Tag Archives: education

A 21st Century Financial Aid Policy

I have come to believe that we need dramatic changes in our financial aid system.

We have largely eroded the supports that used to be there for low-income students seeking to go to college: In the 2010-2011 school year, the maximum Pell Grant award covered only 36% of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year institution, compared to 77% in 1979-1980.

More students are having to borrow more money to leap the chasm between what they can really afford and how much college costs. Today, the median college debt is about $28,000 per year, even though research reveals the potential for significant negative effects–on college graduation and post-secondary financial outcomes–starting at only about $10,000 in borrowing.

So more students are deterred from enrolling at all, put off by high-dollar debt or uncertain about whether college is really worth it.

To me, this makes financial aid reform more than just an academic exercise (no pun intended); it is a policy imperative.

I’m working now on a report outlining AEDI’s priorities for policy changes, and so I want to use this space–and your generosity with your time–to elicit some input as we outline a way forward. The good news about being at the beginning of a policy reform effort is that there are many options. The hard thing, of course, is trying to, collectively, think differently than we ever have before.

I believe that identifying the right options–some workable, some aspirational, across the levers of potential influence–is key to getting these conversations started. And I am audacious enough to ask for your help with that. Thank you in advance!

  • Reinvest in higher education as a collective good, to reduce the growth in college costs and reflect the truth that higher education is a common value, as much as an individual asset
  • Minimize the negative effects of student debt, especially as we shift from debt-dependent to asset-based financial aid. This means that policymakers should explore provision of ‘emergency’ aid, to prevent disruptions in academic progress often associated with financial setbacks; incentives for educational attainment, potentially including at least partial loan forgiveness for on-time degree completion for Pell-eligible students; and policies that reduce debt burdens, including income-based repayment and incentives for employer matching for student debt repayment following graduation.
  • Support college graduates as they strive to build assets, perhaps through diverting some loan repayments to savings accounts (as we do in the HUD Self-Sufficiency program, with rents), protecting graduates’ credit scores from student loan effects, and directing the financial services industry to aggressively extend savings opportunities to Americans.
  • Improve quality of K-12 education, to reduce the need for remediation in college and close the gap between how children need to perform and what they are prepared to do–too many students are failed in high school and then have to pay to catch up in college. Since educational quality is highly inequitable, too, this serves to exacerbate other layers of inequity.
  • Eliminate disincentives for college savings in the public assistance and means-tested financial aid systems–today, we have a bifurcated financial aid system, where wealthy students mostly enjoy asset-based financing, while low-income students grapple with the fallout of high-dollar debt. And strict asset limits in financial aid and public assistance determinations enforce this inequity.
  • Incorporate savings into current financial aid programs, using the variable of timing to convert them into ‘early commitment’ programs. This might mean incorporating savings into the Pell Grant program and/or diverting some scholarship money from academic merit-based to rewarding savings, at the university or local level.
  • Build progressive, lifelong, universal, asset-building child savings structure, paralleling asset incentives through the tax code for wealthy students. To make Child Savings Accounts (CSAs) work for low-income households, some policy features are essential: automatic enrollment (opt-out), ideally at birth; initial deposits that give all children an immediate stake in their futures; program features to ease access, like low initial deposit requirements; concerted outreach and education; and special incentives, such as refundable tax credits and/or direct matches. Accounts should be in students’ names, and at least some of the deposits should be available as they go through school, to help them confront financial obstacles to academic achievement.

What’s missing? What concerns you? What confuses you?

What is your vision for a financial aid policy for tomorrow’s challenges, and how do you think we get there?

Student debt, ladders of opportunity, and the next generation

My work at the Assets and Education Initiative has given me an outlet for a passion of mine–restoring the American Dream for disadvantaged young people–and also brought into sharp relief the intersection (sometimes collision) of my personal and professional lives.

Because my students won’t face high student loan debt on their paths to higher education.

They won’t have to wonder if college is really a part of their futures.

And, so, they won’t face the tragic Catch-22 that is commonplace in so many communities, and around so many kitchen tables, in the United States today:

Being unable to grasp the bottom rung of the ladder that would pull you up.

Education doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, anymore.

One of the most stunning statistics, which I have taken to telling just about everyone, is this:

While 69% of the highest-achieving children from low-income families attend college, this is only slightly greater than the enrollment rate for the the lowest-achieving children from high-income families (65%).

To me, this says that the path to higher education and, then, economic security (because that is still largely true, even with rising economic uncertainty for U.S. college graduates) more closely resembles one of inertia than the ‘Horatio Alger’ stories we like to tell ourselves.

Working really hard and being really talented only gets you a 4% advantage over those who largely fail but have wealthy parents.

Changing this story so that college is the opportunity I believe we want it to be for today’s young people will require reforming financial aid, focusing our efforts on those in greatest economic need, recognizing the importance of higher education as a ladder to mobility, and breaking across policy sectors to reform education, particularly in terms of ensuring quality instruction and supporting students toward their completion of valuable degrees.

It will require dismantling the ‘cradle to nowhere pipeline’ that currently traps so many of our youth and recognizing the economic imperative of putting the U.S. back on par with nations around the world that have differently prioritized education (and are seeing differential outcomes as a result).

It will require, then, telling ourselves a different story.

Because all’s not well that ends well, and our over-reliance on student is reducing equity within higher education.

Because college is a distant dream, not an imminent reality, for too many disadvantaged children.

Because my kids will never have to compete, not really, with children in poverty.

And that’s not fair.

Give teachers the best thank-you gift ever


My son’s last day of first grade is on Thursday. This will be my last post until June, because we’re taking the week off to travel and celebrate family and summer and a very successful school year.

Because he is my son, he requested to go to Central High School in Little Rock to launch his summer. Because he has siblings not quite as politically-inclined, we’ll also dig for diamonds and eat some ice cream.

Before we leave, though, we’ll hand out gifts to his teachers, including his truly phenomenal classroom teacher, whose patience and kindness and enthusiasm and creative energy transformed his public school into a place that could accommodate his love of the Civil War and fascination with germ theory, all while helping him build friendships with other 6-year-olds.

The real present, though, that I commit to giving to every excellent public school educator with whom I ever come into contact:

I will stand up for you. Always.

I’m sure that Sam’s teachers will appreciate the handmade tokens he’ll give them, and probably our gift certificates, too. But what they really deserve is to know that their contributions won’t go unnoticed, that their roles will never be degraded, and that we will live (and vote) our belief in what they do for our children, every day.

Because, the thing is, I’ve never met anyone, not even the most anti-public educator politician, who doesn’t have something good to say about a given teacher in his/her life. It’s like we somehow convince ourselves that it’s the other public schools that are wasteful, or substandard, or uncaring, as though ours was some magical exception to the rule.

We are silent when legislatures propose laws that would prohibit teachers from lobbying or restrict the science they can teach in the classroom. We don’t show up at town halls where teachers are bashed as greedy tenure seekers. We fidget instead of fight when public education–and not our failure to support it–is blamed for poor educational outcomes. We may even forward those emails with the rumors about all the money diverted away from classrooms, and how that’s evidence that school budgets should be cut.

We focus narrowly on what we can do to show appreciation to our own teachers, with brownies baked and coffee mugs purchased, instead of circling around them in a protective sphere of advocacy, showing our thanks by standing in solidarity.

Our teachers, and the children whose lives they touch daily, deserve more than certificates of appreciation, and even more than free massages.

They deserve professional respect, a competitive salary, a secure retirement.

They deserve to be thanked not just at the end of each school year, but every time we go to the ballot box, every time we have a chance to speak out instead of remain silent, and every time we let our policymakers know that representing us means taking care of those who take care of our future.

Thank you, Mrs. P.

I’ll thank you always.

Supreme Stakes

It’s the first Monday in October.

And here’s all I really want to say:

It has been a really big year for the judicial system (Um, the ACA, anyone?), in policymaking, and (in the crystal ball that I don’t really have) I see that continuing for quite a while.

With such polarization in the legislative and executive arenas, there is a lot of ‘envelope-pushing’ these days. And, when envelopes are pushed, sometimes details can get overlooked.

Like the Constitution.

I think we’ll see a lot more anti-immigrant legislation, which, while the Supreme Court has already green-lighted many of the Arizona-style provisions, is still likely to run afoul of preemption and equal protection, in particular, in legislators’ zealousness to ‘out-anti-immigrant’ each other.

It’s easy to imagine that Kansas might be the site of a showdown over abortion rights, and that that battle could end up in court. Kansas, too, is likely to abdicate its constitutional responsibilities in education, and many states are seriously failing students of color, in particular, in ways that invite court action. Depending on what happens in the November elections, we could see another attempt at campaign finance reform legislation, which could challenge some of the findings in the Citizens United decision.

What does this mean, on this October 1st?

That social workers had better be paying close attention, not just to the decisions that courts hand down, but to the issues where they should be asked to decide, too.

We have three branches for a reason and, even though we certainly can’t guarantee the outcome when we turn to the courts, we can’t afford to ignore one of the tools at our disposal.

The stakes are high, as I imagine the founders knew they would be, and we just might need to go to court.

A lot.

We need to win this on the merits

Image credit: americasvoiceonline.org

You know I’m not a fan of taking the easy way out.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that we can throw the proverbial Hail Mary pass and move down the field (that’s the right sports metaphor, right?).

But in advocacy, as in life, it’s seldom that simple.

And, I’d argue, even when it might be possible, at least temporarily, it’s just not as good.

This is one of those cases.

Around the country, sparked first by the living nightmare that is now Alabama, anti-immigrant forces have been going after what they’ve long considered the Holy Grail:

Kicking immigrant kids out of Kindergarten.

It was at least 8 years ago that I first heard Kris Kobach’s assertion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established the right of every child in the U.S. to attend public K-12 schools, was ‘fatally flawed’, I think along with some pronouncement that he could win a different decision if he had a chance to try the case.

Since then, he has been hoping for his chance.

With the Alabama legislature’s approval of a requirement that K-12 schools verify the immigration status of students, that door was opened, even though that provision was pretty quickly enjoined in federal court.

This legislative session has already seen similar debates in other states, and I guarantee that there’s more to come: in the ‘war of attrition’ that the anti-immigrant crowd has been waging for years, barring immigrant kids from going to school would be a really big deal.

Immigrants and their allies, then, are justifiably hell-bent on stopping these attacks. In our fervor, I think we’re vulnerable to make a serious error.

We have to win this battle on the merits. We can’t take a shortcut, point to the Supreme Court, and just argue legal precedent. Yes, scaring legislators with threats of lawsuits and confusing them with references to previous decisions can sometimes work. And, yes, I fully believe that the U.S. Supreme Court (and I mean this specific one) would still decide a similar case the same way. Absolutely. But precedent can change. Winds can shift. And, so, the foundation can fall out from under those arguments that once looked so solid.

Besides, who was ever motivated to stand up and join a cause to fight against something just because it contradicts Justice Brennan’s majority opinion?

Because the truth is, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, turning our teachers into immigration agents is a horrible idea. Keeping children, most of whom will eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, out of school and on the streets is really terrible policy. Sending ripple effects through mixed-status families and communities, depressing the educational attainment of an entire generation, just because we hope that it might make some parents leave the country, is a nightmare scenario. Kicking kids out of Kindergarten because we don’t approve of their mom and dad is not an action of a place worthy to be called the United States of America.

Those need to be our arguments, not recitations of precedent, even that which is based on a legal principle as important as the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We can win this.

I truly believe that a majority of Americans opposes this idea, and that we can convince state lawmakers that this is not the way to prove a point on immigration reform. I think that we can find new allies–in teachers and administrators and law enforcement officers and business leaders–and that we can emerge from this struggle poised for more success on other fronts.

But we’ve got to fight.

It was bad policy in 1982, and it’s bad policy today.

We don’t need a precedent to tell us that.

The Legacy of Brown: We Must Not be Bought

Not long ago, I stood with my oldest son at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in front of a photo that contrasted a segregated school for African Americans in South Carolina (one-room schoolhouse with sagging shingles and missing boards) with a rather opulent school (large brick building) for white students.

The “unequal” part was obvious, and even more glaring than the “separate”.

Looking at those pictures, I remembered a section of The Race Beat, a book I read recently about journalists who covered the civil rights movement, that described the efforts of some segregationists in both the North and South who were eager to spend more on schools for children of color, especially in the lead-up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Because they were willing to pay a lot to maintain the status quo.

That’s how much maintaining an oppressive system was worth.

Holding hands with my son, who started Kindergarten in public school this year, I was thinking about those brave parents, the ones whose names are on the collection of lawsuits that, together, became known as Brown v. Board. And wondering whether they were ever tempted, as I would have been, if my child had been in that rickety schoolbuilding, to take the money.

Even knowing what it cost.

Obviously, our entire country has benefitted tremendously from their refusal to be bought. They understood that separate could never be equal, and they knew that their little boys and girls deserved integrated schools and the access to power and full participation that only integration can bring, rather than a spiffed-up segregated school, with better-paid teachers and textbooks in the classrooms.

They were right, and they were patient in that impatient about injustice but amazingly able to wait for real solutions way, and their intransigence was a witness that sparked the greatest movement for social equality our country has ever seen.

And the next thing I thought, as my son’s attention moved on to the next part of the exhibit, was…

I hope we can be as brave. And as tough. And as smart.

Times are tough, these days, for social service nonprofit organizations and for many of those we serve. We’re perennially out of money, and in begging-mode, and we are confronting serious challenges in a political context that’s often impervious to our sufferings.

That’s a dangerous combination, because it can breed a desperation that can push us to accept compromises that we know take us backwards, concessions that violate our most honored principles.

I see it when private organizations join together to pay for public services that the state has abandoned–we’re reaching for a Band-Aid because the need is so urgent, but we’re excusing public abdication of responsibilities core to our social contract.

I see it when organizations scramble to align themselves with even objectionable programming opportunities (“marriage promotion“, anyone?), because they’re trying to find ways to stay afloat, and to curry favor with government officials.

I even see it in myself, when I’m reluctant to take an Administration on on one front because we’re still negotiating on another–no, it’s not money at stake, but something arguably more valuable–my integrity.

I’m sure Linda Brown’s parents wanted her to go to a nice school. They may have even been approached with offers of upgrades, if they would just “be quiet”.

We need to all be thankful that they did not.

And we must, in the words of the song to which my 3 oldest kids and I danced in the gallery of the Brown site, in what used to be a school only for children with a certain color skin, we must not be moved.

Or bought.

Last one in shut the door?

In the interest of full disclosure, right from the beginning:

This is not one of those posts with any helpful lessons to impart.

I hope that sometimes you find those, and I am more grateful than you can know for those who share their reactions to what I write, particularly as to how my thoughts at least occasionally contribute to your own journeys in advocacy, learning, community work, and the pursuit of justice.

But, today, I’m just perplexed.

Not too long ago, I was copied on an email from a teacher friend of mine who was asking her contacts to get involved in the ongoing debate over budgets at our local district and, particularly, at the state level. She wrote a little about the challenges she’s facing in her own classroom and emphasized the importance of parents and other teachers including their voices in the discussion over decisions that will shape our children’s futures.

You can see why we’re friends, right?

And I was also copied on the response to her from one of the recipients.

What struck me most was the line about how wrong it is that all of “these kids” are getting free and reduced lunch. Now, the nuance here, and what I’ve been mulling over, is that she wasn’t upset about her own child NOT getting free and reduced lunch. Her apparent anger, expressed on a computer screen, was not over some injustice visited upon her own family, but on the injustice she perceived in someone else’s receipt of something.

Now, to some extent, I get this: I’m upset, for example, when corporations get huge tax breaks that undermine our nation’s financial security, and it’s not because I think I should be getting one, too, but because I object to the basis on which that entitlement is granted.

And maybe that’s where her outrage is coming from, even though her email didn’t reference anything about the costs of the free and reduced lunch program, and even though (whether she knows it or not) our district actually gets more money because of the presence of these students–federal money pays for the meals themselves, and the students receive additional weightings in our school finance formula as “at-risk” students: money that the district then uses to fund our overall educational system, including that of her own child.

But a conversation I had with my own state representative the other day made me think that maybe it’s not even this “we can’t afford it so they shouldn’t get it” rationale, at least not explicitly. She and I were talking about our state’s instate tuition policy, her support of it, and some of the communications she has received from constituents about that support. Her exact quote was something along the lines of, “I can’t understand how people can be so upset about others getting something that doesn’t affect them at all. It’s like they want to deny it just for spite.”

When undocumented immigrants, even immigrant kids, are concerned, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the influence of spite.

And certainly it could be immigrant children and those who look like them who were in the mind of the woman upset about free lunches (the literal kind), too.

Because our instate tuition policy does not cost the state. The students pay full price, and our higher educational system isn’t funded on a per-pupil basis anyway. The universities themselves, who certainly wouldn’t support a policy that harmed them, have been the strongest supporters. And the constituents that are contacting my representative are, themselves, also eligible for instate tuition, if they chose to attend one of our state schools.

So they’re not upset because they aren’t getting something, and they can’t even be upset because they’re paying for someone else to get something.

Instead, it’s more of a scarcity thinking, kind of to the extreme, what I’ve been mentally labeling a “last one in shut the door behind you” mentality, that views one’s own gains in life as so precious that denying those same tools to others seems like the only way to preserve them.

And, I’ll admit. I just don’t get it.

I think that I need to, because this kind of thinking is finding its way into our public policies, and because I need to know how to advocate with those who have adopted this “I don’t need it but no one else should have it” rationale. But I can’t quite crack the code, so to speak, to figure out where to start. Which is why this post doesn’t have answers.

Please, wise readers: help me. Where have you encountered these same reactions, and to what do you attribute them? What am I missing that would make this make sense, and where do I start in building some bridges (at least in communication) with those who approach life from this perspective?