Wednesday Reading List: Misunderstanding Civil Rights and the Value of Liberal Arts

Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times that the United Stated Department of Justice is going to investigate whether colleges are discriminating ... against white people:

The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. The document, an internal announcement to the civil rights division, seeks current lawyers interested in working for a new project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” The announcement suggests that the project will be run out of the division’s front office, where the Trump administration’s political appointees work, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is run by career civil servants and normally handles work involving schools and universities.

Let's be clear about one thing: white people are overrepresented in the power structure of just about every institution in American life. White people constitute a bit more than 60% of the population at large, but hold 80% of Congressional seats and a similar percentage of corporate board seats in private industry. The idea that white people are being discriminated against is completely illogical, unless you're seeking to preserve this wildly unjust balance of racial power.

Meanwhile, George Anders of The Atlantic looks at shifting attitudes towards the value of a liberal arts education:

By its very name, the liberal-arts pathway is tinged with privilege ... Look more closely, though, and this old stereotype is starting to crumble. In 2016, the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed 5,013 graduating seniors about their family backgrounds and academic paths. The students most likely to major in the humanities or social sciences—33.8 percent of them—were those who were the first generation in their family ever to have earned college degrees. By contrast, students whose parents or other forbears had completed college chose the humanities or social sciences 30.4 percent of the time ... Yet over time, liberal-arts graduates’ earnings often surge, especially for students pursuing advanced degrees.

The article goes on to share some critical factors that support financial success for liberal arts majors after college. Time seems to be a critical component. While vocational education programs might prepare students for a particular job "right now," what happens when that job disappears or changes, as millions of jobs tend to do within a person's lifetime? The erosion of low- to mid-skill jobs due to outsourcing and automation, while problematic, is not going to reverse as technological change accelerates. Students with liberal arts backgrounds are going to be much more insulated from the downside impact of those changes.

On the other hand, Angela Helm of The Root looks at a program aimed at driving more students into technological careers:

This week, tech behemoth Intel announced its HBCU Grant Program, a $4.5 million investment that encourages students to remain in STEM pathways at six historically black colleges and universities ... Black students, who get only 11 percent of all STEM undergraduate degrees, are woefully underrepresented in these fields. Further, African-American students are more likely to switch out of STEM majors within their first year of college. Intel is trying to change that by investing heavily in the three-year program. According to a company press release, $3.9 million will be awarded directly to the schools for scholarships and lab experiences ...

The challenge with defining a "STEM" career is that the range is so significant. The designer of a medical device is a STEM professional, as is someone who writes code to search databases, as is an automobile engineer. I hope that colleges and universities are providing students with a sufficiently broad education, such that they can have meaningful, long-term careers.

Finally today, Matt Barnum is in Chalkbeat with previously unreported news about discussions among "left-of-center" education leaders, during which former secretary of education Arne Duncan made a bold statement:

For left-of-center education reformers, the proposed Trump budget amounted to a devil’s bargain. They could support the budget plan, which would give hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools. But they would have to do so knowing it slashed education spending across the board, including money meant for poor students. Around 25 leaders talked over the dilemma at a previously unreported meeting ... There, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a provocative suggestion: charter leaders should refuse to accept federal money designated for charter schools if Trump’s cuts to education went through. Duncan called those funds “blood money,” according to two attendees ...

This seems like the latest chapter in the ongoing saga among education policy makers with a reform bent. As I've said a dozen times before, though, the Trump administration is too busy fighting scandals and losing policy fights on other terrain to do much on K-12 education. The general consensus is that this federal budget is "dead on arrival," so while the rhetoric here is pointed, I'm not sure whether there's a practical implication.

Have a great day!