De Blasio’s Pre-K Program: A Work in Progress

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program has seen registrations increase by 12,000 children in its second year of operations, with double-digit percentage increases across income levels except for one group: those who need it the most.

New data obtained by ProPublica that compares pre-K registration with a student’s home zip code shows that the program added only 195 kids from the bottom 20 percent of zip codes by household income.

That is an increase of just under 1 percent for families that make less than $38,000 a year. All other income groups saw large percentage increases from 27 percent to 43 percent.

The stark contrast between those at the very bottom and everybody else is important because decades of academic research have shown that children from low-income families who attend pre-K benefit immensely, but those benefits decrease as you move up the income ladder and may even disappear beyond the middle class. The universal pre-K program was a hallmark of de Blasio’s campaign to make free pre-K education a right for every New Yorker and to narrow achievement gaps, which start very early in child development.

“I honestly don’t see how the mayor will narrow early disparities in children’s learning until he focuses more directly on poor communities, lifting low-income families,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor who has analyzed the city’s universal pre-K program and provided ProPublica with his analysis of the newest numbers.

Students in the lowest 20 percent of ZIP codes are still the most represented across the program. They make up almost a third of this year’s 65,000 registrations. And city officials said they expect their numbers to go up. Last year, the Department of Education first announced 51,500 registrations, but an additional 1,620 students ended up enrolling. If history repeats itself (and assuming every single new student comes from the bottom group), enrollment growth in the poorest zip codes would reach nearly 9 percent this year. But even this hypothetical percentage growth would be three to five times less than the growth of the other income groups this year. It’s also 15 times less than the bottom income group’s growth in 2014 when it expanded by 138 percent.

“Once you successfully engage the first layer of poor-income families it gets harder and harder to engage the deeper and deeper layers of families,” Fuller said. “You are now talking about going to the housing projects and knocking on doors, reaching out to the families in Spanish and Cantonese. You are talking about reaching immigrant families who might be mistrustful of government.”

This is exactly the kind of outreach city officials say they are doing.

“We have over 20 full-time people that are dedicated to reaching out to communities all over the city, who speak many languages,” said Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor at the city’s Department of Education who directly oversees the pre-K program. “And they have reached out to tens and tens of thousands of families, not only with live phone calls but by attending community events all over the city.” Wallack’s remarks are from an interview that took place last week before these registration numbers were obtained.

Harry Hartfield, the department’s deputy press secretary, stressed the same point in a statement prepared for this story. “We knocked on doors, called families directly, and went to community events across [low-income] neighborhoods to tell families about our free, full-day, high-quality programs,” he said. “And we got the message out: two thirds of all students enrolled in Pre-K for All are from households below the median income.”

A separate analysis of the data was featured in a story published Sunday. The article touted the mayor’s program with a similar statistic, reporting that 62 percent of children registered this year come from zip codes that are below the city’s median income of $51,865. This is true, but left unmentioned were the disparities between those who are close to the median and those who are very much below it.

Overall, eight out of the 12 zip codes that saw the largest drops in enrollments since last year fall within the bottom 20 percent. Officials note that in some of these zip codes, enrollment in mandatory kindergarten has also decreased, which could mean there are fewer children living in the area. Only four of the 40 zip codes that saw the largest increases this year were in the lowest income group.

While an analysis of median income by zip code provides only a proxy to understand who is actually making use of universal pre-K, this is the data that the city has been willing to release. It has not released income data for the particular families who enroll in pre-K.

This article appears courtesy of ProPublica.

More Minority Students, Fewer Teachers of Color

This past school year was the first time in history that racial and ethnic minority students outnumbered their white counterparts. The U.S. Department of Education has projected that by 2022, non-white students will make up 54.7 percent of the public-school student population, largely due to the national increases in U.S.-born Hispanic and Asian populations.

Despite the fact that more students of color will be filling classrooms at increasing increments every school year, it’s a well reported fact that almost 80 percent of their teachers are white—and it doesn’t appear that that will change any time soon.

According to a recent study from the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank funded by the American Federation of Teachers, the number of black teachers dropped from 2002 to 2012.

As the student population grows more diverse, some attention has been paid to the fact that schools, often in high-minority or urban areas, remain “separate but unequal.” Comparatively less attention is paid to the fact that as the percentage of minority students has increased, the percentage of minority teachers has consistently lagged. From the 1987-88 school year to 2012, students of color have increased by almost 17 percentage points, while the percentage of non-white teachers  had only crept up by 4.9 percent. Arguably, this exponential growth of youth of color in schools, should make the need for teachers of those same backgrounds more critical, and a demand greater recognition of this lack of parity in teacher diversity.

The report looks at nine major cities—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—and noted that the disparity between teachers and students of color has increased in each city from 2002 to 2012. It accounted for the rapid expansion of the private- and charter-school sector, and noted some of the challenges faced by pubic schools, which has lead to barriers hiring and keeping teachers.

The study’s findings are even bleaker considering it found that the declines of black teachers are consistent, and that Hispanic teachers—whose numbers aren’t necessarily falling—are being significantly outpaced by the increases in Hispanic student populations.

“We just had no idea the extent of it. What’s clear from this data is over the last 10 years or so with the recession, if you look at every one of these cities, there’s a loss of teachers—but African Americans are bearing a hugely disproportionate share of the loss,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Shanker Institute told The Washington Post. The number of black teachers in the workforce declined, in varying rates of severity—from roughly 1 percent in Boston’s charter sector and Cleveland’s district sector, to more than 24 percent in both New Orleans sectors and nearly 28 percent in Washington, D.C’s charters and districts.

Between 2003 and 2011, D.C.’s white teacher population more than doubled from 16 percent to 39 percent while black teacher populations contracted from 77 percent to 49 percent—the most drastic reduction among the cities featured in the study. Nationally the number of non-white teachers is growing, but their overall impact may be muddled by the fact that oftentimes they are assigned to high-poverty schools, which may be a contributing factor to high turnover rates. 

These cities represent some of the nation’s largest school districts, and ones that have historically housed a lot of the minority student population—it’s no secret that these under-served populations have faced funding challenges, dismal educational outcomes that stem from inexperienced teachers, and the hemorrhaging of teachers of color.

Black students in Cleveland, for example, make up almost 67 percent of the students who attend public school—which reflects the city’s demographics—but 71 percent of their instructors are white. One hopeful finding was that the number of Hispanic teachers showed consistent growth in all cities except Cleveland over the 10 year period, and a significant jump in Los Angeles.

“The whole effort of the last two decades has been toward minority-teacher recruitment, and it’s been an unheralded victory, really,” Richard Ingersoll, one of the researchers in the study and University of Pennsylvania professor in the graduate education school and a leading expert on teaching-force trends, said to the Post. “The problem is with retention. Minority teachers have significantly higher quit rates than non-minority teachers. And that’s a huge problem.”

In the study Ingersoll cited recession-driven budget cuts; new charter schools opening and shifting students, teachers, and resources from the districts to the charter sector; teacher-turnover rates being higher in charter schools than in districts as the main reasons for the depressed hiring of new minority teachers.

It is no longer a question of, do we need teachers of color? There is no shortage of data that shows that minority teachers not only help improve the outcomes of​ students who share their background, but also that of academic performance of students of all races are improved. The questions now are: What can be done to curb the high-attrition rates for minority teachers, and will addressing hiring disparities for black and Hispanic teachers do enough to equalize students’ attainment levels?

The Educational Bridge to Nowhere

The American system for creating college professors is often criticized for being lengthy, difficult, expensive, and inefficient. Those who complete their Ph.D.s but are unable to find a tenured position—a prospect whose likelihood is increasing given that the number of tenured professors is dropping—are some of its most vitriolic critics. Some within higher education are rethinking their methods for training Ph.D. candidates. Leonard Cassuto, a Fordham University American-studies professor and Chronicle of Higher Education columnist, describes—and proposes solutions to—the messiness of doctoral education in a new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press.

To briefly sum up the widespread criticisms of Ph.D. training, research-focused graduate students in the U.S. in 2003 spent a median of 10 years in school, starting with the time spent in their baccalaureate programs, according to the National Science Foundation. Even if those students receive relatively generous stipends and are able to avoid accumulating massive amounts of debt, a decade can translate into what’s ultimately a very long-drawn out (and sometimes depressing) apprenticeship. Yet, despite an extremely high attrition rate—which according to an earlier analysis by Cassuto is about 50 percent—many of the country’s science graduate programs, for example, overproduce Ph.D.s. There aren’t enough tenured-instructor positions in these fields, (traditionally the end goal for prospective Ph.D.s,) for the number qualified candidates, National Science Foundation data shows.

Various reports suggest that most of the Ph.D.s who do find tenured positions tend to come from a small number of elite programs. Just a quarter of all universities, for example, account for the vast majority of tenure-track faculty in the U.S. in business, computer science, and history, according to a study in Science Advances. In theory, that means those who fail to land one of these coveted positions must think about a new career well into their adult years. The average age for completing a 33, which is rather late to be contemplating a new career.  It can’t be easy to recover from a decade of potential missed salaries and job opportunities outside academia. Some stay in higher education and resort to taking on positions as low-paid adjuncts—what some cynics might refer to as the helots of academia.

A growing number of disgruntled Ph.D.s—Slate’s education columnist Rebecca Schuman, for example—are penning blog posts about their departure from academia, spawning a new genre of essay known as Quit Lit (a trend to which The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost is less than sympathetic). In a viral tirade posted on Vox last week, a tenured professor who’s vowed to leave her job in a year wrote,

In the time that’s allotted to us to in life, we have to make many choices. Opting to pursue an unmarketable career solely because one loves it is an available option. But that decision has consequences. In a university system like ours, where supply and demand are distorted, many promising young people make rash decisions with an inadequate understanding of their long-term implications. Even for people like me, who succeed despite the odds, it’s possible to look back and realize we’ve worked toward a disappointment, ending up as “winners” of a mess that damages its participants more every day.

Had I known sooner, I would’ve given up on this shrinking side of academia many years ago, saving myself plenty of grief while conserving the most valuable quantity of all: time. No one should have to wait so long or sacrifice so much of it for a system like this. Time is money, and we must spend it wisely. Until something is done — something that isn’t just a quick fix, something that looks long and hard at the structure of the present university system and tears it up from the foundation, if that’s what it takes — the academy is no longer an investment of time worth making.

Some critics within academia, however, are a little more optimistic—or less fatalistic, anyway: They’re ready, and calling, for reform. Dan Drezner, a Tufts University professor of international relations, has used his roles at Foreign Policy magazine as a senior fellow and the Washington Post as a regular contributor to prepare prospective Ph.D.s for the challenges of the current job market, urging them to consider abandoning their tenured-professor plans and seek alternative routes to their professional goals. Michael Bérubé, a Pennsylvania State University literature professor and the former president of the Modern Language Association, has figured as a prominent critic of graduate education, writing about the need to convert adjunct positions to teaching-intensive tenured positions. Anthony Grafton, a historian at Princeton and former president of the American Historical Association, has also offered frank commentary on the problems with Ph.D. training, as has the left-wing group blog Crooked Timber, among other sites.

Cassuto joins these pundits’ ranks with his book, which is targeted at the higher-ed community. He argues that the popular press has eagerly highlighted “academic foibles and follies” and exploited the public’s “prurient” interest in the desperate economics of so many recent Ph.D.s. (Does that mean the mainstream news coverage of grad-school is analogous to porn?) He urges his fellow academics to reframe what’s become a exceptionally vexed discussion about the grad-school issues, offer practical solutions, and assume a “caretaker” role with their students—working closely with them and helping them align their studies with their professional goals.

Cassuto spends much of the book describing “the mess,” as he calls it, including the problems typically featured in all that quit-lit: everything from the number of years spent in those programs and the elitist bent of hiring practices to the disappointing job market and the challenges of finishing a dissertation around the time you’re probably ready to have kids. He says that nostalgia and misguided projections have kept academia from appropriately adjust to the shifting university-employment landscape, which had its heyday in the 1960s, when the higher-education system underwent a significant expansion and the job market for professors was strong.

Cassuto’s book has its shortcomings. It spends little time analyzing the circumstances and incentives that created this “mess.” It goes without saying, as Casuto notes, that most professors would probably prefer teaching small seminars of eager graduate students over large lecture halls of hungover undergraduates who are playing video games in class. Graduate-level courses aren’t only easier to teach than are undergraduate classes, leading them, as Cassuto points out, is also more prestigious.

But Cassuto fails to explore whether there are business incentives to keeping grad programs bloated. Citing a New York Times analysis of the growth of graduate-degree programs, the Canada-based English instructor and blogger Lee Skallerup Bessette has suggested that administrators invest in expanding Ph.D. programs because they attract high-profile faculty, who in turn increase the school’s reputation and rankings. Focusing on what he described as Brown’s shift in programmatic priorities, The Daily Herald staff writer Baylor Knobloch also scrutinized the motives for such growth. In addition, there’s the perennial controversy over the exploitation of grad students for low-wage teaching labor. Based on that logic, it would seem that neither administrators nor faculty members have an interest in actively reforming graduate-school education—closing down certain programs in order to shrink the number of Ph.D. spots, for example.

But instead of shuttering lower-ranked graduate programs, a move that Cassuto says would increase the elitism of doctoral education, he suggests expanding the tacit mission of graduate education beyond strictly preparing students for positions in higher education. Faculty, he argues, should offer counseling and unconventional internship opportunities to some students to encourage them to pursue other professions.

Restructuring Ph.D. programs to train students for careers outside of academia would be certainly be tricky. The broader labor market has not yet expressed a huge demand for the kinds of qualifications and specializations (American studies, for example) that are by definition typical of Ph.D.s. What does one do with a resume consisting of treatises on, say, Victorian novels other than to teach others about that topic, to continue a life trajectory already devoted to spending one’s days analyzing and debating Dickens and Bronte? And while it’s true that some Ph.D.s do find soft landings in other careers, rarely do those careers require a 200-page dissertation and extensive knowledge of fascist ideology in the interwar years in Germany—accomplishments that have probably consumed years of a given Ph.D.s life. It’s hard to find practical applications for all those years of specialized knowledge. (My husband—whose dissertation was, in fact, on that aforementioned topic—was one of the fortunate ones: He now works on Wall Street.)

Then there’s the reality that many faculty members’ limited experience outside of academia may make it difficult for them to provide general career advice to graduate students. Cassuto’s proposed overhaul to the graduate-school mission—one that emphasizes greater connections to the world beyond the Ivory Tower—isn’t impossible. But it would likely require changing the deeply ingrained mindsets of its status-quo members—people who’ve been long immersed in the microcosm of academia—creating new employment offices and counselors (and potentially exacerbating existing concerns about administrative bloat), and, of course, undoing parts of the traditional Ph.D.’s rather sacred legacy.

Any reforms need to come from the inside, Cassuto says, to ensure that outside players don’t impose less-than-welcome and misguided changes to an already tenuous system. Perhaps most importantly, Cassuto concludes, the system cannot continue to mistreat Ph.D. candidates: “Put simply, we don’t take care of graduate students very well—and we have consequently lost the trust of many of them along with the general public. Everything I’ve said in this book may be understood as part of an attempt to regain that trust, and more importantly, to deserve it.”

Of course, it’s worth acknowledging that graduate students themselves are at least partially to blame for their predicament, as well. Prospective students have easy access mountains of information and personal anecdotes on the Internet about the realities of the grad-school job market. Who applies to graduate school these days without doing some basic research on what that experience might be like?

These discussions are important, not just for those who have contemplated getting a Ph.D. Terminal master’s programs—those that aren’t designed to lead to a Ph.D.—as well as vocational education at community colleges and technical schools, are also accused of educating people for jobs that don’t exist. A Vox analysis of data on the federal government’s newly released “College Scorecard” suggests that at slightly more than 200 vocational colleges, three quarters of the students earn less than $25,000 even a decade after graduation. Some students in these programs graduate with debt that far exceeds their incomes, making them worse off than before they began their education. Higher education, whether in pursuit of a vocational certificate or Ph.D., shouldn’t be a bridge to nowhere.

Picking Your College Major Hogwarts Style

As many as half of all undergraduates in the United States don’t know what their major will be when they enroll in college. As the scholar Eric St. John once wrote, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major.”

Today’s “undecided” students, however, are by no means wearing that label like a scarlet letter; rather, it’s often seen as a symbol of whimsical youth, of spontaneous self-discovery, of a Tolkien-esque desire to explore: “Not all those who wander are lost” Well, sort of.

In reality, for many students checking off the “undeclared” box when applying to college probably has more to do with instability or apathy or inexperience—but the point is, at least in The Land of Opportunity, undeclared students are ominipresent in lecture halls and dining halls, Solo-cup showdowns and awkward-dorm-sex moments. Some academics see undeclared majors as the epitome of Deweyan education, the last vestiges of America’s one-time liberal-arts sensibility. Indeed, a study from the 1960s study found that undeclared majors were “more likely to emphasize intellectual development as a goal of college” than they were vocational training. And regardless, it’s worth noting that an estimated three in four college students change majors at least once.

But this entire debate is pointless when neither decision nor indecision is even an option. That’s now the case for hundreds of students at the University of South China, which according to a number of news outlets has essentially barred those who are in their second year of the school’s civil-engineering program from selecting their specialties; the program is broken down into seven of them.

Instead, the university—which according to its website offers dozens undergraduate majors in fields ranging from engineering to the liberal arts and serves a growing international population—is forcing all but the program’s top 190 students to choose their majors Harry Potter-style: picking them, as the lifestyle blog Shanghaiist put it, “out of a hat.” Okay, the new policy doesn’t involve a literal hat—but it’s still a lottery-like system that one legal worker, according to the Wall Street Journal, described as “a game for kids in kindergarten.”

Shanghaiist quotes a university spokesperson, Lu Qinghua, offering an earnest and amusingly simple rationale for the school’s widely criticized move: It didn’t have a choice. “If choosing a major is solely based on students’ wants, some majors will be overcrowded and others will have difficulty enrolling enough students,” Lu reportedly said, adding that other institutions have adopted similar policies and that among the 400 or so students who have to leave their majors to fate, the highest achievers can apply to change their specializations after a year of study. People are, of course, pissed, blasting the decision on the Internet and in the news media. Someone quoted by Xinhua said the rule amounts to “discrimination,” while the aforementioned legal worker criticized it as “the product of laziness and mismanagement.”

There’s little doubt that colleges in China (and pretty much everywhere) struggle to keep course enrollments perfectly balanced and workforces perfectly distributed. That’s in large part a byproduct of humanity’s imperfection and what happens when, God forbid, young adults are allowed to study subjects in which they’re interested. Some colleges simply expand course offerings when there’s heightened interest; some form partnerships with third-party institutions or academic programs. And globally, the degree to which students have discretion over their area of specialization varies. Certain countries, for example, in the past have set quotas on the numbers of students who pursue higher education in certain disciplines based on workforce demands.

At lots of U.S. colleges, efforts to avoid problems with supply and demand are, of course, often stymied by bureaucratic dysfunction. And on the reverse, there are certainly some overzealous efforts to diversify offerings. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, lists some of the more, er, niche bachelor’s degrees offered by some American postsecondary institutions in 2008, including: Equine science and management; poultry science; and fiber, textile, and weaving arts. I wonder what an aspiring business major might say if he or she were forced to specialize in the horse industry because there were too many people signing up for Macroeconomics 101.

Of course, China isn’t known for being particularly compromising when it comes to solving its higher-ed pickles: In 2011, the country’s Ministry of Education notoriously announced that it would be canceling all majors that didn’t produce employable graduates—largely programs that didn’t accommodate the country’s export- and manufacturing-based economy. I’m not sure how that plan has played out, but it’s clear that prioritizing the most employable disciplines can be tricky business—and, at least with prestigious U.S. universities, often inconsequential. I know of a former Harvard Folklore & Mythology major, for example, who’s now a successful Wall Street consultant. After all, only about a fourth of college grads in the country have a job related to their major.

I’m no expert on Chinese higher ed, but whoever decided to address the University of South China’s civil-engineering qualms as if it were Hogwarts House-sorting time seems, well, a tad misguided.

Perhaps the kerfuffle at University of South China is emblematic of the reason why postsecondary education in the United States—despite all its administrative shortcomings and financial crises and political mayhem—has yet to lose its spark. Why higher learning is still one of America’s “hottest exports.” Why the country is now attracting hordes China’s nouveau riche—not just those pursuing the “American Dream.” Sometimes, indecision is a luxury.

The Rich Schools That Leave Poor Students Stuck With Debt

New York University is among the country’s wealthiest schools. Backed by its $3.5 billion endowment as well as its considerable fundraising prowess, the school has built campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, invested billions in SoHo real estate, and given its star faculty loans to buy summer homes.

But the university does less than many other schools when it comes to one thing: helping its poor students.

A ProPublica analysis based on new data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students from low-income families graduate from NYU saddled with huge federal loans. The school’s Pell grant recipientsstudents from families that make less than $30,000 a yearowe an average of $23,250 in federal loans after graduation. That’s more federal loan debt than low-income students take on at the for-profit giant University of Phoenix, though NYU graduates have higher earnings and are less likely to default on their debt.

NYU is not the only university with a billion-dollar endowment to leave its poorest students with heavy debt loads. More than a quarter of the nation’s 60 wealthiest universities leave their low-income students owing an average of more than $20,000 in federal loans, the ProPublica analysis shows.

At the University of Southern California, which has a $4.6 billion endowment, low-income students graduate with slightly more debt than NYU’s graduates: $23,375. At Boston University ($1.5 billion endowment), it’s $27,000, and at Wake Forest University ($1.1 billion endowment) low-income students graduate with $29,150 in debt.

This new data on student debt is drawn from numbers that the Obama administration assembled as part of a planned effort to create grades for every college. In the face of fierce lobbying from universities, the administration backed away, but has made much of the data public on a new website called College Scorecard. ProPublica has used that material to create Debt By Degrees, an interactive database that allows you to search information for almost 7,000 schools. The data provides an unprecedented level of detail on the financial burden that the poorest college students face, showing for the first time how much federal debt poor students take on compared to their wealthier peers, and how well these students are able to repay their loans. The database also shows how much graduates earn on average after leaving school.

The implications of these numbers can be far-reaching. Studies have shown that even small debts can increase a student’s chances of dropping out, particularly for minorities and low-income students. Also, federal loans, which are typically capped at $27,000 over four years, often don’t cover the full expense of college. Many students also take on private bank loans or work jobs outside school.

“Student debt is not the same to every borrower,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior analyst at Demos, a public-policy nonprofit. “It can look a lot different to a first-generation student from a very modest economic background than to someone going to graduate school getting a law degree.”

Indeed, undergraduates take a fraction of the loans of graduate students but default at much higher rates. Debt can put low-income young adults at a disadvantage for years to come, limiting a graduate’s ability to save, get a mortgage, or get the job they aspire to. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about households that don’t have nearly as much wealth to fall back on,” said Huelsman.

​* * *

Rebecca Arthur wanted nothing more than to study photography at Tisch, NYU’s arts school. Her mother, however, made less than $25,000 a year working at a nursing home, so Arthur knew the school’s four-year price tag of over $250,000 would be a stretch. When Arthur was accepted, she was shocked—not only because she had gotten into her dream school, but also because the school only offered modest financial aid.

“The first bill was $32,000 and it was more than my mom made in a year,” she said. “Why would they accept me if they knew I couldn’t afford it?”

Arthur tried to crowdfund the remaining amount of her tuition, but it was only when her mother died a month before school started that NYU agreed to take a second look at her financial-aid package. Although the school increased her aid, she has to work four jobs and expects to graduate with more than $24,000 in loans.

“The one downside to NYU is that money is always a big problem,” said Arthur, who is now a sophomore at the university. “People that really want [to go to NYU] and deserve it shouldn’t have to fight for it.”

In response to recent criticism of its financial priorities, NYU says it has more than doubled financial aid between 2002 and 2012 and that average student debt has decreased significantly in the past five years. The school also enrolls a greater percentage of Pell grant recipients than other elite schools. Finally, NYU points out that its endowment is actually quite modest on a per-student basis, since NYU has far more students than many other elite universities.

“NYU is deeply concerned about the issues of cost and debt,” John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, told ProPublica. “NYU has made tremendous strides in improving financial aid.” (NYU’s full response can be found here.)

While NYU students average debt from both federal and private loans has gone down in the past five years, it’s about the same as a decade ago. And though NYU’s financial aid doubled during the decade starting in 2002, its revenue from tuition and fees has nearly doubled as well. Faculty and students have protested NYU’s $6 billion expansion plan, saying more should be spent on financial aid.

A government report released this month along with the data noted just how wide a disparity there can be in the prices poor students pay at similarly selective schools: Poor students pay an average of $8,086 per year at Columbia University ($8.2 billion endowment), versus $25,441 at NYU.

“Schools talk so much about how they’re about helping low-income students,” said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation. “But their words and actions are so different.”

Overall, students at nonprofit universities—which include private institutions like NYU—fare far better than those at for-profit schools and community colleges. One recent study shows that students at public and nonprofit schools typically have lower default rates and higher earnings.

And out of the nearly 2,000 nonprofit colleges that ProPublica analyzed, a handful of wealthy schools do particularly well in serving the needs of low-income students.

Vassar College, with an endowment of close to $1 billion, charges its poorest students a quarter of what NYU does, and they graduate with less than half the debt.

Only a decade ago, Vassar hardly looked different than NYU. However, in 2006, the school hired a new president, Catharine Bond Hill, an academic who specializes in college access and affordability. During her first few years, Hill instituted need-blind admissions, accepting students regardless of their financial background. She also created a policy of replacing loans with grants to poorer students. And to bolster low-income applicants to the school, she initiated an aggressive recruiting campaign in poorer neighborhoods, partnering with pre-existing college-prep programs.

A decade later, these changes have made Vassar one of the most affordable colleges in the country for low-income students. Today, over 20 percent of Vassar students receive Pell grants. That’s double the percentage of low-income students of a decade ago.

“Schools that have the resources should be giving out more in need-based grant aid,” Hill told ProPublica.

Other schools that have helped level the playing field for low-income students include Amherst College and Williams College, both in Western Massachusetts. Nearly 20 percent of students at these schools receive Pell grants, and they graduate with less than $10,000 of federal loans. Berea College in Kentucky charges no tuition and only accepts low-income students.

Hill said that other wealthy schools need to do more to recruit low-income students and to make college affordable for them. A White House report that accompanied this month’s data release notes that poor kids are often discouraged by schools’ sticker prices, and do not know that they might qualify for financial aid.

“We know there are talented students out there and recent work has shown there are ways to get them into our pools,” Hill said.

Harvard ($35.9 billion endowment), Princeton ($20.9 billion endowment), and Yale($23.9 billion endowment) all give generous support and even free tuition to low-income students. But they do not enroll many of them. At Harvard, only 10 percent of the students receive Pell grants. Asked about their modest number of low-income students, a Harvard official said that school is committed to enrolling the best students, regardless of their financial circumstances.

This article appears courtesy of ProPublica. Co-author Sisi Wei was a paid adjunct professor at NYU in spring 2015.

Obama’s New College Scorecard Flips the Focus of Rankings

Since its launch in 1983, the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings have sought to compare institutions using a series of quantifiable metrics, including acceptance rates and alumni donations, that have increasingly come under scrutiny. In 2013, President Obama argued that the rankings actually incentivize colleges to “game the numbers and in some cases, [get rewarded] for raising costs,” encouraging schools to invest extra money in activities such as alumni outreach and in turn theoretically raise tuition. Yet, according to Obama, colleges motivated by these grading systems, largely continued to neglect one key measure: student outcomes. Since then, he’s pledged to change the way colleges are ranked by shifting the focus from institutional prestige to students’ actual academic experience.

Earlier this September, the president unveiled his much-anticipated “College Scorecard” as part of that pledge. The new tool, however, isn’t exactly a ranking system. Instead, it gives users access to extensive federal data on the student-debt and attendance-cost data for more than 7,000 U.S. higher-ed institutions allowing them to compare institutions; students can use the Scorecard to list and sort schools based on the institutions’ on-time graduation rates, school size, and salary after attending, among other factors. The new system—which is based on nearly two years of federal data—doesn’t translate these numbers into ratings.

Thus, as opposed to the ambiguous and often inconsistent definitions and grading categories used by popular ranking systems such as those from U.S. News or Princeton Review, the College Scorecard, backers say, emphasizes each college’s discrete value—or, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, getting the most “bang for your educational buck.” Proponents say it makes students’ academic and employment outcomes more transparent for prospective consumers, allowing prospective students and their families to spend their money efficiently and set aside adequate financial support for their children’s postgraduate studies

“Everyone should be able to find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value—like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans,” Obama said in a speech earlier this month. The tool’s interface, he added, was developed in collaboration with teachers, students, and parents.

Colleges fare differently on the Scorecard depending on the metric. Institutions such as State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Kentucky’s Berea College, and California’s Samuel Merritt University top lists when considering students’ post-graduation earnings and average annual cost, while Ivy Leagues such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale perform well when sorted by graduation rate. The tool also provides comprehensive profile pages for each college or university, detailing the percentage of its students paying down debt and the typical total debt per student, on top of information ranging from demographic breakdowns to lists of popular academic programs. Advocates are touting the launch of the College Scorecard as key to filling in long-standing gaps in data about college institutions.

Still, as utilitarian as the tool sounds, the lack of rating systems for distinct categories means it’s tricky to compare the institutions head to head. While one college might report that its graduates earn especially high salaries, for example, its graduation rate could be substantially lower than another that offers relatively lower returns. And though the College Scorecard certainly garnered substantial public support, a number of college administrators bashed the Obama initiative as misleading and oversimplified; it discounted gains, they said, that weren’t monetary in nature.

Regardless of critics’ motives, their protests evoke larger discussions about the difficulties of assessing higher-ed quality. It’s impossible to capture an institution’s value, the college experience, and its impact on students with a single metric. And perhaps therein lay the danger in the perpetual dominance of the U.S. News rankings, which were (and continue to be) taken by many, as some kind of gospel.

In response to the success of U.S. News, as well as the backlash against it, there has been a massive proliferation of new approaches to college rankings and scorecards. The Princeton Review compiles rankings that integrate student survey responses—with categories like “Best Classroom Experience” and less serious ones such as “Best Stone-Cold Sober Schools.” Money created its own barometer that examines the quality, affordability, and outcomes at different institutions that are seen as having the top return on investment. Washington Monthly’s includes a Peace Corps Rank, a ROTC rank, and a Bachelor’s to Ph.D. rank. ProPublica released a ranking system last week that looked at how colleges were supporting their poorest students, scrutinizing the proportion of low-income students at different schools using Pell Grants and the average discount they’ve received. And perhaps, most momentously, The Chronicle of Higher Education has developed an interactive, which allows users to “Make Your Own College Rankings,” based on variables like “Fat Paychecks,” and “Prestige,” values culled from other publications’ classifications.

The College Scorecard is the federal government’s foray into the mix. “The status quo serves some colleges and the companies that rank them just fine,” said Obama, “But it doesn’t serve our students well—and that doesn’t serve any of us well.”

It ultimately helps add more dimension to a potential answer for the thorny question around the “value” of an education at different colleges. Its data, reviewed in conjunction with that of existing ranking systems builds a more holistic picture of what different colleges and universities have to offer—providing greater guidance on one of the toughest, often most costly, and hopefully, most rewarding decisions many students need to make.

The Reality of Universal Pre-K

As 65,000 4-year-olds start free, full-time prekindergarten today as part of New York City’s ambitious universal pre-k program, questions persist about whether the program is spending public funds wisely. Education advocates and officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration say the $300 million a year program is a success because the city was able to offer a place to every family who asked for one and is building broad public support that will protect the program long-term.

Some experts, however, argue that de Blasio’s approach is wasteful because it includes the children of wealthier families who may reap minimal incremental benefits from government-sponsored early education.

Studies have shown that while low-income children benefit exponentially with pre-school, children raised in high-income families do well regardless because they are naturally exposed to richer educational experiences. “We just don’t have the evidence to back why we would heavily finance pre-k in middle class and upper class communities,” said Bruce Fuller, a public-policy professor at UC Berkeley who is a critic of universal pre-k and who has written extensively about the New York City case. “I think the mayor has virtuous intentions, but I think once he made this ambitious campaign promise, he sort of charged ahead with blinders on.”

A Tale of Two Pre-Ks

City officials insist that in its first year, two-thirds of the slots created went to neighborhoods where the median income falls below the median for the city as a whole. “We will begin, even as soon as this month, to start talking to families that are eligible for next year’s pre-k program,” said Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor at the city’s Department of Education, who oversees the universal pre-K program. De Blasio’s administration originally planned to enroll more than 73,000 children by this academic year, the same number as children enrolled in public kindergarten. “We would love to see [the number] go up from 65,000,” Wallack said “We may get there. We are going to try really hard.”

But Fuller, whose research has been controversial, argues that a significant number of children enrolled in universal pre-k would otherwise have paid tuition for private programs. He surveyed 15 percent of preschool directors in New York City to gauge the number of children who had moved from private pre-k to public last year. Based on the responses he got, he estimates that 40 percent to 58 percent of the new slots created in the first year of universal pre-k were occupied by children who would have otherwise enrolled in private programs.

The city disputes Fuller’s findings and argues that its goal of providing free pre-k to every child is the correct one. “Even assume that what [Fuller] is saying is correct, and I’m not saying it is,” Deputy Chancellor Wallack said, “I think the fact remains we were able to create a system where every family has access, even families that may have made it a priority and paid for prekindergarten before.”

Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said the program’s universality is essential to ensuring its survival, especially given the program’s lack of permanent funding. (New York State pledged to finance it only through 2019.) “The fact that this has been rolled out so quickly has been able to really motivate parents and families in the city to be advocates for universal pre-k,” Potter said. “I think that’s really valuable.”

Most importantly, she argues, is the underlying goal of fostering diversity. “One of the best things that we can do for [disadvantaged] children is to give them pre-school classes that have an economic mix of kids,” she said. “That is something that we know in K–12 education as well, that economically-mixed schools tend to have much stronger outcomes for students.”

This article appears courtesy of ProPublica.

Community College Doesn’t Have to Be the Endgame

Sean Brooks goes to community college, but he already knows that he’ll graduate from a four-year state university, and he even knows which one—the University of Central Florida.

His confidence flows from an innovative Florida program called DirectConnect, which ensures that student transfers to UCF from Valencia College, a community-college system, are automatic.

This unusual arrangement between the two Orlando-based institutions of higher education relieves Brooks of worry about whether his credits will transfer or whether he’ll need to apply separately for a bachelor’s degree in his desired field of construction and engineering. Instead, he can concentrate on his classwork at Valencia, where the 28-year-old husband and father is thriving in the small classes—his calculus course has barely two dozen students—and is the president of the school’s Florida Engineering Society chapter. When he is ready to transfer to UCF, part of the state’s university system, DirectConnect advisers will make sure he has the necessary credits.

DirectConnect was launched in 2006 after Valencia’s president, Sandy Shugart, and University of Central Florida president John Hitt saw a growing need for local residents to have an opportunity for higher education. Over the years, UCF had become more selective—accepting just 40 percent of applicants, down from its historical 72 percent—making it harder for local students to get in. “The demand for higher education all over Florida was exceeding the supply,” Shugart says.

The two college presidents worked out a plan to guarantee Valencia students admission to UCF once they’ve earned their associate’s degree. They hoped it would change the stereotypical view of community college as a school of last resort by making it a sure route to a four-year university and a chance at a bachelor’s degree.

The Next Economy

Better yet, such a pathway is cheaper, saving students a lot of tuition money during their first two years. Enrolling at Valencia costs about $2,500 a year for Florida students, compared to almost $6,000 tuition at UCF, plus any costs for room and board. Most Valencia students live at home.

The low cost enables Sean Brooks to attend Valencia in the first place. Scholarships and grants cover all of his tuition; the income from his full-time job at a local engineering company (which his campus adviser helped him find) helps support his family. He and his wife, a teacher, have a six-month-old daughter.

Like many of his schoolmates, Brooks isn’t a traditional student. Three-fifths of Valencia students are of traditional college age, but the rest of them are older, into their 60s, according to Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student affairs. The student body is more diverse than in most four-year schools. About a third of the students are white, a third are Hispanic, and 18 percent are African American—mirroring the demographic make-up of the Orlando area. Two-fifths of Valencia students are poor enough to qualify for federal Pell grants, which go to low-income students. “We see ourselves as a bridge to help students on the way to where they are going,” Romano says.

Brooks, for one, doesn’t mind the absence of dorms and keg parties. Right after high school, he went to community college in his native Ohio but dropped out. After meeting his wife-to-be at the age of 18, they eventually moved to Florida, where she taught school and he waited on tables and tended bar. He kept thinking about returning to school, until one day he drove past the Valencia campus, about five stoplights from his apartment. He took a placement test and enrolled in the spring of 2014.

The community college’s benefits have proved more than financial. “At Valencia, you get more access to help, tutors, and small class size,” Brooks says. He has developed study habits and an ability to focus that will prove useful at UCF. “Valencia is more of a go-to-class, go-to-the-study-sessions-and-tutors, and then-go-home type of experience,” he explains. “It’s two years of buckling down.”

He speaks with confidence now about his prospects for academic success and for his career-to-come, and credits the community college as the starting place.

That’s just what Shugart, the community-college president, is hoping for. He is already thinking of ways that Valencia might build off its success with DirectConnect to guide local schoolchildren toward college degrees. One of Shugar’s ideas is to establish a region-wide database with information on students from pre-kindergarten to graduate school, to help educators decide where academic intervention would ease a path to college.

The overriding goal, in Shugart’s mind, is to make sure that community colleges keep higher education affordable. “It is safe to say that we are the best bet the students have for inter-class mobility—maybe the only avenue,” he says. “Our job has become more important than it ever was.”

The Laws Targeting Campus Rape Culture

Between now and the time that college students pack up for Thanksgiving break, more sexual assaults will happen on campuses nationwide than during any other time of the year. The “Red Zone,” as this period is commonly known, is a time when new students are adjusting to the novelty and freedom of college life—and are thus particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. Now that a new academic year is starting up, though, some activists and administrators are hopeful that significant changes are underway as a result of new regulations designed to force schools to proactively confront sexual violence on campus.

Some provisions of the federal Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (Campus SaVE) Act, the legislative outcome of years of increased attention and activism, officially went into place in July. The Act was sponsored by Democrats Robert Casey (Senate) and Carolyn Maloney (House) and signed into law by President Obama in 2013 as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. It was hailed as a major win by many activists and covered extensively in the media. This year, as the Act is now in place, there is much less fanfare—but colleges across the country are nonetheless devising new ways to comply amid ongoing debates surrounding the issue.

A Recipe for Sexual Assault

Campus SaVE’s stipulations go beyond what was outlined in similar federal guidelines issued by the Department of Education in 2011: Rather than recommending that colleges develop educational programming, the law explicitly requires all schools to offer “primary prevention and awareness programs” that reduce the risk of sexual assault. The idea is that all students and faculty members should be held accountable for the elimination of sexual violence on campus. In these programs, participants learn what’s defined as consent, for example, and how to recognize signs of abusive behavior. It also stipulates some minimum standards in campus judicial proceedings (for both the defendant and the accused) and mandates that institutions specify the number of dating- and sexual-violence claims filed in their annual crime reports.

“[The act] highlights dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. These are crimes that we know are happening on our college and university campuses. So it requires colleges to actually have specific policies, protocols, and responses,” Allison Kiss, the executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, told me.

What’s particularly novel about Campus SaVE’s education requirements—and what many groups, including The White House’s It’s On Us campaign, tout as the key strategy—is its inclusion of bystander-intervention, the model that emphasizes the responsibility of those standing witness to potentially problematic situations to interrupt in whatever way possible. “Bystander intervention is so natural for this population because when sexual assaults happen on campus they’re typically student on student,” Kiss said. “And they’re happening when administrators aren’t around.”

Traditionally, schools across the country have invested astonishingly disparate amounts of resources in sexual-assault awareness and prevention. Some schools, like Moraine Park Technical College, for example, are launching programs for the first time this year, while others, like the University of Texas, already had Campus SaVE-esque policies prior to its passage. It seems that few institutions, however, fall into the latter category, according to Know Your IX policy coordinator Alyssa Peterson, who noted that the government has never really had a streamlined way to comprehensively track schools’ sexual-assault programs. A major goal of Campus SaVE was to implement minimum standards to make policies more uniform nationwide and ensure that more people on more campuses gain exposure to the complexities of the sexual-assault problem and the most effective means to address it.

But no act of Congress is going to be a cure-all to higher education’s sexual-assault problem. From devising programs and approaches that adequately educate and prepare students to balancing fairness in campus judicial proceedings, there are many strides to be made and questions left to be answered.

To address the first of these concerns, Kiss said, institutions must work toward ensuring the prevention-and-awareness education is ongoing throughout students’ time in college. The reality is that a one-time program at the beginning of the college experience—a time when students can become overwhelmed by the amount of new information being thrown at them—may prove to be ineffective or forgotten. Campus SaVE does instruct colleges to invest in ongoing prevention and awareness strategies, but the challenging part is figuring out how to do that. “The parameters of [the Act] are broad,” Peterson said, explaining that it lacks specific prescriptions on some requirements. The Department of Education has crafted guidance to complement the Act’s mandates, but adapting new regulations into campus-specific policies can be tricky for school administrators.

That’s where organizations like Know Your IX, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), the Clery Center, and dozens of other national and local advocacy groups come into play: They give higher-education institutions access to various resources, such as simplified, common-language interpretations of relevant policy and on-call experts who can provide direction. Their ultimate hope is to help schools implement the most effective policies that will reduce the risk for violence on campus.

But those efforts, too, come with there own challenges. The work of many these organizations is being frustrated by some new legislative battles on the hill, according to Peterson, who oversees Know Your IX’s lobbying efforts. Two pieces of legislation, the Fair Campus Act and the Safe Campus Act (sponsored by Republican House representatives Pete Sessions and Matt Salmon, respectively) were recently introduced in congress in response to concerns among some lawyers and legislators that the current approach to collegiate sexual-assault adjudication—which is based on the DOE Office for Civil Rights’s (OCR) widely cited “Dear Colleague” letter from 2011— fails to provide defendants adequate due process.

The letter has directed schools to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard, which simply requires that evidence show that it’s more likely than not that the respondent committed the offense. Campus SaVE does not codify this standard into law (as a result of opposition some Republican lawmakers), but OCR policy is binding for schools that receive federal funding. Campus SaVE did increase the responsibility of schools to fairly adjudicate claims by including language that allows both parties to have counsel present and requires the arbitrator to have undergone specific training for handling dating and sexual violence claims.

But proponents of the Fair Campus and Safe Campus acts don’t think that’s enough. Because college rape cases are almost never taken to criminal court—like the Vanderbilt University trial I reported on while a student there—they want to see more stringent protections for students who face penalties from their college. Both bills seek to more closely align adjudication standards with those applied in the criminal-justice system: Each would do away with the preponderance-standard mandate—allowing schools to individually choose what threshold to apply—and allow both the defendant and complainant to have access to all evidence being used in disciplinary hearings. And the Safe Campus Act would go as far as to prevent colleges from investigating claims of sexual violence unless the complainant also reports to law enforcement. (Currently, schools must investigate every claim via a Title IX coordinator on campus based on the information they receive, whether or not law enforcement is involved.)

From a legal standpoint, initiatives seeking to bolster the rights of the accused seem to be getting at least some traction: A judge in Los Angeles recently stayed the expulsion of Bryce Dixon, a University of Southern California student and football player accused of sexually assaulting a team trainer last October. “USC’s investigator acts as police, prosecutor, and judge,” Dixon’s lawyer said in a statement after the judge’s ruling. And according to the American Council on Education, it is unclear whether the OCR’s preponderance standard would be upheld as a legally binding standard if challenged further in the courts.

The bills have also garnered the support of many fraternity and sorority groups, such as the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference; Greek life has faced significant scrutiny amid perceptions that the party culture they promote puts students at greater risk of sexual assault. And the widely publicized and discredited Rolling Stone feature, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” has been cited by some proponents of the legislation as an example of why giving the benefit of a doubt to assault victims can undermine the rights of the accused.

But Katie Hanna, a board member with NAESV, points to the chilling effect legislation like the Safe Campus Act could have on survivors. She cited a recent National Alliance to End Sexual Violence survey of survivors, which found that “if there was a mandatory requirement to report to law enforcement, few survivors would report. And fewer survivors would get the support they need on campus.” She and other experts emphasized the importance of allowing a victim to decide for her or himself whether to go to police, which can be a severely distressing process. And Kiss added that schools have methods in place for recourse in the rare case that an unfair ruling is reached.

Some advocates worry that combatting mandatory-reporting rules on campus has been taking energy that could be used to help schools effectively implement sound policies that are in line with Campus SaVE, and urge for more resources to be put into oversight agencies like the OCR (which currently has over 130 active Title IX investigations pertaining to schools’ handling of sexual misconduct—a number that continues to grow despite a depleting staff). Peterson said she would much rather see advocates focusing on those issues than fighting legislation that she said most survivors and advocates strongly oppose. “It’s really draining our ability to fight for equal rights for people on campus in a proactive way because we spend so much time educating people about why the criminal-justice system as it’s been for 30 years has failed survivors and how it will decrease reporting.”

As these legal and legislative tussles continue, the 2015-16 year is underway at many schools that are looking to find a variety of ways to make federal regulations work on their campuses. Some colleges are already seeing reports of sexual assault—a harrowing reminder of the progress still left to be made.

America’s Teaching Force, by the Numbers

Over the summer, major news outlets reported that the nation is facing dire teacher shortages. Pundits speculated that middling salaries and low prestige of teachers, among other factors, were pushing smart young people to other professions. The number of education majors dropped from 179,000 in 2011-12 to 164,000 the following year.

While the country’s teaching force is certainly dealing with a staffing problem, a closer look at the numbers shows that shortages are centered in particular subject areas and geographic areas. In fact, there may be too many certified teachers in some fields, such as early-childhood education.

Since 2001, the number of public-school teachers in the United States has consistently hovered at 3 million or so; according to Education Week, the tally is 3.12 million this year. The number has kept pace with the growth in K-12 enrollment, so the teacher-student ratio has remained constant, even slightly decreasing, over the last few decades. And while widely publicized layoffs caused some dips in the number of teachers starting in 2009, those numbers have since returned to pre-recession levels. By 2020, the country is projected to have 3.3 million public-school teachers, Education Week reports.

The U.S. Department of Education publishes an annual state-by-state report on teacher shortages dating back to 1990. The most recent report, a 173-page document, lists each state’s shortage areas from year to year, but because states report their shortages differently, the information is inconsistent, and does not include quantitative data. The report fails to analyze the statistics and show how the numbers have evolved over time. Some analysts, such as the education blogger Peter Greene, have compiled their own state-by-state summaries of the problem by aggregating media reports. But many of those analyses, too, fail to provide an empirical and comprehensive assessment of the country’s very nuanced teacher-shortage crisis.

Still, it’s clear that certain states are scrambling to fill their schools with qualified teachers, including California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Kansas each of which has its own set of reasons for its shortage. California, for its part, laid off 80,000 teachers during the recession, which was followed by a depression in the number of college students pursuing careers in education. Indiana, among states with similar demographics, has struggled to fill positions in both isolated,rural communities and urban areas, two particularly high-needs settings. In Kansas, teachers are “fleeing across the border” to other states, largely because budget cuts have resulted widespread dissatisfaction with the work conditions.

Yet some states, such as New York, have the opposite problem: too many teachers. In New York, just 7 percent of the teachers who were newly certified for the 2013-14 school year were employed as of October of that year, according to state data. Teacher-preparation programs in the Empire State are producing too many elementary-school teachers, as well as educators trained in popular subjects, such as English and history. The education-focused news outlet Chalkbeat reports that only 1 in 3 graduates from teacher-prep programs are able to find a position in the state.

Why is there so much variation across states, districts, and even positions? As the Indiana example demonstrates, geography is a major factor, with certain cities and rural areas alike scrambling to fill openings. Teachers are needed in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, for example, where concerns about safety and other challenges in urban schools may deter prospective teachers, according to a growing body of research. Meanwhile, rural districts have struggled to convince young people to relocate to localities where housing and recreational options are limited. In 2013, nearly a third of Mississippi’s districts reported critical shortages, particularly in rural areas. It’s not clear how teacher-staffing issues in these parts have evolved over time. Some experts also suggest that bureaucratic rules are hampering efforts to adequately distribute teachers across the country. Each state has its own certification rules, making it difficult for a teacher to relocate and find work elsewhere.

Another reason for the staffing inconsistencies is that prospective educators tend toward certain subject areas and away from others. On top of early-childhood education, the DOE report suggests that there are few shortages in high-school English, for example. And Education Week reported in 2013 that colleges were overproducing elementary-school teachers.

On the other hand,teachers specializing in special education and English as a second language are in high demand; this has been the case for years, though shifting demographics in student populations suggests that the demand is rising. Science positions also tend to be understaffed, particularly in physics and chemistry, as are those in math. Despite the ever-growing emphasis on STEM education, science and math teachers have long been in short supply because it’s hard for public schools, many of which are drastically underfunded, to compete with private-sector salaries in their recruitment of young adults with those skills. A number of states also report a shortage of foreign-language teachers.

So, in theory, while prospective high-school English teachers might struggle to find a job in New York’s middle-class suburbs, special-ed teachers in, say, Indiana or California are likely to find plenty of offers.

The takeaway? Solutions to the teacher-shortage problem must take into account its complexities; across-the-board initiatives to increase the number of education majors are unlikely to address each state’s specific set of issues. Teacher-training programs could do a better job of providing students with concrete information about the employment realities—which subject areas need teachers and which ones don’t. Given that 14 percent of 20-somethings are unemployed, that information is certainly valuable. And greater certification portability would reduce barriers to relocation, while streamlined recertification options could help teachers who struggled to find work or were laid off during the recession return to the profession.

Some districts and states have experimented with added incentives for teachers. In Philadelphia and in rural areas in South Carolina, for example, there have been proposals to create low cost housing or “teacher villages” to provide incentives for teachers to work in those communities. States could offer bonuses and other perks to teachers in the high-need subjects and locations. At least one study found that these targeted bonuses are successful, though others haven’t been as optimistic about the efficacy of such perks—at least with regard to retaining effective educators. As the Kentucky teacher Paul Barnwell has argued, schools—particularly those serving high-poverty student populations—should do more to support their teachers with resources and training, particularly since many of the teachers placed in struggling schools have the least experience.

Or, if filling positions is all but impossible, there’s always the Internet. Some states are trying out virtual-education programs so that children in geographically remote regions can learn even without a teacher. But a classroom teacher is, of course, almost always preferable.

When I was in my 20s, I took a year-long break from my graduate studies. My aunt, who was a teacher at a school for children with special needs in the South Bronx, encouraged me to get an emergency-certification license and take up a teaching position there. The first month was a bit of shock. On the way to the school the first day of school, I drove around abandoned appliances and roosters in the middle of the street, later crying after encountering children with multiple disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy. One student regularly had grand mal seizures during class.

But after a few weeks, I stopped noticing the children’s differences and the harshness of the environment. I taught the kids how to play Blackjack. We cooked. We did lots of coloring and engaged in other art projects, and I started to see my coworkers as family. The most traumatic event didn’t involve the kids or the school; instead, it was when I ran out of gas on the Cross Bronx Expressway during rush hour. At the end of the year, I returned to graduate school. But I could have easily stayed.

Every teaching experience is different. As Barnwell—who resigned from his first teaching position at one of Kentucky’s most “troubled” and “dysfunctional” middle schools—would probably attest, I was lucky to have had the year I did. But imagine if every student teacher, particularly those who’ve already set their sights on, say, teaching English in suburban New York, spent a semester working in underserved places and subject areas. Perhaps a handful of them would realize how much they love it. Perhaps we could redistribute our teachers to where they are needed the most.