Stories of Being First

This blog has been neglected for too long  as I’ve been pulled into too many other things.

But one of the things I’m most proud of (and in which I’ve invested the most time) is the launch of the First in Our Families Digital Storytelling Project.  With my project partner Class Action , I’ve been doing workshops around the country, inviting students (and sometimes, faculty and staff) to craft a story of Being First.

Last weekend, I worked with graduate students from across the three campuses of the University of Washington, and the stories that they chose to make public are now on the project site.

I invite you to browse, listen, and learn from these students.

Here is a just one of the powerful stories:

Right Before Her Eyes from First In Our Families on Vimeo.

I’m forever grateful for the crowdfunding that made this project possible.  Check out the website for more about this project, and let me know if you’re interested in workshop at your campus.

Invisible Students in Policy Discussions

Good data how, in spite of how often we hear about “going away to school” and the importance of choosing the right college, most poor and working -class attend college within 50 miles of home.

“The conversation pretty much ends with, ‘Hey, get better information in the hands of students,’” Hillman said. “But the way that prospective students use information is very different depending on what kinds of students you’re looking at.”
The crux of the problem is a misalignment of expectations: from policy makers’ perspective, students would attend college at whatever institution is best for them. But for some students, location is nonnegotiable — and often, that means their options are dramatically limited.
For upper-class students, having more information might help; they have the flexibility to travel, and they can afford to shop around. But it isn’t enough for working-class students, who may need to choose from the options available nearby.
“Most of the conversations today overlooks the working-class student and prioritizes the upper-class student,” Hillman said. “It’s just really frustrating from the academic side — and even more frustrating from a policy angle.

via When students enroll in college, geography matters more than policy makers think.

Income Inequality and College Endowments


Wealthy individuals, shaping the resources available to the most elite colleges, challenging the capacities of other higher education institutions to level playing fields through education.

We talk often in my classes of the work of creating equal opportunity when “equity” is always a moving target.

Even so, a small and exclusive coterie of institutions is disproportionately benefiting from donors’ largesse. The top 17 colleges and universities — less than 1 percent of the total universe of about 3,900 institutions — accounted for more than a quarter of the contributions, $10.42 billion. And 60 colleges and universities, under 2 percent of all institutions, received $20.15 billion, half of the total.
The wealth gap in higher education is not a new story, by any means, but it is being fed, not closed, by the behavior of major donors.

via Giving to colleges hits another record high; wealthy institutions get the most.

Low Income Students and College Completion

From Yesterday’s DC Summit on College Access:

 “Just because a school is wealthy and prestigious doesn’t mean they’ll do a good job with a low-income student,” says McGuire.

And just because hundreds of college leaders pledge to improve college completion rates doesn’t mean it will be easy to move the needle.

The issues that get between students and college degrees have never been more complex or expensive to resolve.

via Colleges pledge to graduate more low-income students |

For those of us working in colleges, we have a realistic fear that the focus on “big data” around  “on-time completion rates” means that we’ll be expected to collect and report less than useful “accountability” data rather than having more time to invest in mentoring, teaching, advising, and working with high school students to prepare them for college.

But there’s another elephant in this room around “on-time completion rates”: nearly all the students on my campus work many many hours and still take out loans to finish school.  Besides work cutting the time they have for classes each week, exhausted students hit the wall, get sick, and decide that they have to leave for at least a time.

“Complex and expensive” indeed.

But not rocket science.

Excellent Work on First Generation Issues

For readers interested in First Generation students and the challenges they face on campus (and beyond), I highly recommend Lynda Lopez’s First Generation Students blog and Twitter feed.

Lynda was active in starting national and campus “Class Confessions” conversations around socioeconomic issues while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and in advocating for First Generation and Low Income students at U of C.

I posted her Class Action essay on 10 Most Classist Things About College on my campus’s Equity and Inclusion Facebook page and it was shared widely across departments.

I don’t know anyone more knowledgable about how First Generation students are faring at elite colleges around the country.  I’ve learned a ton from her.

You’ll learn a lot from her, too.

Lives on the Boundary, 25 Years Later

When I teach about Education and Class, one of the books that resonates most deeply with my students is Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary.

The book was written 25 years ago, but students are still mesmerized by the narrative because so much of the book still rings true.

In his excellent blog, Rose tells the story of getting Lives on the Boundary published in the first place:

It was summarily turned down by 12 publishers in a row, for it is, after all, an account of one person’s educational journey, hardly the stuff of a best-seller. (In today’s market, it most likely would not get published at all.) Other potential liabilities: The vocabulary and syntax are not simple—I’m a big fan of the embedded clause. The book is peppered with references to cultural events and artifacts of my youth and early adulthood and to the books and ideas being introduced to me. Finally, though it is driven by stories, those stories are woven into an argument about social class and educational inequality. As a read, it is not a day at the beach.

He writes that now, the popular press is more likely to tell tales of insurmountable obstacles working against the academic achievement of the poor, or instead, of triumphant stories of homelessness to Harvard. While both kinds of stories are true and important, Rose’s lifelong work has been to quietly ell very different stories:

There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately, they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic, but they are hugely important. They are stories of people who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but they succeed. Not infrequently, they have benefitted from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of people who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.

 If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We have to have stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements—the rise from mean streets to a robotics lab. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic, but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life. All of us need to read these stories, but especially the students who are living them.

I highly recommend Lives on the Boundary, as I’ve been recommending it for almost 25 years now.

New Report on Financial Aid

Screenshot 10:3:14, 5:46 AM-2

A new report on financial aid  by the New America Foundation,  Education Trust, and Young Invincibles (and commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) calls for  “bold” federal action to ensure that college is affordable for all families.

Now, instead:

[O]ur aid system places a disproportionately large burden on families at the bottom of the income scale. Families in the lowest income quintile are asked to come up with an amount equal to 80 percent of their annual income to pay the net price (i.e., price after all grant and scholarship aid) for one year of education at a public, four-year college or university … . That’s more than five times the percentage of income high-wealth families are asked to contribute for higher education — hardly, an equitable share of the cost burden.10 The result? Rather than operating as engines of opportunity and social mobility, all too often higher education is calcifying existing inequities, shifting back toward the extreme stratification that mainly serves the elite. (emphasis added)

I understand that all of this is a complicated outcome of steeply declining state spending in a time in which many argue for a smaller federal role in education.

But I object to framing the most basic steps to make access to college equitable as “bold”.

It’s the morally right thing to do.