Monday Reading List: The Cost of College and Care in Criticism

Today's reading list is heavy on articles about college, as students around the country are preparing to either start, or return to, their institutions of higher learning. Mikhail Zinshteyn at The Atlantic looks at the relative financial stinginess of elite universities:

Among that group of 138 of the nation’s wealthiest colleges and universities, four in five charge poor students so much that they’d need to surrender 60 percent or more of their household incomes just to attend, even after financial aid is considered. Nearly half have enrollment rates of low-income students that place them in the bottom 5 percent nationally for such enrollment. These findings come from a new report released by the Education Trust, which noted that while these places of higher learning possess endowments of at least $500 million each, few are spending that largess at anywhere near the rate they could to ease college costs for talented low-income students. The report called many of these schools “playgrounds for the children of the wealthiest in our country” with leaders who “have mostly chosen not to prioritize educating students from low-income families.”

While colleges overall provide more cash towards tuition for less wealthy students and their families, that relative generosity seems moot when the most elite institutions charge so much. As long as these elite institutions serve as gatekeepers to privilege and power, they should be further democratized. That said, it's important to remember that the absolute most elite schools represent a small fraction of all higher education in this country, even while they occupy an outsized space in the collective imagination. Lawrence Ware wants students of color to understand how to navigate these "predominantly White institutions":

No one prepared me for the multiple assaults on my humanity that I experienced at a PWI. I was consistently the only black student in my class, and in my entire collegiate career (including graduate school), I had only one black professor. I was frequently asked if I was a student-athlete (read: The only way you’d be on a college campus is for your athletic prowess), and my professor laughed in my face when I told him that I wanted to major in philosophy ... “It is important for students of color to remember that predominantly white colleges and universities are still historically white,” says Elon Dancy, professor of education and associate dean for community engagement and academic inclusion at the University of Oklahoma and author of The Brother Code: Manhood and Masculinity Among African American Males in College. “So while these institutions may ‘admit’ people of color, they still have ways of not accepting them,” he says.

Could "having a stained glass window depicting chattel slavery" be one of those ways?

Kevin Carey, on the other hand, throws water on the idea that college is an unequivocal good:

Some people do learn valuable things in college. Nursing programs, for example, are closely tied to professional norms and a high-demand field. Some of the college wage premium is a function of sorting and selecting students who were smarter, and thus more likely to succeed in the job market, in the first place. There’s also a process of acculturation, learning how to succeed in a large, impersonal organization, which is pretty important to succeeding in the modern white-collar economy. Higher earnings for college graduates are also a function of the bottom dropping out of the market for people who haven’t graduated from college. And while it’s true that grads have higher average earnings, there’s a whole lot of variation on either side of that average. College is undeniably a bad financial deal for a non-trivial number of people.

Statistically, I understand what Carey is saying, but when we ration educational goods in this country - like higher education - we tend to do so along race and class lines. Until we undo that premise, it's hard for me to advocate fewer people receiving college degrees.

Moving to the K-12 space, Emily DeRuy took a closer look at the "Movement 4 Black Lives" policy platform:

Mostly, said Jonathan Stith, the national coordinator for the Washington-based Alliance for Educational Justice and one of the lead authors, the propositions are an attempt to crystallize what the movement supports and to provide activists with a platform from which to move forward. “It’s always been clear what we’re against, but [articulating] what we’re for, what we want to see, was a real labor,” Stith, 41, said ... The plan, which lambasts the “privatization” of education by foundations that wield fat wallets to shape policy and criticizes charter-school networks for decimating black communities and robbing traditional neighborhood schools of resources, drew immediate criticism from education reformers who see charters and groups like Teach for America (the plan calls for its demise) as providing badly needed services to students of color. Some of these reformers said it signaled that the movement was cozy with teachers’ unions and the status quo. 

There's room to critique this platform on its substance, particularly among educators of color with a stake in the other major tentpoles of the movement's objectives. That said, White education reformers who have been critical of the movement do neither themselves, nor their political objectives, any favors by offering their unsolicited criticism. If you've been hostile to the idea of a Black-led movement for liberation, I'm not sure why that movement ought to take your perspective seriously. White folks in general, even those supportive of the movement, should spend most of their time listening to what's coming out of the movement, so please think hard before offering public criticism on specific elements of the platform.

Elsewhere in K-12  news, Peter Cunningham thinks progressives in Massachusetts are missing the boat by not supporting the expansion of the state's best charter schools:

According to a Stanford University study, Massachusetts charter students gain the equivalent of an extra 36 days in reading and 65 days in math each year. The state’s charter schools also serve a higher percentage of students of color and low-income students than schools statewide ... Charters further honor another core progressive principle: accountability to families. Since 2010, 10 charter schools in the state — about one in eight — were closed down for low performance. Compare that to the traditional public school sector where some schools have been underperforming for generations without ever facing consequences. Massachusetts voters understand that better educations for low-income students reduces social costs to the state and boosts overall economic growth. They also understand that low-income parents in Massachusetts are voting with their feet by enrolling their children in higher-performing charter schools, attracted by the longer school day and better educational outcomes.

I've been a broken record on this one, but there is no compelling reason to prevent the expansion of public charters in Massachusetts. They're the best public charter schools in the country, they have no adverse effect on the finances of traditional schools, and vulnerable families want more of them.

Finally, read this touching letter in The Washington Post from local parent Yakkell Lavender to outgoing Chancellor Kaya Henderson:

Thank you for giving my children hope and capacity in their D.C. Public Schools. They had wonderful teachers and school leaders. They were able to see what true diversity looks and feels like. They were (and are) given chances to excel in classrooms that had a good mixture of children of different races, genders, socioeconomic levels, political backgrounds, family structures and so on. Most important, they were able to learn while still being authentically black. Thank you. Because I’ve been in situations where my black voice was silenced as a student and as an adult in diverse environments simply because I was a minority, both in number and in the hue of my skin.