Why College Students ​Need Their Urban Legends

Legend has it that the forests surrounding Reed College in Portland, Oregon, are home to not only standard flora and fauna, but also a slightly lesser known species: zombie monkeys. The mutant albino monkeys are rumored to be the former subjects of a psychology professor’s secret experiments in his underground lab. At some point, the primates were allegedly freed by an animal-rights activist group and now run amok in the canyon beside the school’s campus—potential threats to students wandering around a little too late at night.

Meanwhile, near Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a Loch-Ness-like creature (lovingly nicknamed Champ) has reportedly been spotted in the depths of Lake Champlain over the years, becoming a local attraction. And at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, a duck spirit is thought to roam the halls and block the refrigerator doors of unsuspecting freshmen students trying to drink beer. Many colleges across the country have their own version of a lurking zombie monkey, sea monster, or duck (and in some cases, the all-too-real rumor of human-size cockroaches or rats roaming the halls). And that’s on top of the myriad tales of haunted dorms and classrooms. At Emory University, for example, a playful ghost named Dooley who died from alcoholism and went on to teach anatomy using his bones, is such a household name that stuffed animals of his skeletal likeness are sold at the campus bookstore and a spirit week every spring claims him as mascot, according to Elizabeth Tucker’s Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses.

Simon Bronner, an American studies and folklore professor at Penn State Harrisburg, says such urban legends emerge on campuses as a manifestation of student anxiety about the college experience—often serving as an outlet through which they can express their fears about being away from home. In other words, they’re often a means students can use to acknowledge and contain this apprehension without having to be completely vulnerable about it. Bronner, who authored the book Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University, cites legends that center on romantic relationships and roommates as cases when the stories function as stand-ins for students’ own fears. “Telling them is partly ritual, partly humorous,” he says. “Students are using that frame of lore to raise issues about aging, about where they are on a strange place on their own for the first time.” Many of the college legends—which may warn against partying too much or caving to academic pressures or even staying out so late a zombie monkey might appear—are “cautionary tales” that provide nuggets of “cultural advice,” he says.

According to Bronner, these stories—most of which are similar to oral histories in that they’re passed down verbally, through bits and pieces that people have heard, told and retold by peers—also help students to foster connections with both classmates and the institution itself. Through interviews conducted for his Campus Traditions book, Bronner found that many of these tales are perpetuated during late-night conversations in the dorms. “Often, students are strangers to one another—and they’re sharing information and stories with one another as a way to not only report what they’ve heard about the campus, but also to get commentary,” he says. “It’s often an open-ended statement like, ‘Do you believe what happened?’ or ‘That’s what I heard.’”

In some instances, stories that calcify into legend are borne from a kernel of truth and connected to a historical event, serving as a way for students to feel closer to the heritage of a school or better understand it. At Georgetown University, the fifth floor of the Healy Building is rumored to be sealed because an exorcism took place there (the same one that inspired the The Exorcist, later partly filmed on campus), when in fact there is evidence that such an event once occurred at the school’s hospital in 1949. At Sweet Briar College, Daisy Williams—the real daughter of the school’s founder who died at a young age after being stricken with pneumonia—is a ghost who’s believed to watch over the school and appear during times of need to take care of the campus and its students, including after a devastating fire in 1927. The act of telling (and partly believing) these stories becomes a college tradition in itself, says Bronner, forming bonds between generations of students who attend these institutions.

“Another aspect of the supernatural is that many college campuses are on locations occupied by ancient visitors or stories of the dead, including Native American areas,” he notes. Tucker also addresses these ghost stories in her book, and says in a recent Vice story that the presence of Native American ghosts can symbolize the ongoing guilt that people continue to feel about the oppression these populations faced and serve as a persistent reminder to reckon with a place’s history.

Other legends—particularly those involving statues—may help students feel a sense of control amid the uncertainty they are experiencing during the tumult of college. At Columbia University, as the story goes, the first student in each class to spot the owl on the main courtyard’s Alma Mater statue is guaranteed the status of valedictorian. During finals season, students at the University of Maryland-College Park offer food sacrifices to the Terrapin statue, Testudo, in the hopes of good grades, also touching his nose for good fortune before athletic events. “There are a lot of statues that are rubbed for luck for exams and wins on games,” Bronner says. “A lot of those are because of insuring success.”

Ultimately, urban legends take on a unique role at college because of how they reflect and respond to the contradictions young adults are facing at that point in their lives—when they feel simultaneously strong, youthful, and vibrant as well as vulnerable and insecure at the same time, says Bronner. “This paradox,” he continues, “is often resolved through the supernatural.”

Spreading the Free-Market Gospel

Last year, a staffer for Charles and David Koch’s network of philanthropic institutions laid out the billionaire brothers’ strategy to spread their views on economic freedom.

Political success, Kevin Gentry told a crowd of elite supporters attending the annual Koch meeting in Dana Point, California, begins with reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power.

“The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,” he said.

“So you can see how this is useful to each other over time,” he continued. “No one else has this infrastructure. We’re very excited about doing it.”

These quotes come from an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Center for Public Integrity (which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic) from the producers of the web-video program “The Undercurrent.”

Higher education has become a top Koch priority in recent years. And their funding—as well as pushback against it—is increasing. During 2013, a pair of private charitable foundations Charles Koch leads and personally bankrolls combined to spread more than $19.3 million across 210 college campuses in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Internal Revenue Service tax filings.

That represents a significant increase from the $12.7 million the Koch foundations distributed among 163 college campuses in 41 states and the District of Columbia during 2012. It’s also exponentially more than what the Koch foundations together spent directly on higher education a decade ago.

A review of hundreds of private documents, emails, and audio recordings—along with interviews with more than 75 college officials, professors, students, and others—indicate the Koch brothers’ spending on higher education is now a critical part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.

* * *

It is well-known that the Kochs’ network has invested hundreds of millions of hard-to-track dollars in conservative political nonprofits that influence elections. The brothers, who earned their billions leading private oil, chemical, and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., were dominant forces in recent election cycles. They’re now poised to rank among the most influential Americans shaping next year’s presidential and congressional vote. Much less well-known are their activities on college campuses.

The Kochs are among many wealthy political patrons who give money to education, including conservative Robert McNair, independent Michael Bloomberg, and liberal billionaire financier George Soros. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds.)

The Kochs’ giving, however, focuses on an ideological approach to free-market economics in a way that’s distinctive among political mega-donors. Koch officials routinely cultivate relationships with professors and deans and fund specific courses of economic study pitched by them.

Detractors argue the Koch brothers’ college-focused money, by helping advance a philosophy of economic liberty, is eroding a fundamental aspect of higher education: academic freedom. Their defenders, however, consider the Kochs’ investments in higher education a much-needed counterweight to an American higher-education system that historically tilts leftward.

“Since the ‘60s, they’ve been imbued with the sense that the world would be a better place if the country instituted their libertarian values,” Brian Doherty, the author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement and senior editor at Reason, said of the brothers.

“For Charles, his time horizon, as he gets a little older, has become a little shorter. He has lots of money, and he wants to see action in his lifetime,” continued Doherty, who’s interviewed both Koch brothers.

“I’m not doing anything I’m ashamed of,” Charles Koch himself told Forbes last month. “You’ve gotta change the hearts and minds of the people to understand what really makes society fairer and what’s going to change their lives. And it’s not more of this government control.”

The Kochs educational giving, while rarefied, isn’t the most abundant in the United States. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, with his wife Betty, this year pledged $100 million to the California Institute of Technology—and offered to let the school to spend it as it sees fit.

Koch defenders also note, accurately, that the pair has donated generously to educational causes not necessarily animated by political considerations: the Smithsonian, public television, media organizations, music scholarships, medical research and a variety of others. David Koch, for his part, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into medicine and the arts over the years.

But it’s clear where there is an ideological bent to their giving: Tax returns, as well as emails and private documents exchanged among Charles Koch Foundation officers and various college and university officials, indicate the foundation’s commitment to funding academics is deep and growing. Koch education funding, which is almost singularly focused on economics, also sometimes comes with certain strings attached.

* * *

At the College of Charleston in South Carolina, for example, documents show the foundation wanted more than just academic excellence for its money. It wanted information about students it could potentially use for its own benefit—and influence over information officials at the public university disseminated about the Charles Koch Foundation.

It sought, for one, the names and email addresses—“preferably not ending in .edu”—of any student who participated in a Koch-sponsored class, reading group, club or fellowship. The stated purpose: “to notify students of opportunities” through both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.

And the foundation certainly did not want the College of Charleston to speak to news reporters about its Koch-funded programs without prior consent from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The Center for Public Integrity

“[I]f you intend to engage in press releases or other media outreach associated with programmatic activities, please notify us in advance,” Charles Koch Foundation officials Charlie Ruger and Derek Johnson wrote to Peter Calcagno, the director of the College of Charleston’s Center for Public Choice and Market Process. “We consider media outreach a collaborative effort and would appreciate the opportunity to both assist and advise.”

Donors are often sent unpublished press releases about programs they fund “as a courtesy so that they will know the contents,” school spokesman Mike Robertson said.

At Florida State University, one of the nation’s top educational recipients of Koch foundation money this decade—about $1.38 million from 2010 through 2013— a similar request is more direct.

“FSU will allow [the Charles Koch Foundation] to review and approve the text of any proposed publicity which includes mention of CKF,” reads a memorandum of understanding signed between the university and foundation in 2013.

Such provisions aren’t new at Florida State University: the Center for Public Integrity last year reported that the Charles Koch Foundation first attempted in 2007 to place specific conditions on its financial support of the school, when it initially considered providing funding.

Among the proposed conditions: Teachings must align with the libertarian economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the Charles Koch Foundation would maintain partial control over faculty hiring and the chairman of the school’s economics department—a prominent economic theorist—must stay in place for another three years despite his plans to step down.

Florida State University ultimately didn’t agree to the initial requests when, in 2008, it reached a funding agreement with the foundation. It’s also tightened and clarified policies that affect private donors’ contributions to the university.

* * *

Today, the Kochs’ friendship with Florida State University appears stronger than ever.

An email written in September 2014 by Jesse Colvin, Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy development director, indicates the Charles Koch Foundation is committed to funding the work of economic-department doctoral students “during 2015-2016 and in subsequent years.”

A series of other meetings and conversations between John Hardin, the director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, and Florida State University officials followed, documents indicate.

In November 2014, Florida State University officials huddled in the office of the newly installed University President John Thrasher for a meeting entitled “Koch briefing.” Schnittker, the university spokesman, said the meeting was an “opportunity for our new president to be briefed by university staff about a gift agreement that obviously preceded his tenure.” Hardin was not present, Schnittker said.

Meanwhile, when officials at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice went hunting for funding, the Charles Koch Foundation factored into their strategy.

The Koch brothers, after all, were telegraphing their intent to make criminal-justice reform a personal priority, reasoning that “overcriminalization,” like overregulation of industry, is resulting in more Americans enjoying fewer economic freedoms.

Not everyone at the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice appeared thrilled at pursuing Koch cash. “I know you really hate them, but we really need to send them some stuff,” then-Chairman Allison DeFoor wrote Executive Director Deborrah Brodsky late last year. “They have money. We don’t.”

Reached separately by phone last week, DeFoor, a committed conservative, and Brodsky, a Canadian whose politics are more liberal, both laughed off the exchange as comedic banter between longtime colleagues.

But they confirmed they had pursued the Charles Koch Foundation. It hasn’t yet funded the project but did provide the organization “strategic support,” including co-hosting a forum on criminal justice.

DeFoor would conclude, following presentations in Washington, D.C., to both the Charles Koch Foundation and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, that Koch interest in issues the project researches “is sincere, potentially aggressive and deep.”

As a small, three-year-old “research- and evidence-based” program, the Florida State University Project on Accountable Justice will gladly take money from most anyone along the ideological spectrum who’s dedicated to its study of and work on criminal-justice system reforms, Brodsky said. She counts liberal lions such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Human Rights Watch as partners.

The Charles Koch Foundation executives declined to be interviewed individually. Trice Jacobson, a foundation spokesperson, instead provided a statement that she said “captures what we all hope to share for this piece.”

“Like many charities, the Charles Koch Foundation recognizes the importance of supporting a diversity of ideas so scholars and students can continue to push the frontiers of knowledge and help people discover new and better ways to live fulfilling lives,” the statement read. “Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal-justice reform to corporate welfare.”

In a separate statement of its “academic giving principles,” the Charles Koch Foundation asserts that it is “committed to advancing a marketplace of ideas and supporting a ‘Republic of Science’ where scholarship is free, open and subject to rigorous and honest intellectual challenge.”

It also notes that scholars and students “who are free to teach, learn, research, speak, critique, and receive support for their work without interference” are in the “best position to discover the advances that will help improve well-being.”

* * *

Nowhere is expanded Koch involvement in higher education more evident than at George Mason University, which receives more funding from the Kochs than any other school.

The large, diverse public university in northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., with a population of more than 33,700, today houses and lends its name to what’s effectively Charles Koch’s personal academic workshop. The Charles Koch Foundation in 2013 donated more than $14.4 million to George Mason University and the research centers it hosts. That’s on top of tens of millions in Koch dollars that George Mason University and the affiliated research centers have collectively received in recent years.

Charles Koch himself is a George Mason University fixture. He’s the recipient of an honorary doctorate in science from the university. He is a director of the university-based Mercatus Center—Mercatus means “market” in Latin—that Charles Koch Foundation Vice President Ryan Stowers described at the 2014 Koch gathering in California as “critical” to advancing policy priorities.

Koch also enjoys the company of several current and former George Mason University affiliates who play multiple roles across the Koch brothers’ sprawling educational, corporate, and political network.

Chief among them is Gentry, who presided over the Koch’s closed-door higher-education workshop last year.

Gentry possesses unique knowledge about the interconnectivity of the Koch’s various interests and operations because he embodies its reach. He’s a Charles Koch Foundation vice president and a key fundraiser for the Kochs’ political action arm. He’s a former vice president of both the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. And today, he’s also the Eastern vice chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Brian Hooks, now president of the Charles Koch Foundation, is another key Koch network player. Hooks served as the Mercatus Center’s executive director and chief operating officer from 2005 until 2014 and remains a Mercatus Center board member. The year Hooks took over, the Mercatus Center posted $4.9 million in total revenue, according to tax filings. The year he left, it posted nearly $20.7 million.

“Our job is to make sure that we’ve got a strategy for our work to have a disproportionate impact,” Hooks said at the Kochs’ conference in 2014, noting that the Mercatus Center is the “largest collection” of “free-market faculty” at any university in the world. “These guys are producing research that groups in this network can rely on to advance economic freedom every single day.”

Scholarly research performed by academics at Koch-funded schools and programs is indeed sometimes used by Koch-backed nonprofit organizations that, in turn, overtly advocate for political candidates and causes.

For instance, to support assertions made in a recent, 67-page policy paper, Koch-supported American Encore regularly cites and quotes Mercatus Center research and mentions the center nearly a dozen times.

Among the academic work American Encore’s paper highlights: a 2014 Mercatus Center study by Keith Hall, a senior research fellow who had previously served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a 2014 commentary about a federal regulations tracking and measurement tool by Patrick A. McLaughlin, another senior research fellow.

“Yet another study has confirmed what we already knew—states with lower taxes do better,” read an article by the Kochs’ flagship nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity, about a study published July 7th by the Mercatus Center. “Overall, the rankings provide more evidence that economic freedom works, and bigger government means bigger trouble.”

And the 60 Plus Association, a retiree-focused nonprofit that’s benefited from tens of millions of dollars of the Koch brothers’ money over the years, for a time tapped Walter Williams, a George Mason University economics professor, syndicated columnist and Rush Limbaugh Show fill-in host, as a member of its “truth squad.” His mission: to “battle” against Democrats on  Social Security and Medicare programs.

* * *

Congress is also paying more attention to the Mercatus Center, which from 1999 to 2008 was mentioned by name 32 times in either the Congressional Record or congressional committee reports. Since 2009, it’s been mentioned 93 times, often in reference to Mercatus Center faculty who were testifying before Congress.

This year, Congress even cited Mercatus Center research in the text of budget bills. House Concurrent Resolution 27 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 note that a Mercatus Center study “estimates that Obamacare will reduce employment by up to 3 percent, or about 4 million full-time equivalent workers.”

Mercatus Center Vice President Carrie Conko, while declining to address critics’ “ad hominem attacks” of Charles Koch, stressed that the institution’s work is the product of hard work and high standards—not the whims of some patron puppet master.

“As a university research center, our scholarship is independent and subjected to rigorous peer review,” Conko said. “Our researchers are interested in understanding what shapes societies and economies, and that covers a spectrum of research from the history of economic thought to the application of economics to questions of public policy.”

Conko also noted that the Mercatus Center abides by a strong conflict-of-interest and research independence policy, which she described as “stronger than those of most found with typical academic centers or departments.”

Mercatus Center officials note that the center isn’t part of George Mason University the same way as, say, its chemistry or psychology departments. Instead, it’s organized as a stand-alone nonprofit, and as such, George Mason University isn’t directly responsible for it.

The Mercatus Center doesn’t receive direct funding from George Mason University, Conko said.

But George Mason University and its students do receive millions of dollars in annual financial benefit from the Mercatus Center, according to federal tax filings.

That alone is a major incentive for a public university in Virginia, where state funding of higher education is dwindling, to host a privately funded operation on its campus—today, a fairly common practice among public schools.

The Mercatus Center spent $3.64 million during that time to “support graduate students at George Mason University” by “training future scholars and decision-makers to advance and apply a research agenda for understanding institutions and change,” according to a tax filing.

The Mercatus Center helped fund $1.82 million worth of communication efforts that included promoting its research and ideas “to the media and opinion shapers.”

And it made a $10,000 grant to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which operates a “global network of more than 400 free-market organizations.” They include several Koch-backed nonprofit groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Tax Reform.

* * *

The Mason-Mercatus-Koch nexus may seem like rich fodder for a Democrat such as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, whose national party brethren makes demonizing the Koch brothers a central strategy of their electoral and fundraising agenda.

McAuliffe’s own political committee, Common Good VA, bashed  the “ultra right-wing Koch Brothers” in an email earlier this month, accusing them of working against “expanding health care for all” and “ensuring a living wage.”

But McAuliffe—the outspoken former chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—declined Center for Public Integrity requests to discuss George Mason University’s relationship with the Koch brothers.

George Mason University’s top undergraduate leader, Student Body President Khushboo Bhatia, also declined comment.

A university spokesman, Michael Sandler, explained that George Mason is among the nation’s most diverse campuses, and “this notion of diversity and inclusion that is so central to our mission applies to our donors, as well.”

Sandler said the university appreciates the Charles Koch Foundation’s donations, as well as those from thousands of other donors.

“While we are grateful for all of the gifts we receive, we value academic freedom above all else,” Sandler said. “This freedom allows our faculty and researchers to ask questions and make discoveries that others wouldn’t otherwise pursue, and we will not compromise that freedom for anything or anyone.”

Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of politics at George Mason University who specializes in how individuals and groups influence government, is skeptical.

George Mason University’s marriage to an ideologically motivated donor with a policy agenda to achieve “raises some eyebrows,” Victor said. “I don’t really see what Mason gets from them, and I don’t think the situation is healthy or consistent with the university’s teaching mission.”

* * *

Some college officials such as Sandler are willing to discuss the financial support their schools receive from Koch-run private foundations, with many emphasizing that gifts from donors, whether liberal or conservative, don’t affect coursework or the manner in which students learn. They also note that their schools receive hundreds, and sometimes thousands of contributions each year from individuals, private foundations and the like.

But it’s not uncommon for other school officials to be more circumspect. Victor Nakas, a spokesman for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., answered a series of questions about the $215,000 the university received in 2013 from the Charles Koch Foundation, emailing a pair of dated press releases announcing grants. “We will be unable to provide you with more than links to these announcements,” he said. Michael Schoenfeld, the vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, declined to say how the school used the $37,000 it recently received from the Charles Koch Foundation. “As a rule, we do not comment on individual donors or contributions without the donor’s permission,” he explained. Officials at Oklahoma State University likewise offered no details about how the school used the $69,000 the Charles Koch Foundation recently gave it.

Why the reluctance to elaborate? An email exchange between two Florida State University officials, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, offers a measure of explanation. In it, the officials indicate deep concern about the potential effects of releasing more information about the school’s moneyed donors in response to activist demands. “[R]equiring donors to disclose more than they already do will likely result in fewer gifts and smaller gifts, and it will impose an additional administrative hurdle for the university,” wrote Thomas W. Jennings, vice president for university advancement, to David Coburn, Florida State University chief of staff.

Revealing donor gift agreements, even for donors who have not requested anonymity, might “have a negative effect on FSU’s relationships with many of its donors, who don’t want that kind of attention,” Jennings continued.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill received $115,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2013, one of nearly 100 schools that year to receive a five-figure contribution from a Koch foundation.

But that’s information not easily accessed by students. Whether by design, happenstance or ignorance, “most individuals don’t know where any of the university’s funds come from,” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Student Body President Houston Summers said.

University spokesman Jim Gregory confirmed the school received $110,000 for the Charles Koch Visiting Scholars Program in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, conducted in collaboration with Duke University. Donors are allowed to remain anonymous, if they choose.

However, some universities are facing blowback over scant information about school donors from increasingly organized anti-Koch groups and activists.

The umbrella group UnKoch My Campus, for one, has staged protests, demanded meetings with administrators and launched chapters at George Mason University and Florida State University, among others. The organization accuses the Kochs and their allies of undermining issues many students care about, such as environmental protection, workers’ rights, health-care expansion, and public education.

Its immediate goal, beyond convincing colleges to de-Koch themselves?

“Transparency, because students should have the capability to be more aware of who’s funding their school and their education, and where funding might conflict with student interests,” said Kalin Jordan, an UnKoch My Campus organizer. “The universities—most don’t do a good job of informing students at all.”

Colin Nackerman, a student activist at George Mason University said, “You should know, if you’re going into a classroom, that $30 million is going into your school from someone who wants you to think a certain way.”

Largely silent in the past, the Charles Koch Foundation has begun to push back at such dissenters.

“They don’t want students and scholars to expand their educational horizons,” Hardin, the foundation’s university relations director, wrote in a May 26th, Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Rather than engage in a vigorous and civil debate about the merits of different ideas, they seek to prevent those with which they disagree from ever being heard.”

* * *

If George Mason University is most representative of Charles Koch’s academic investments, Bard College is George Soros’s, a multi-billionaire whom many view as the Koch brothers’ pre-eminent liberal foil.

The tiny New York liberal arts school nestled along the Hudson River is renowned for both scholarship and hippy-dippyness. It received more than $11.2 million from Soros’ private foundation in 2013—part of a $60 million, multiyear commitment.

But there is an interesting difference: Soros’s contributions to Bard College aren’t generally earmarked for core academics or domestic political considerations. Instead, Soros’s money mainly helps fund Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement, which houses a broad portfolio of both U.S. and overseas programs aimed at “advancing the ideals of an innovative, hands-on, liberal-arts education through a myriad of opportunities across the globe.”

This tracks with Soros’s broader tack on educational giving: The vast majority of his tens of millions of dollars in education-related contributions fund foreign schools and programs, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. (Soros lived his early life in Hungary, where as a Jew, he survived Nazi occupation before emigrating.)

Among the U.S. schools Soros does aid, many of his most sizable grants are earmarked for programs with international goals, such as $500,000 to Harvard University funding a project on economic growth in Albania, and $159,834 to The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to “develop effective and influential public policy leaders in Central Asia.”

Soros’ foundation even gave George Mason University more than $22,500—not to fund economics programs, but to organize meetings in Mexico and Peru about conflict reconciliation. “As a general rule,” Soros said in 2011, “I do not support higher education in the United States.”

Soros does make exceptions. An avowed advocate of campaign-finance reform, Soros has used his private foundations to fund certain domestic college initiatives squarely rooted in American politics and elections. One Soros foundation, for example, gave New York City’s Fordham University $200,000 in 2013 to study the “role of money in democratic process.” The money is part of a $1 million, multi-year grant to determine how disclosure of campaign money influences voters—an awfully political endeavor by any measure. But school officials say the research they conduct is free of outside influence and subject to the highest academic and legal reviews and standards.

“None of this work is ‘political’ per se in terms of any ideological dimensions … it is all strictly nonpartisan,” said Costas Panagopoulos, the director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, who is leading the program. Penn State University’s economics department in 2013 benefited from $150,000 in Soros money to help build a research center focused in part on “interactions between new media and society.” And the Ohio State University Research Foundation received $50,000 to conduct a research project aimed at better understanding the role independent expenditures play in federal elections and “how those expenditures influence the legislative process.”

Bard College officials do hear their share of criticism for taking a massive amount of money from Soros’ private foundation, said Jonathan Becker, the school’s vice president for academic affairs and director for civic engagement.

But, similar to some of the schools that accept Koch money, the school’s tenuous budget situation means that it’d take funding from just about anyone so long as the transaction was legal and wasn’t intended to fund an initiative “antithetical to our vision,” Becker said. That vision, in the words of its student handbook, imagines a “supportive, intellectually rich environment where students can engage themselves to the fullest while respecting all members of the community.”

So what if the Charles Koch Foundation wanted to donate $1 million to Bard College? Or $10 million? “We would say ‘thank you,’ and we would cash the check quickly,” Becker said.

* * *

Unlike the Kochs, Soros and many other prominent political donors, both left and right of center, have charitable agendas that largely diverge from their domestic political agendas.

Robert McNair, the Houston Texans owner who this year alone has spread $3 million among five super PACs backing several Republican presidential candidates, used his private foundation to give millions of dollars to various medical schools and a scholarship program for doctors performing research in areas such as breast cancer, juvenile diabetes, and neuroscience.

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, two other top Republican donors whom 2016 presidential candidates have endlessly wooed, directed almost all of their university-related private foundation funding—millions of it in 2013—to medical research.

A private foundation co-run by former World Wrestling Entertainment honcho Linda McMahon, a major GOP donor who herself twice unsuccessfully ran self-funded U.S. Senate campaigns, gave its most sizable, six-figure contributions to substance abuse help group Liberation Programs.

Then there’s the late Republican superdonor whose philanthropy has been at war with his political giving: Harold Simmons. The Texas businessman bankrolled his eponymous foundation, but his liberal daughters run it. In doing so, they saw to it that Planned Parenthood—the ultimate Republican scourge of late—received more than $300,000 of his money during 2013. It’s also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based money-in-politics reform group also supported in 2013 with $300,000 from a private foundation led by liberal hedge-fund manager Jonathan Soros, son of George Soros. Money the Harold Simmons Foundation did give to colleges in 2013 mostly went toward infrastructure and general operating expenses.

* * *

While more schools than ever are engaging with Koch foundations, at least one school—the University of Dayton in Ohio—has seemingly soured on Koch cash, which it has previously accepted in five-figure amounts.

Jay Riestenberg, a research analyst at campaign reform advocacy group Common Cause and University of Dayton alumnus, earlier this year emailed the school’s Interim Provost Paul H. Benson, asking him if the University of Dayton is still funded by, or seeking new funding from Koch foundations.

Attached was an op-ed Riestenberg has written for the school’s student newspaper. In it, he explains that his education at the small Catholic school inspired him to care about other people, protect the environment and fight for social justice. “UD accepting Koch funding is in clear violation of the institution’s Catholic Marianist values,” Riestenberg wrote in the April 28th email. Benson replied later that night. His answer: The University of Dayton no longer accepts Koch cash, and it will not in the future—despite the efforts of Koch-backed organizations. “There have been instances in which other foundations who are funded in part by the Koch Brothers have tried to interest us in establishing centers at UD,” Benson wrote Riestenberg. “We have not supported those proposals, precisely for the reasons you cite.” Benson declined an interview request by the Center for Public Integrity.

In a statement, University of Dayton spokeswoman Cilla Shindell explained that the school did reject a recent proposal from a “foundation that is in part funded by the Koch family” because it “would have been structured in a way that would limit oversight by the university in such areas as curriculum and faculty hiring.”

She did not name the foundation.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity.

Empty Refunds From a Fallen For-Profit College

Federal regulators have won a major court case against Corinthian College Inc., the now-defunct for-profit college chain. Many allege that the company defrauded students largely by inflating job-placement statistics and allowing students to take out private loans at high interest rates while practicing “illegal debt-collection tactics.”

A U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday ordered that Corinthian Colleges Inc.—which at one point oversaw 100 schools in states including Arizona, Colorado, California, Hawaii, and Oregon—pay back $531 million in damages to all students who attended the network of colleges before it was shuttered in April. The Wall Street Journal reports that the lawsuit, brought last year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, contended that the college franchise was operating a “predatory lending scheme” and accused it of both “fudging” the statistics it used to recruit students and hiring its own graduates to boost job-placement rates. The Department of Education fined Corinthian Colleges $30 million in April for overstating those rates.

“We all have much more work to do before current and past students who were hurt by Corinthian’s illegal practices can be made whole,” said Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “We remain deeply concerned about risks facing student borrowers in the for-profit space and will continue to be vigilant in rooting out harmful practices.”

Still, while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s court victory may assuage some of the concern that the government is perpetuating the problems with for-profit colleges, in reality it doesn’t ensure that all the Corinthian students will be relieved of their debt. After the lawsuit was issued last fall, Corinthian Colleges filed for bankruptcy, effectively rendering all of its assets unavailable for the repayment. According to The Washington Post, at the time of its bankruptcy filing Corinthian had less than $20 million in assets—but its liquidation plan dissolved all of those assets.

As part of a resolution package agreed upon last year, the Department of Education forced Corinthian to sell or close its schools. And initially, that went according to plan: As a result of  the sale of 56 schools to ECMC Group, thousands of students have had their debt forgiven, and more have had reductions to their balances. The Department of Education, however, is still responsible for parsing through the hundreds of requests filed by other students that accuse Corinthian of fraud.

Looking ahead, the recent ruling, combined with the college’s shutdown, could persuade the Department of Education to forgive more students’ federal loan debt and further soften its stance on debt forgiveness. Currently, federal law gives student borrowers the right to apply for total relief if they can prove schools misled them into taking out federal student loans—a provision on which the Obama administration has already acted. Shortly after Corinthian Colleges closed the last of their schools, the administration decided to relieve the debt of about 3,000 borrowers who attended those schools to compensate them for the abusive practices they endured there. Still, others have to apply for relief individually and submit hard-to-come-by documents from shut-down schools, meaning that some students will inherently be left out.

All in all, Corinthian students have, according to the Post, borrowed about $3.2 billion in federal loans since 2010. As of August, close to 8,000 Corinthian students had applied for loan forgiveness, a little less than half of whom have been approved.

The Atlantic’s Gillian White has reported that for-profit colleges have risen in popularity since the recession of 2008, and their attendees are more vulnerable to these types of schemes for various reasons: They are typically older, have lower incomes, are more likely to be considered financially independent. These borrowers are more likely to default on the loans they took out to attend for-profit colleges, often because of the institutions’ predatory practices. Students at for-profit colleges represent only about 11 percent of all postsecondary students, but 44 percent of all federal student-loan defaults.

In 2000, only one of the 25 U.S. colleges and universities where students held the most student-loan debt was a for-profit, and that number jumped to 13 in in 2014. “The amount of debt owed by those attending for-profit colleges has grown from $39 billion in 2000 to $229 billion in 2014—which is more attributable to increases in the rate of borrowing at those schools than to increases in enrollment,” White wrote.

While for-profit colleges are generally appealing to non-traditional students, many of the institutions have come under scrutiny for specifically targeting military veterans, who come with GI bill aid. Earlier this year The Atlantic’s Alia Wong reported that predatory institutions often use veterans to skirt the federal “90/10 rule,” which states that for-profit colleges can’t generate more than 90 percent of its tuition revenue from federal aid—a rule from which military benefits are exempt. In fact, this week’s court ruling follows recent news that the Department of Defense earlier this month suspended the University of Phoenix from recruiting military students.

Still, some observers remain skeptical that real solutions are in sight for the Corinthian students and their peers who’ve been similarly victimized by predatory for-profits. Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois—where the recent lawsuit against Corinthian Colleges Inc. was tried—questions the culpability of for-profit college leaders and the government’s place in overseeing these college networks. “Two questions: Will anyone at Corinthian be held personally responsible? And when will our government hold this industry accountable for the damage it is causing students across America?”

Meanwhile, the controversies surrounding for-profit colleges have further polarized discussions around college affordability. While eleven U.S. senators have applauded the Department of Defense for restraining the University of Phoenix, some officials have lobbied on behalf of for-profit colleges. After the suspension, Arizona Republican John McCain, and two fellow senators, wrote a letter addressed to Department of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, noting:

“We strongly believe that these earned benefits and educational opportunities for our service members should not be jeopardized because of political or ideological opinions of some Members of Congress regarding the types of institutions that provide postsecondary education to our troops.”

Others, including the Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, also asked for leniency on the college’s behalf. In a letter obtained by Bloomberg, Rubio wrote:

“It has been brought to my attention that the U.S. Department of Education has recently placed extreme financial constraints on Corinthian Colleges, Inc. by restricting the company’s timely access to federal financial aid. It is my understanding the the Department of Education has requested extensive documents be provided by Corinthian Colleges for review, and Corinthian has acted in good faith to try to provide these documents as expeditiously as possible… While I commend the Department’s desire to protect our nation’s students from fraudulent and malicious activity by any institution of higher education, regardless of tax status, I believe the Department can and should demonstrate leniency as long as Corinthian Colleges, Inc. continues to expeditiously and earnestly cooperate by providing the documents requested.”

When Education Wasn’t Enough

As the U.S. continues to reckon with a widening income gap between the wealthiest Americans and marginalized communities, politicians and advocates have often cited education access as one of the greater contributors—and potential solutions—to the problem.

Improving educational opportunities to shrink income disparities depends on increasing the resources available to school districts. But funding alone is not enough to equalize access to a quality education. Schools need new and innovative approaches to turn resources into student results that beget success in the world beyond the classroom. A look back at historical challenges to education access demonstrates how far the U.S. has come, and highlights the obstacles facing students today compared with those of prior generations.

Access to education in the U.S. has improved for demographic groups across four important categories: race, class, ethnicity, and gender. But progress on these fronts has been slow and contentious. Historically, local, state, and federal leaders have instead used education as a tool to control minority populations.

How Education Policy Went Astray

Consider the forced assimilation of Native American children during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These children were sent to boarding schools to acculturate them into a dominant white American society. They were forbidden from speaking in native tongues and were renamed for heroic historical figures like Philip Sheridan and Ulysses S. Grant. Meanwhile, Chinese and Latino children were denied equal access to education in many parts of the country as school systems, spurred on by communities’ xenophobic fears, pushed for laws or found loopholes that allowed them to segregate public schools.

These experiences extended to larger immigrant groups as well, such as the WWI-era pressure on German-American parochial schools in Texas, California, the Midwest, and major cities throughout the Northeast to forgo their ties to German culture. This discrimination grew to include forbidding non-English instruction to students of German descent, as politicians and the American public questioned whether schools founded by ethnic religious orders could be loyal to the U.S. in a time of war.

Minority ethnic groups pushed back against the restrictions as they were imposed, calling on the U.S. government to address inequalities in education access. Progress took time, accumulating in piecemeal gains for minorities.

Building on other education-related legislation throughout the 20th century, Congress took a significant step forward in 1974 with the passage of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which required schools to accommodate bilingual students, among other measures. In most states today, instead of shutting out non-English speaking students, K-12 schools and universities now offer programs teaching English as a second language, and hire reading and language specialists to work with students to get them past the language barrier.

In a sense, improved access to education came as a result of a more inclusive definition of citizenship in the last century. African Americans, however, have been at the center of the most contentious challenges to that inclusivity. In 1899, Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education built upon the impact of Plessy v. Ferguson three years prior by upholding a community’s right to choose not to provide public education for black students. Parents of black children who were refused education by their local school boards were still required to pay taxes to support public education for the rest of the district, and were told to move to a district that ran a segregated school if they wanted their children to be educated.

Decades later during the civil rights era, many Americans realized that access to education was an easy measuring stick to judge true progress for marginalized communities. That awareness wasn’t limited to U.S. citizens. Government leaders were shamed into taking action on integrating schools and rolling out new busing policies when the Soviet Union mocked segregation as evidence that the U.S. couldn’t back up its claimed principles of liberty and equality.

20-point gap in graduation rates between African American and white students. Despite Brown v. Board of Education, segregation is reemerging in K-12 schools, as white schools get whiter and black schools in poor, inner-city neighborhoods continue to suffer a marked achievement gap.

Scholars even point to lack of access to quality preschool programs as one indicator of later struggles. In many districts, black students in K-12 schools are also still suspended at rates disproportionate to their numbers, and college-educated blacks experienced a sharper drop in net worth and income than college-educated whites in the last decade.

It should be noted here that poor, white school districts are also cutting programs in the arts, physical education, and extracurricular activities to keep doors open, which has caused concerns about graduation rates. As with other countries, race and class are so intertwined in the U.S. that it is often difficult to distinguish whether inferior educational opportunities stem exclusively from one category or the other.

Recognizing this, the government attempted to address the impact of class on education; then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which was designed to alleviate access to education issues for low-income students, and was reauthorized by President George W. Bush in 2002 as No Child Left Behind. Yet many Americans—teachers, parents, administrators, and politicians alike—debate whether access has improved and whether the role of class can be addressed without addressing race as well.

As schools have made progress in closing achievement gaps among racial groups, gender-related inequality has shrunk in the K-12 classroom over the last several decades. In fact, educators and scholars have even gone so far as to question whether schools have left boys behind in the effort to enhance education for girls: Most universities in the U.S. today record gender ratios that tip far toward a female majority. This is especially the case for black women, who attend college in larger numbers than black men and boast a nearly 10 percent higher graduation rate than their male counterparts.

While female students could obtain an education at several public and private universities by the mid-20th century, they still found doors closed to them professionally. Many of those doors have since opened, but even today, women experience an income gap of 21 percent. For women, improved access to education has not yet meant freedom from income inequality.

averaging around $28,000 each. Many universities have struggled to keep up with shifting expectations in the last two decades, during which students have demanded increased luxuries on campus and skill-based professional programs.

Desperate for a college diploma, students sometimes resort to predatory for-profit universities (an industry now under growing scrutiny), worsening their chances of success outside of the lecture hall. Even for those students who take the traditional route through vetted universities, post-graduation incomes for many positions have remained frozen at pre-9/11 rates, leaving students to wonder if their degrees will help them in the marketplace at all.

This in turn hurts the greater economy: Anxious, cash-strapped graduates are more likely to postpone the first steps of adulthood, such as buying a car or house, or getting married. This entire crisis suggests that college has not overcome class issues to improve access to education.

Instead, Americans have come to value a college education so much, they are willing to mortgage their futures. Student debt has become a pet issue among presidential candidates, many of whom make a point of appealing to younger Americans with a sympathetic stance. It remains to be seen what impact lowering the financial barriers to higher education might have on income and academic equality.

The U.S. has made headway in educational opportunities with each generation, but improved access has thus far not served as an immediate salve for deep-seated societal problems. While resources for schools remain scarce in the current economic environment, traditionally disadvantaged populations continue to suffer the consequences.

Testing, So Much Testing

On Saturday, President Obama posted a high-profile video message to Facebook in which he called on schools to reduce the amount of standardized testing taking place in classrooms. Critics of overtesting generally support the proposal, which reinforces what seems to have been the U.S. education system’s gradual, uneven, and often tacit withdrawal from aggressive, assessment-based accountability. In many ways, the plan amounts to the White House’s long-anticipated, albeit anti-climactic, response to what’s become a particularly fraught era in public education. The past few years have been characterized by mass opt-outs, a patchwork of state legislation to rein in rampant testing on their home turfs, and all kinds of assessment-related technological glitches and logistical snafus (one of which is currently playing out across Florida).

But Obama’s announcement of the so-called “Testing Action Plan”  wasn’t the only piece of news to hit the anti-testing world this past weekend. It coincided, not uncoincidentally, with the release of a compelling report by Council of the Great City Schools—an influential Washington-based group that has generally supported testing—which offers the latest piece of evidence that government-driven school reform has taken things too far. The report identifies significant redundancy in the exams being administered in 66 urban U.S. school districts, finding that, between prekindergarten (yes, pre-k) and 12th grade, U.S. public-school students each take roughly eight mandatory standardized tests annually, many of them stipulated by No Child Left Behind.

Adding to that news twofer, a number of recent reports help confirm critics’ doubts about the integrity of test scores as a tool for measuring student achievement. American Institutes for Research published a study on Monday highlighting inconsistencies between the Common Core standards, which are adopted at the state level, and the separate National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of federally sponsored exams that’s administered consistently across all 50 states. The Urban Institute’s Matt Chingos has just authored a somewhat similar report outlining the “promises and pitfalls” of the NAEP scores, too. “NAEP scores,” he wrote, “have been misused as long as the test has been given.” As it happens, the newest NAEP report was published Wednesday, and it shows that fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores in math and reading have decreased. (Only fourth-grade reading scores remained stagnant.)

Obama’s plan, which offers guidelines but doesn’t have the force of law, aims to reduce the kind of redundancy highlighted in the Council of the Great City Schools’ report and generally revitalize the classroom experience. “We’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure that we’re not obsessing about testing—that the principles I just outlined are reflected in classrooms across the country … that our kids are enjoying learning, that our teachers are able to operate with creativity,” Obama said in the video. We’re going “to make sure that we are preparing our kids for a lifetime of success.”

The proposal reiterates many of the messages that have come out of the White House in recent months—some of which, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein pointed out back in February, are all but contradictory given how integral standardized tests have been to “nearly every major Obama K-12 initiative.” What is rather newsworthy about Saturday’s announcement is that it marks what may be the administration’s first explicit, public acknowledgment of its role in the overtesting. It also comes with a straightforward request that schools cap testing at 2 percent of the total time kids spend in the classroom—a recommendation that Obama, to be sure, insinuated in July in his recommendations for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law.

Testing’s pros and cons aside, perhaps the move may be little more than a symbolic gesture—a political confession—that affirms the validity of anti-testing efforts. Maybe it’ll give some momentum to existing state- and district-level legislation to keep accountability mandates in check. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll appease some of the unrest resulting from the opt-out movement. But what meaningful change will ensue in schools other than more turmoil and confusion?

For one, aside from the 2 percent cap, the proposal doesn’t provide much concrete guidance to schools. Obama described the proposal using very imprecise terminology, the kind of rhetoric his administration, including outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has been using for months: Students should “only take tests that are worth taking,” Obama said, while tests should only be administered insomuch as they “enhance teaching and learning” and should account for just one among many sources of information about student achievement.

What’s more, capping testing at 2 percent wouldn’t, in reality, change much at the average school. The Council of the Great City Schools report found that, this past school year, the average amount of time devoted to mandated tests among eighth-graders—the students who typically spend the most time taking such assessments—was a little over four days, or 2.3 percent of total classroom time. And in some ways, announcing a cap—rather than specific guidelines related to the merits and type of the assessments—just exacerbates the problem highlighted in the Council’s report in which schools give more attention to the quantity than the quality. It also gives the wrong impression that the federal government, not states and districts, is the main actor to blame for all the overtesting, according to Tamara Hiler, the education-policy advisor at Third Way. “[Obama’s] announcement,” Hiler said, “confuses that perception about testing in a really unhelpful way.”

Ultimately, this announcement could further muddle an already-muddled landscape in which opinions and data and policies are constantly in flux or at odds; any conversation about testing is likely to lead into a rabbit hole of contradictions, misinformation, or “twisty rhetoric.” Experts are constantly debating the reliability of testing data, policymakers are flip-flopping on their approach to assessments, and public-opinion surveys continue to produce contradictory findings about Americans’ views on it all. And it’s not limited to the prek-12 sector: A growing number of college admissions offices are going “test-optional”—a tendency that’s been celebrated by many as prudent and progressive and lambasted by many others as self-interested and insincere.

Obama to Schools: Obsess Less About Testing

Then there’s the NAEP, of course, which happens to produce the testing data used by the Council on the Great City Schools to conclude that increased testing time doesn’t correlate with improved achievement. Misuse and abuse of NAEP data—extrapolating from it to make cause-effect claims about certain policies, cherrypicking the numbers, focusing on the negative findings, and so on—are so widespread that some pundits have even come up with a name for the practice: misNAEPery.

Lots of pundits are skeptical of Obama’s announcement. FairTest’s Bob Schaeffer argued that “documenting testing overkill is … just the first step toward assessment reform” and highlighted the need for concrete efforts to reverse current policies—“not just more hollow rhetoric and creation of yet another study commission.” Diane Ravitch, the prominent education historian and current president of the Network for Public Education, said: “The Obama administration’s stance on testing is too little too late … It is time for fundamental changes in federal policy, not pointless tinkering.”

Still, lots of other observers appear optimistic about the announcement’s implications. Describing the proposal as “common sense,” the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten attributed it to the success of grassroots activism among parents, students, and educators. Even Hillary Clinton applauded the plan, taking advantage of the news to highlight her position on standardized testing, which essentially echoes that of Obama: “We should be ruthless in looking at tests and eliminating them if they do not actually help us move our kids forward.”

Obama to Schools: Obsess Less About Testing

A new report offers an unprecedented look at the testing load in large urban districts across the nation, finding considerable redundancy and a lack of coordination among the exams.

Students typically spend about 20 to 25 hours per year on roughly eight mandatory assessments, according to the analysis and testing “inventory” by the Council of the Great City Schools. The report included exams that fulfill federal requirements, as well as other mandated by states or local districts.

In reaction to the new analysis, the Obama administration on Saturday offered a high-profile pitch to reduce testing, including by urging states to require a 2 percent cap on classroom time devoted to taking such exams. It also outlines other steps, including a call to ensure the tests are high quality, fair to kids with learning challenges, including special education students and English language learners, and—perhaps most importantly—are just one measure of a student’s knowledge and progress.

In a video posted on Facebook, President Obama said that, ‘‘Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble. So we’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure that we’re not obsessing about testing.’’

The White House announcement and the new report have drawn widespread attention in the news media, including a piece by Kate Zernike for The New York Times. She writes:

Faced with mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in the nation’s public schools, the Obama administration declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful.

Arne Duncan, who steps down as secretary of education in December, told The New York Times that he has “no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support … But I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

The announcement is not a complete surprise. As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa noted, states have already been taking action to address concerns about over-testing. And at a Education Writers Association seminar in May, Duncan reiterated his position that testing had gotten out of hand.

The new report from the Council of Great City Schools (representing the nation’s largest districts) finds that, on average, students take over 110 federally, state, or locally mandated assessments between kindergarten and 12th grade. At the eighth-grade level, where the testing load is the highest, test-taking accounts for 2.34 percent of the student’s instructional time.

The report makes clear that semantics matter when talking about assessments, which have grown increasingly controversial in recent years as grassroots “opt out” movements have gained momentum. The CGCS report found that “parents want to know how their own child is doing in school, and how testing will help ensure equal access to a high quality education.” From the report:

The sentence, “It is important to have an accurate measure of what my child knows.” is supported or strongly supported by 82 percent of public school parents in our polling. Language about “testing” is not.

Among the other key findings:

  • Among the 66 districts surveyed by CGCS, over 400 different assessments are being used. According to the report, “some tests are not well aligned to each other, are not specifically aligned with college- or career-ready standards, and often do not assess student mastery of any specific content.”
  • Teachers often wait as long as four months to get the results of assessments, which limits their usefulness in guiding instruction or helping individual students improve. And in many districts spring test results are not returned until the fall, when a new academic year is underway.
  • “There is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP),” according to the report.

“Everyone is culpable here,” Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton. “You’ve got multiple actors requiring, urging, and encouraging a variety of tests for very different reasons that don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture of how our kids are doing. The result is an assessment system that’s not very intelligent and not coherent.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the White House’s announcement, and noted that it’s consistent with perceptions among the public that testing in schools has gotten out of hand.

“This is common sense,” she said in a statement. “It’s why overwhelming numbers of Americans think there is too much testing, as seen in the recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, and it’s why legislators on both sides of the aisle want to fix No Child Left Behind, a law that drove over-testing. The time to act is now.”

It was the Obama administration’s acknowledgement of the part its education initiatives have played in pushing testing to the forefront that caught my attention. From the official announcement:

No one set out to create situations where students spend too much time taking standardized tests or where tests are redundant or fail to provide useful information. Nevertheless, these problems are occurring in many places—unintended effects of policies that have aimed to provide more useful information to educators, families, students, and policymakers and to ensure attention to the learning progress of low-income and minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and members of other groups that have been traditionally underserved. These aims are right, but support in implementing them well has been inadequate, including from this Administration.

But Bob Schaeffer, the education director of the advocacy group FairTest, which has been sharply critical of the amount and uses of standardized testing, told me in an email Saturday that the White House doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging its culpability.

It’s “far too little genuine test reform,” Schaeffer said. “Coming far too late.”

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

How Food Trucks Are Making School Lunch Cool

Getting high-school students to embrace healthy eating is an age-old battle. And when it comes to lunch, many eschew their school cafeteria in favor of eating off-campus, where healthy choices don’t always abound.

Now school districts are starting to lure their students into eating better—by powered by ausweb their own food trucks up and running on campus.

“Food trucks are a great addition to school food service—both from a way to engage the older kids and a way to engage the community,” says Ann Cooper, the director of food services at Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District. “It’s part of a great overall marketing strategy.”

Last year, Boulder Valley became one of the first districts in the U.S. to start serving school lunches at a food truck during the academic year. The vehicle, which has been attractively styled as a cross between a rustic farmhouse and a milk truck, was funded by a $75,000 grant from Whole Foods Market.

Cooper says that though the truck mostly serves the same food as the cafeteria and the prices are identical, the students find the truck food more appealing.

“It’s meeting the kids where they are to provide a cool environment,” Cooper says. “There’s a different vibe to it, with music playing.”

In addition to rotating among local high schools during the week, the truck also comes to the district’s elementary schools for special events.

“Cafeteria participation has been up and so is the number of kids eating at the food truck,” she says. “So we’re getting a demographic that never [ate at] the cafeteria before … Kids who walked off campus are now eating at the food truck.”

This spring, the Minneapolis School District will start serving daily school lunch from its food trucks, which have successfully been feeding students at field trips and special events for three years. Like Boulder Valley, the truck will rotate among its high-school campuses.

“Principals have been begging us to get the truck out there,” says Bertrand Weber, the director of food services. “The main challenge is that we can’t keep up with the demand.”

Weber worked with chefs at local restaurants to develop recipes for the truck’s brown rice-based carnitas bowl, orange chicken bowl, and curry chicken bowl. They’re part of the district’s partnership with chefs to develop healthy recipes (such as beet hummus) made with local food.

“In just the first three weeks of this school year alone, we served 28,000 pounds of local produce,” Weber says. He also has found ways to work with producers to develop new markets for their products.

“I worked with a small local turkey farmer and developed a turkey burger and hot dog—and found a processor to do this,” he says. “We’re working next on a breakfast sausage. We’re another outlet for dark meat [since] not as many buy the leg and thighs.”

Students gather at a food truck in Minnesota. (Andy Berndt / Civil Eats)

The Minneapolis School District set up its first food truck three years ago, after Hunger Free Minnesota asked it to write a grant for a vehicle to feed underserved students during the summertime.

The district acted quickly. By June 2012—just four months later—its truck was out at parks and libraries dishing out lunches in four neighborhoods.

“It took about one and a half months to find a bus and two months to convert it,” Weber says. “We worked with our transportation program and they found us a minibus that had been used for disabled students.”

With only a food warmer, refrigerator, and sink on board, the truck isn’t well-equipped to prepare food. But when parked on campus, Weber says that it can serve up to 700 students in 90 minutes, thanks to the ability to bring in more food stored in school refrigerators.

The truck—which has been decorated with the district’s “True Food” campaign theme using bright photographs of fresh produce—has served students at special events such as parties, graduations, and school year kickoffs. It’s also tagged along on school field trips to serve up to 350 students hot lunches or dinners.

The strategy of using mobile units to feed hungry children isn’t entirely new. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began sponsoring summertime buses and food trucks across the country in areas in which it was difficult for children to access the agency’s established food service sites.

Civil Eats

“Mobile feeding is a successful strategy that community and state partners have found to improve their capacity to reach food insecure children when school is not in session,” said Audrey Rowe, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administrator, in an email.

Minneapolis and Boulder Valley have also found that the trucks can help raise money for the district’s food service programs.

To break even, Minneapolis’s truck needs 200 students to buy meals during one lunch service—but has the capacity to serve 500 more during that time period.

“Anything above that helps our entire [food service] program,” Weber says.

And Boulder Valley’s truck moonlights for the district’s catering operation, where it has appeared at TEDx Boulder and a local harvest festival. (The district obtained a city and county license to serve food.)

For Cooper, using the food truck for catering provides more than just extra money.

“It’s a driving billboard,” she says. “That increases our visibility overall and the quality of what we do.”

This article appears courtesy of Civil Eats.

The Law-School Scam Continues

Last year I published an article outlining how three for-profit law ausweb run by InfiLaw, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based private-equity firm Sterling Partners, was radically slashing its already-modest admissions standards while collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in federally funded educational loans, many of which were almost certain to never be paid back.

The article described how David Frakt, a candidate for the dean position at one of the schools, had his presentation to the faculty cut short after he suggested the school’s abandonment of entrance requirements would likely lead to catastrophic bar passage results. The account proved to be too candid for the administration’s comfort.

Because law-school graduates typically take the bar examination either three or four years after their initial enrollment, the slashing—or perhaps more accurately the de facto elimination—of admissions standards, which began in earnest at the Infilaw schools in 2012, is only now beginning to be reflected in state bar results. Yet those results are already providing compelling evidence that Frakt was correct—that the bar-passage crisis he predicted is likely to get much worse, and that, moreover, this crisis could affect a large proportion of the nation’s law schools.

The Law-School Scam

Bar-passage rates at the InfiLaw schools are now in a free fall. (The following percentages are for first-time takers of the July exam in the schools’ home states.) Florida Coastal’s bar-passage rate has fallen from 76 percent to 59 percent, Charlotte’s has fallen from 78 percent to 47 percent, and Arizona Summit’s has gone from 75 percent to an astonishing 30.6 percent.

This collapse has taken place despite the fact that, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed by a former Arizona Summit administrator, all three schools have been offering money to graduates who the schools identified as being at especially high risk for failure, to get them to hold off on taking the bar exam. Indeed, in July Arizona Summit’s dean confirmed that she had called various graduates the night before the exam, imploring them to consider the “opportunity” to withdraw from the test, in exchange for a $10,000 living stipend, that would be paid to them if they enrolled in enhanced bar-preparation courses provided by the school.

The InfiLaw schools’ bar-passage numbers are almost certain to get even worse. Although the schools reduced their admissions standards drastically in 2012, they have since cut them further, to the point where they are now admitting huge numbers of students with credentials including lower LSAT scores and GPAs that would have barred them from getting into these schools three years ago.  The admissions process at the InfiLaw schools is now close to a fully open-enrollment system, that inevitably matriculates many people who have little chance of ever passing a bar exam.

InfiLaw is not only exploiting these students, but also taxpayers who will foot the bill when these students cannot repay the hundreds of millions of dollars they borrow.  Because the schools are ABA-accredited (via a lax process epitomizing the dangers of regulatory capture) the federal government will loan the full cost of attendance to anyone they admit—even though it is likely that, given their entrance credentials, a very large percentage of InfiLaw’s current students will never pass a bar exam, let alone actually secure jobs as lawyers. (The full cost of attendance at these schools is now over $200,000.)

It would be bad enough if the collapse of law-school admissions standards, and the subsequent collapse of bar-passage rates, were limited to a handful of especially egregious bad actors in the world of for-profit higher education. But as I argued last year, the same basic path followed by Infilaw is now being taken by dozens of other law schools, almost all of which are nonprofits. The only difference between these schools and the InfiLaw group is that most of them waited a year or two longer before reducing their admissions standards in response to plummeting application numbers, and that therefore it will take another year or two before this is reflected in the national bar-exam results.

A new report from the watchdog group Law School Transparency catalogs exactly how severe the bar-exam crisis is likely to become. The report documents the steep decline in admissions standards at American law schools, and concludes that last year more than one third of ABA-accredited schools admitted classes in which at least 25 percent of the admits are at significant risk for failing the bar. Roughly three dozen of these schools—nearly 20 percent of all ABA law schools—admitted classes in which half or more of the entering class is at a high risk of failing the bar, according to the report. (The latter total has more than quadrupled since 2010.)

In theory, a law school with a low enough bar-passage rate is at risk of losing its accreditation, and therefore access to federal student loans. In practice, under current regulatory conditions it’s almost impossible for this to happen. The ABA accreditation standards require a school’s bar-passage rate to fall more than 15 points below the state average for at least three of the most recent five years before the school can even be considered for de-accreditation. Remarkably,  the passage rate of the school’s own graduates is counted as part of the state average, meaning that, the larger the school, the more likely it is the high failure rate of its graduates can suppress the statewide bar passage rate enough to protect the school’s accreditation.

This is just one example of how the ABA committee that oversees law-school accreditation has been, as I argued last year, captured by the very institutions it is supposed to be regulating. At this point, it’s unclear whether plunging bar-passage rates will inspire federal regulators to take a more aggressive role in protecting both severely underqualified prospective law students and American taxpayers from the predatory behavior of many of the country’s law schools.

The Bipartisan Appeal of Pre-K

One of the more staggering education statistics to transpire in recent years is that, in most states, daycare actually costs more than tuition and fees at a public four-year college. The finding, which is based on a 2013 report by Child Care Aware America, specifically refers to the care of an infant—but the high costs of caring for and educating children continue until they enter kindergarten. That’s largely because, compared to the K-12 and higher-ed sectors, there are relatively few public prekindergarten options in the United States to choose from.

The staggering price of preschool means it’s largely open only to wealthier families—even though a new poll suggests that an overwhelming majority of America’s adults agree that the country should ensure more children have access to quality learning in their first five years of life. In the same poll, a plurality of them even went so far as to say that Americans should invest more in early education than in college.

The survey was commissioned by the First Five Years Fund, a group that advocates for more federal spending on early-childhood education, and conducted in early September among 800 voters by a bipartisan team of polling companies. And it shows that, unlike so many other education issues, the push for greater investment in early-childhood learning has broad support from people in both parties. When asked whether they supported allocating federal dollars to states and local communities to provide better early childhood education, 94 percent of Democrats said yes, but so did 59 percent of Republicans. Similar percentages said the country should be doing more to ensure kids start kindergarten with the necessary skills, while roughly nine in 10 respondents said it’s important to make “early education and child care more affordable for working families to give children a strong start.”

The bipartisan popularity of early-childhood-education funding is well-documented. Advocates from across the political spectrum credit early-childhood education with equalizing outcomes, strengthening the economy, and reducing the need for spending on welfare and other social programs. So it isn’t surprising that proposals to expand access to pre-k have figured prominently on the agendas of Democratic and Republican politicians alike—including recently elected governors in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas and, famously New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

What is rather newsworthy about the poll, however, is that it indicates Americans think the federal government has its “education priorities reversed.” Granted, a third of the respondents said that federal investments in early-childhood education and college should be made equally—and as one pundit emphasized in an interview with The Hechinger Report, the poll didn’t ask respondents explicitly about the kinds of expenditures they’d cut in order to dedicate more funding to early ed. But of the remaining 500-plus respondents, people were twice as likely to identify early education as the better investment over college.

The Law-School Scam Continues

This would suggest that the presidential contenders would be well-advised to give the issue more play in their platform commitments—perhaps even more so than higher education, an issue that seems to have gotten more attention from candidates so far. As Politico’s Kimberly Hefling reported in August, “Presidential candidates from both parties are tapping into Americans’ growing angst over paying for college, placing an unprecedented bright glare on higher education this election.” Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have sparred over their plans to expand access to higher education, with the former committing to a debt-free-college “compact” and the latter proposing free, universal college for all; Republicans, have criticized various facets of the current system, from accreditation to student loans, as inefficient and antiquated.

But early-childhood education has remained largely unnoticed in the various campaigns. Perhaps that’s in part because there’s not much to differentiate the candidates on that front, at least at this stage. Both Clinton and Sanders support universal pre-k, and both advocated for the issue in some capacity before launching their campaigns. Meanwhile, Hechinger’s Lillian Mongeau noted that a number of the former or current governors running for the Republican bid come from states with robust public preschool programs, some of which developed under their purview.

Roughly half of the country’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of early-childhood program, whether public or private center-based prekindergarten programs, Head Start, or childcare. A relatively similar percentage of Americans aged 18 through 24 are currently enrolled in some sort of postsecondary education. Federal funding for the two sectors, however, is far less proportional. The federal government spent $76 billion on higher education in 2013, largely in the form of Pell grants. (And given the decline in state support for colleges, that number is only likely to grow.) Early education got just a fraction of the amount. Although the variation in funding mechanisms and program types makes it especially difficult to calculate exactly how much the federal government spends on early-childhood education, Head Start got just $6.5 billion in federal money last fiscal year, while the Child Care and Development Fund—which is in part divvied up among the states—got only $5 billion.

This was the first year the First Five Years Fund asked respondents to compare preschool- and college-funding priorities. “There’s no question that candidates are heavily focussed on issues related to education, and lately higher education has received a lot of attention,” said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, in an emailed statement. “Our goal wasn’t to pit early childhood against higher education. But we did want to show the incredible support the American public has for early childhood education, given the overwhelming research showing how critical quality learning experiences are for children in the first five years of life.”

The Evolution of the GI Bill

When Shannon Travis was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq for 14 months, one of her jobs was refueling helicopters. ­The shifts were long, and when there were no helicopters, she and her team had hours of downtime. ­They whittled away the time playing cards, watching TV, and just hanging out.

With all that unstructured time, Travis started taking online courses toward the college degree she hoped to one day earn, knocking out prerequisites such as English and biology. “I was the only one [in my unit] taking classes,” she laughs. “­They all made fun of me for it.”

Travis’s stint in Iraq ended in 2008, and after a few major life changes, she is now a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve and a senior at McDaniel College, a private four-year college in rural Maryland. Her husband, Patrick Robbins, who is also a veteran and whom she met while stationed in Germany, graduated from McDaniel in 2015.

When Travis and Robbins returned to the United States in 2010, they joined the Army Reserve and started taking classes at Carroll Community College in Maryland. Travis dreamed of becoming a Foreign Service officer, so she set her sights on transferring to American, George Washington, or Georgetown universities, with their renowned international relations programs.

She was also curious about McDaniel, which was just up the road in Westminster. “I heard a lot of good things from the community college about McDaniel, so I went to the political-science department and I talked to the academic dean,” Travis says. Soon, she was sold on the school’s welcoming environment and is now caught up in what she calls the “political-science bubble” on campus.


Her studies were interrupted in 2014 when she was called overseas to serve as a force protector in Afghanistan, an experience that offered very different opportunities from her time in Balad. She acted as a liaison with local communities, even learning to speak some Dari, the local language. “It’s taking me longer to get my degree, but I think Afghanistan also brought a lot of experience,” she says.

The college experience that Travis and Robbins received was made possible with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which offers service members and their families some of the most comprehensive and generous benefits yet since the original iteration of the GI Bill. Under the Yellow Ribbon Program of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, military members can have up to $21,084.89 of their tuition and fees at a private college or international school covered annually. Travis says that she would encourage all veterans or service members eligible for the GI Bill to make use of it, saying, “If they don’t use it, they’re missing out on so, so much.”

The original GI Bill, or the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” as it is formally known, transformed American life. Millions of soldiers returning from World War II were given access to low-cost mortgages to buy homes, loans to start businesses, and cash payments to cover tuition and living expenses while attending university, high school, or vocational programs.

Historians credit the GI Bill with helping to create the “Greatest Generation,” sending millions to college who otherwise would not be able to afford it. That surge in college and degree attainment helped create what became the modern middle class. Many colleges doubled in size as a result. Elite institutions that were formerly the sole province of the wealthy started to open their doors to a more economically-diverse student body.

At the turn of the century, approximately six decades after the original GI Bill was signed, benefits had not kept pace with the rising costs of going to college. In 1985, the GI Bill was updated, becoming the Montgomery GI Bill. Under that guise, the bill offered stipends for up to 36 months to individuals who had completed active-duty service of three years or more. As of 2007, the maximum amount awarded was a little over $1,000 a month.

‘Dollar Signs in Uniform’: Why For-Profit Colleges Target Veterans

“If you look at the impact of the Montgomery GI Bill broadly, it dramatically changed our country in terms of its economic impact and the average educational-attainment level of citizens,” says Jennifer Taylor, an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University. “I think that the Post-9/11 GI Bill will have the same impact because we’re talking about similar numbers in terms of the people eligible for benefits.”

While the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been transformative for many, the billions of dollars in funding have proved to be too tempting for some unscrupulous actors. Over the years, a number of for-profit colleges have cashed in on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, aggressively recruiting military-service members and veterans. Some for-profits offered unaccredited degrees, leaving graduates with debt but no improved job prospects.

Veterans are particularly attractive to for-profits because of a loophole in the 90/10 rule, which requires that institutions derive no more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal college aid. The GI Bill is exempt from that rule, allowing institutions to target veterans.

The now-defunct Corinthian College, Inc. is one example of the sort of institution that targeted veterans. A Senate HELP Committee report found that Corinthian was one of the top recipients of Post-9/11 GI Bill funds, receiving $186 million from 2009 to 2013. Corinthian is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit from the California Attorney General’s office, which alleges that the company used misleading recruitment techniques, such as including the official seals of the branches of the U.S. military in its advertising materials for military members.

After a series of investigations and a financial collapse when the U.S. Department of Education withheld federal funds, Corinthian finally closed its doors in April 2015. The fate of its last 16,000 students and the student-loan debt that many now carry is still being resolved.

Earlier this summer, an investigation from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that as many as 2,000 unaccredited institutions received $260 million of GI Bill funds since 2009. In mid-September, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic representative from Connecticut., and Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican representative from North Carolina, introduced the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015, which would prevent Post-9/11 GI Bill funds from being used at unaccredited institutions.

This article appears courtesy of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.