who normally would probably have stayed,” Hansen said. Along with the proposed budget cuts in Illinois this year—6.5 percent for higher education—the exodus of faculty and others from the university “has an obvious direct impact on the quality of instruction and the quality of education,” Hansen said, adding that an infusion of money is the only thing that can reverse the trend. “The obvious place to turn is higher tuition. It’s a terrible spiral.”

While massive state- and city-pension debts across the country have gotten anxious scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, their effect on public universities and colleges has gone largely unnoticed. But an independent board that oversees state and local accounting standards nationwide has recently put into effect new rules, requiring more disclosure of how much the government owes to universities’ retirees. And these requirements are likely to draw back the curtain on huge liabilities that could drag colleges’ balance sheets—which have been slowly improving since the recession—back into the red.

Experts warn that the pension problem could foil the institutions’ promises to contain their costs, and instead result in continued upswings in tuition despite the fewer courses, programs, and services offered—especially at public universities. It also partially explains why such institutions are increasingly turning toward adjuncts.

“We’re no longer really funding students,” said Jane Wellman, a university-financing expert and senior advisor to the College Futures Foundation, a California-based advocacy group aimed at removing barriers to higher education. “We’re funding benefits.”

The crisis in Illinois is in some ways extreme because of how drastically the state mismanaged its pension system. But the problem is playing out across the country. States are collectively on the hook for nearly $1.4 trillion in pension promises and retiree health care, according to the Pew Center on the States. Other estimates put the total debt at as much as $3 trillion. And while many states are scrambling to roll back benefits for current and future employees—raising the age at which a pension can begin to be collected, increasing employee contributions, and eliminating cost-of-living increases, for example—rarely can pensions be changed for people who’ve already retired. That means there’s little that can be done about the costs already on the books.

Many of those retirees worked for universities and colleges. And while most fall under state-pension plans, some are covered by their schools alone. And these schools have similar troubles: The University of California Retirement Plan pension fund, for instance, has a shortfall of between $8 billion and $16 billion, depending on who’s making the estimate. Even if their retirees are covered by state-pension plans, many universities still have to contribute toward the cost—as much as 14 percent of their payrolls at Ohio University and the University of California system. And some observers speculate that states may eventually force universities to pay more toward unfunded pensions.

Some already have. In Texas, where the state previously paid the full employer-pension contribution on behalf of its community colleges, those colleges are now being required to chip in 50 percent of the annual cost. “Universities are worried about that [contingency],” said the Center For Studies in Higher Education’s James Hyatt, who is studying this issue. “They think the states will walk away from their obligations and the universities will have to solve the problem.” In fact, the bond-rating agency Moody’s predicts “a high probability” that states will transfer more of the financial responsibility for pensions onto public universities.

The magnitude of this situation “hasn’t hit yet,” said Hyatt, who formerly served as UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for budget and finance. “But with the changes in accounting rules, people are going to see an impact on the bottom line that will really make this a hotter topic. The pension costs are real costs [that need to be met]. It’s an obligation … If you don’t reduce costs in other areas or increase revenue from other sources, then it will affect the cost of education.” According to Moody’s predictions, retirement obligations, along with rising health-care costs, mean higher-education institutions will continue to see their expenses increase faster than the rate of inflation.

At the very least, universities stand to lose funding when states are forced to pay for pensions instead of funding other expenditures including higher education. “To the extent that pensions and health-care [costs] are increasing faster than everything else, that obviously means there’s going to be less left over for everything else,” said Robert Clark, an economics professor at North Carolina State University, who also studies pension issues.

And as states pay more for pensions and less for universities, students could be the ones who have to pony up. “That’s a logical conclusion,” said John Barnshaw, the senior higher-education researcher at the American Association of University Professors. “You do have to raise revenue on some level, and tuition is where it’s coming from.”

A tuition increase of 25 percent over five years was approved by the University of California Board of Regents on the grounds that the money was needed solely to preserve the pensions of its 60,000 retirees, according to Lawrence McQuillan, the author of California Dreaming: Lessons on How to Resolve America’s Public Pension Crisis. The increase was averted in May by a deal in which the state will pump $436 million into the pension fund over three years. That’s in addition to the $2.7 billion that the university system has borrowed since 2011 to help close the pension gap. That’s also on top of the 14 percent of payroll the university is putting into the account, which the school’s executive vice president, Nathan Brostrom, told the regents was “a huge drain on the campus and medical center operating budgets.”

But all of those allocations are far short of the annual $1 billion actuaries estimate is needed to make the pension fund solvent. “It’s a massive bill they’re facing,” McQuillan said. “And this money’s got to come from somewhere. It either comes from tuition increases, or money from the state, or by diverting money out of other programs—more deferred maintenance, fewer slots for students. It’s going to show up one way or another. And if we don’t pay down this debt sooner rather than later it’s going to get pushed off onto future generations and future students and future parents of those students.”

Public and private universities and colleges alike are also contending with the cost of retiree health care—a benefit that has almost disappeared for the rest of the workforce, where fewer than one in five Americans receives it, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That’s compared to the 90 percent of universities that still offer it, according to the financial-services company TIAA-CREF; more than one in 10 institutions pays employees’ full premiums, and half share the cost with their retirees. (Unfunded liabilities for public-employee retiree health care amount to another $1 trillion nationwide, separate and apart from pension obligations, the State Budget Crisis Task Force estimates.)

Many public and private higher-education institutions are cutting back on their retiree health care, or eliminating it altogether. Michigan State cut the perk for new hires after calculating that, if left in place, it would be a $1 billion obligation that would double every 15 years through 2040, “increasing reliance on annual budget reductions and tuition income.” But getting rid of benefits like these is tricky—and not only because they’re often part of union contracts. When Harvard last year sought to save money by adding deductibles for some services to its retiree health-care plan, among other changes, the faculty voted unanimously in protest against it. (Though the university made some concessions, the changes took effect anyway.)

Meanwhile, some universities took steps long before the pension crisis heightened. Around 2000, the University of Nebraska, for instance, determined that within 12 or 13 years, it would need its entire state-budget allocation to pay for health benefits alone, with no money left over for anything else. So it split off its retiree health care into a separate plan in which recipients, not the university, paid for much higher premiums. “We got truthful with people,” said David Lechner, the university’s senior vice president for business and finance. “Whether it’s retirement or health care, it’s a set of promises we have to look at and decide, are we going to be able to keep those?

Now, he said, with the new national accounting changes, “If you poke around on a few balance sheets, you’re going to see some really, really big numbers” where the pension and retiree health care shows up. For the first time, he said, “These obligations start to look a lot like debt. And that’s going to pull this more to the forefront.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.