Toward Educational Justice: Student Success at CUNY and Beyond
On Sept. 26, 2018, John B. King Jr. gave the annual higher education policy lecture at the 10-year anniversary celebration for the City University of New York (CUNY) Office of Policy Research. King discussed the importance of college completion, racial justice, and consumer protection in higher education.
It’s always a special privilege to come back to New York City, and in particular to CUNY. I’d like to begin by telling you a little about my personal connection to CUNY, and my roots in New York.
My mother came to the Bronx from Puerto Rico at the age of five, learned English in the New York City Public Schools, studied at Hunter College to become a teacher, and worked as a school counselor.
My father, who was African American, was born in a highly segregated New York. He, too, chose to become an educator.
I lost them both when I was young, but their commitment to social justice, the example they set as educators … those things have stayed with me.
Like many young people who experience trauma early in life, by the time I became a teenager, I was angry. But my extended family and New York City Public School teachers – many of whom were probably educated at CUNY as well – saw in me something I didn’t yet see in myself. They didn’t give up on me. They gave me second chances, and third chances. Eventually, I became an educator, too.
I’m particularly honored to join you in celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the policy research center here at CUNY. CUNY is known for being an engine of social mobility—a place where students come to get an education and leave prepared to succeed in the workforce, to lead thriving lives, and to climb higher, perhaps, than generations before them were able to do. CUNY is powered by evidence-based policy and practice. Those of you who know me, know I am a proud spokesperson for what you do.
I want to talk to you today about pushing together toward educational justice.
Educational justice is ensuring that all students—regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, special needs, native language, family income, citizenship status, or any other factor—have access to an excellent education that opens doors to opportunity. Achieving educational justice requires us to break down and clear away any barriers, systems, and structures that disadvantage historically underserved students, and to design more equitable systems and structures that can get closer to that goal.
As faculty, staff, and students of this great institution, this is something you know a lot about. I’m looking forward to our discussion.
If it’s alright with you, I’m going to take “former social studies teacher prerogative” to set the stage with some history.
A decade ago, at the same time CUNY started the Office of Policy Research, the global financial crisis – with its roots in banks and ratings firms and regulatory bodies right here in New York City – moved from threat to reality.
On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy after feasting for years on the buffet line of subprime mortgages. Topping 600 billion dollars in assets and in debt, it was the largest bankruptcy filing in history.
The next day, the Federal Reserve bailed out AIG – they got rich selling insurance policies on mortgaged-backed securities and got in trouble when too many homeowners couldn’t make their mortgage payments – to the tune of 182 billion dollars.
A couple days later, on September 19, the Fed started shoveling billions more in cash to banks at risk of failing, playing its role as lender of last resort.
Lenders in the private sector were afraid the economy was heading for a real downturn. They were afraid to make loans – and investors were afraid to buy bonds – worried they wouldn’t get their money back.
Ten days after that, on September 29, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 777 points. It was the largest single-day drop in history.
That’s what was happening ten years ago this month: history-making financial calamity, with its epicenter right here in CUNY’s backyard.
The financial system at that time was a bit like a bunch of balloons at a backyard party. While everyone was having a good time, some people at the party continued inflating the balloons with more and more air. Everyone marveled at how big and beautiful the balloons were, and went on enjoying the party.
But the balloons would only stretch so far. The pressure of the air got greater and greater. Unable to inflate the balloons any further, and too careless to let some air out slowly, the people who had been inflating the balloons let them go and looked away.
Continuing the metaphor here, when the federal government saw the balloons on the loose, it started chasing them around the yard, hoping to restore some order and breathe enough life into the quickly deflating balloons so that everyone could get back to the party as quickly as possible, and as if nothing went wrong.
That was September 2008.
But it wasn’t just Wall Street that was in crisis. Main Street was hurting too.
It might be easy to hear the technical jargon that defined the financial crisis of a decade ago – collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, Triple-A ratings – and forget that we’re really talking about people. … Millions of people losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their savings, and starting to lose their hope in the very idea of the American Dream.
The bailout of student loan companies, authorized by a May 2008 law signed by President Bush, was perhaps the first major federal response to the frozen credit markets that signaled the start of the financial crisis.
Under the Obama Administration, federal intervention to fix the economy started immediately. The 800 billion dollar stimulus package was signed into law in February 2009. It included over 100 billion dollars in funds for education, including tens of billions of dollars for states to build schools, pay teachers, and strengthen data systems, and billions for Pell Grants as more people sought higher education and postsecondary training.
The following year, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, including a private student loan division, and added a number of requirements to try to take some of the excess risk out of the banking system.
By 2010, consistent economic growth had returned signaling an official end to the recession. While unemployment was still high, the recovery continued. Before long, the stock market regained its value and the unemployment rate steadily lowered to about 4% where it is now.
What lessons for advancing educational justice can we draw from the financial crisis that kicked off ten years ago this week?
I’d like to suggest three.
First of all, despite some public opinion polls that may say otherwise, college matters.
People with a college degree are better able to weather an economic downturn.
A 2015 report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce found that 2.8 million of the 2.9 million “good jobs” created between 2010 and 2015 went to people with bachelor’s degrees. Those are the jobs with annual salaries, vacation days, health benefits, retirement plans.
Now, you might say that all jobs should be good jobs with generous benefits; that every working American, regardless of employer or educational background, should have reliable access to health care, sick days, a way to save for retirement, paid time off to spend both joyous and somber life events with family. I agree with all that, and I think all of us should push for a more just economic system where that is the reality.
But in the meantime, we need to help people make the most of the system we have, and the best way to do that is with a college degree.
And we need to increase the number of people with college degrees.
There is clearly a role for institutions of higher education like CUNY to help more students complete degrees, and there is a role for states and the federal government to play to create the conditions for that to happen.
The U.S. continues to lag other industrialized countries in the share of our population with a college degree, and graduation rates among students who start college are unacceptably low in too many U.S. colleges and universities.
CUNY consistently ranks at or near the top in terms of institutions that promote their graduates’ social mobility. This is a place where people come to climb higher on the economic ladder. For many, they find success. You have in place proven programs like CUNY START, helping students get ready for college-level work, and CUNY ASAP, supporting students through the challenges of completing college.
And yet there is still more work to do. There are only a handful of CUNY campuses where more than half of students who pursue a degree end up earning one. At some campuses, only two or three students out of ten will complete a degree. That’s especially true of the community colleges, as it is around the country, but it’s also the case at some of the four-year colleges.
It doesn’t seem revolutionary to say most students who start college should finish.
If we move the needle on college completion, at CUNY and at every institution across the country, then we will dramatically improve the ability of the American people to weather the inevitable—and hopefully, rarely severe—economic ups and downs they will experience in their lives and careers.
The second lesson from the financial crisis and the Great Recession is that race matters.
It’s no secret that subprime lending is more prevalent in communities of color than it is in mostly White communities. For example, in 2006, Black and Latino households approved for mortgages were two-and-a-half times as likely as White households to get a subprime loan; yes, the kind of loan that nearly destroyed the global financial system and the U.S. economy.
This disproportionate exposure to subprime loans has been shown to be true even if we set income differences aside: a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Black families in high-income neighborhoods were twice as likely to refinance their homes with subprime loans as White families in low-income neighborhoods.
In Boston, where the net worth of a typical White family is close to $250,000, the average African-American family has a net worth of just $8.
Of course, it’s not just housing and lending and wealth where race matters. Studies have found clear evidence of racial discrimination in nearly every facet of American life.
Job applicants with White-sounding names are 50 percent more successful at getting callbacks than applicants with Black sounding names.
In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander shows in painstaking detail how from stop, to search, to arrest, to plea deals, to judgment, to sentencing, the experiences and outcomes for Black folks and White folks who come into contact with law enforcement are anything but “equal justice under law.”
And this unequal treatment starts early. Black children are less than 20 percent of preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.
We have to help folks get over the notion that – whether we’re talking about housing, education, criminal justice, healthcare – that we can address all social justice issues by just focusing on income and pretending race doesn’t matter.
The stakes, of course, are high.
And there are real efforts underway to undermine racial progress.
Last month was the one-year anniversary of the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
In August 2017, in reaction to the town’s plans to remove a Confederate statue, White men, for the most part, carried lit torches; they conjured the not-so-distant memory of lynch mobs targeting African Americans. They shouted “blood and soil,” the same hate slogan Nazis used to antagonize Jews, whom they considered not fully German. They chanted, “You will not replace us.” A counter protestor – a White woman who felt called to act in solidarity – was killed. Many others were injured.
This march of neo-Nazis stands out, but there are constant reminders that people of color are under attack in this country, both their lives and their livelihoods.
It was here in New York City that Eric Garner uttered the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” as police officers choked him and ultimately killed him.
Just two weeks ago, in Dallas, a police officer shot a Black man who was minding his own business in his own apartment, which she had no apparent reason to enter.
But it’s not only about unconscionable physical violence.
NPR has reported that Black women are three and four times as likely to die in childbirth as White women. Here in New York City, the disparity is more extreme: Black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than White mothers. Nationally, Black babies are twice as likely as White babies to die in their first year of life.
Again, income is not sufficient to protect against the threats of racism.
Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project demonstrate that, quote, “Growing up in a high-income family provides no insulation from these disparities. American Indian and [B]lack children have much higher rates of downward mobility than other groups. Black children born to parents in the top income quintile are almost as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as they are to remain in the top quintile. By contrast, [W]hite children born in the top quintile are nearly five times as likely to stay there as they are to fall to the bottom.”
What does that say about America’s self-concept as a land of opportunity? That it only applies to some, and not to all?
In 2015, when the economy, for the most part, had recovered from the Great Recession, the ACLU published a report concluding that the housing market collapse served to widen the racial wealth gap. By 2011, median White families had more or less recovered, while Black families had lost 40 percent of their non-home-equity wealth.
The financial crisis served as yet another reminder that race matters in this country.
But you already know this from your own work in higher education.
Just under half of White adults in the U.S. hold a college degree.
For Black adults, it’s under a third with a college degree.
For Latino adults, it’s fewer than a quarter hold an associate’s degree or above.
To some extent these degree attainment rate disparities can be explained by outside factors, including immigration, but some of the disparities are about who enters college and who leaves with a degree.
Colleges like UC Riverside and the University of South Florida have demonstrated it’s possible to graduate students at high rates and equal rates. No gaps. That’s what educational justice looks like. At CUNY, Hunter College and Baruch seem to be doing the best in terms of having higher graduation rates and smaller gaps, though there’s room for improvement there, too.
Race matters, and we do ourselves no favors as policymakers, policy analysts, educators, administrators, or citizens if we pretend it doesn’t, or if we assume we can use something like income as a sole proxy.
The final lesson from the financial crisis that serves as a warning to the higher education community is that consumer protection matters.
In many ways, the crisis of a decade ago was not a surprise. In many ways, it seemed set up to happen.
Some of our political leaders chipped away at the very protections that had been in place since the Great Depression. They looked the other way when things were getting risky until they were forced to rescue the economy.
In the end, no one on Wall Street went to prison while more than 5 million homes were lost to foreclosure.
While Congress was working on Dodd-Frank, the U.S. Department of Education worked on regulations for the higher education and student loan industries.
Today, the current administration is trying to unravel both.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, including the student loan division, has been essentially stripped of its oversight powers by a director who doesn’t think it should exist.
At the Department of Education, there are efforts underway to make it harder for borrowers to get their student loans forgiven even when they’ve been defrauded by their schools, and easier for for-profit colleges to access public dollars with no accountability for outcomes.
What’s more, the current administration has brought back to life an accreditor that, just like the ratings agencies during the financial crisis, failed in its responsibility to alert and protect the public from fraud, deception, and mismanagement by the institutions it oversees.
There are millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. If the financial crisis of a decade ago has taught us anything in higher education, it is that the idea that markets regulate themselves is complete nonsense.
And so I would argue that, a decade since the financial meltdown of 2008, a movement toward educational justice must …
Number one: dramatically increase the share of the population with a college degree …
Number two: advance racial justice and break down systems of racial discrimination …
And number three: protect students and taxpayers from potential fraud and abuse by colleges and lenders.
For CUNY, looking inward, I think that means a few things.
First, what are the systems within the institution that get in the way of students completing their degrees?
What are the systems that perpetuate racism and other societal disadvantages and that contribute to racial disparities?
How can you redesign these systems – from admissions and enrollment, to financial aid and remediation, to academic monitoring and advising, to faculty recruitment and promotion? How can you do this work in service of increasing college completion and advancing racial justice?
The project you are undertaking, with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, to identify barriers to bachelor’s degree completion among students who start at a CUNY community college, is exactly the right thing to do.
Second, I’d like to suggest that advancing educational justice in the CUNY system and at institutions across the country entails asking how you can scale efforts that you know are already helping students to complete college—especially students of color and students from low-income families.
Pockets of excellence are not enough.
To maintain and strengthen your reputation as an evidence-based engine of economic mobility, it’s so important to bring innovation and excellence to scale so all students can benefit from the great work you’re doing.
It’s exciting to see the ASAP model expanded to Ohio; and your plan to increase the number of students right here at CUNY who participate in ASAP is an example of moving in the right direction. It is critical to grow the impact of this work at CUNY.
Finally, working toward educational justice entails asking how you can engage students as partners in your college completion and racial justice work.
Yesterday, I visited with some amazing students with the Cal State Student Association. They talked about the challenges students face on the path to a degree. And they shared their policy priorities, including winning better access to mental health care and making the full cost of college more affordable. They talked about students experiencing food insecurity, and housing insecurity, and they shared ideas for ensuring all students have what they need to make their way through college. There are students right here at CUNY with their own stories and good ideas that could help point the way forward.
For example, Miledys is a student from the Bronx. Her family is from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. She attends City College and the CUNY School of Medicine, and calls herself “a poster child for struggling at school.”
Instead of finishing the first part of her program in three years, it took her five. She said the first thing she noticed after arriving at CUNY is that not all education is equal.
Her high school didn’t offer as many AP classes as more affluent and advantaged schools. It was hard to adjust to the pace of college-level work. But she’s making it at CUNY. Miledys said the chance to travel with CUNY and with Governor Cuomo to Puerto Rico this summer to help with Hurricane Maria recovery was particularly powerful. It made her even surer about her path. She said the trip reminded her that she comes from some place special; a community that is rich and beautiful, and that is behind her.
There’s also Scott Davis, who grew up in Yonkers, one of five kids with a single mom.
After high school, Scott didn’t have counselors pushing him to continue his education. His mom hadn’t gone to college herself, but told him about CUNY and helped him pay the tuition. Things changed, though, and she couldn’t continue paying after Scott’s first semester.
Scott left school to work and figure out financial aid. He came back, finished his degree at Lehman College, and is now in his second year of law school at CUNY.
The Pell Grant and TAP made it possible for Scott to complete college. So did Rachel Stevenson, a staff member who Scott says helped him feel like his life mattered, and Amanda DuBois, who oversaw community service initiatives and helped Scott think more about his career and the impact he wants to have. That’s the power that a caring faculty member or administrator can have in the life of a student. You know that because that’s who you are.
Thanks to a CUNY partnership with law firms trying to diversify their ranks with smart young people, Scott had a well-paying legal internship this summer and plans to return.
Paying the opportunities forward that he was able to receive is important to Scott, so he set up a small scholarship program of his own to support students like him, which he plans to grow as he earns more. “CUNY has profoundly changed my life and opened up a lot of doors for me,” Scott says.
Students like Miledys and Scott, and all of your students, have stories of struggle and stories of success.
How can you build on what you’re already doing to hear more student voices and deepen student involvement in your work?
So at CUNY, I would encourage a push toward educational justice that includes redesigning systems, scaling what works, and engaging students as part of your student success teams.
But you can’t do all of this alone, and you shouldn’t have to.
Albany and DC have a role in helping or hindering the policy conditions for you to do your best work.
You are at an important inflection point here in New York.
With a CUNY chancellor appointment and statewide elections on the horizon, you have a real opportunity to make higher education and educational justice a statewide priority.
Funding for higher education in NY remains below 2008 levels. Most states have even further to go to get back to where they were at the time of the financial crisis, but “less bad” probably isn’t a good enough measure of success … especially when students and families are feeling the pinch. Tuition is up nearly $2,000 per year at four-year colleges and universities in New York.
While Excelsior is helping some middle class families, it could be improved to be more inclusive of low-income students and less restrictive.
Ed Trust’s new report – A Promise Fulfilled – examines Excelsior and other statewide “free college” and “promise” programs through an equity lens. It offers an eight-part framework that state leaders can use to design these programs so that they benefit students who struggle the most to pay for college.
Beyond funding, the state has an important consumer protection role to play.
It is encouraging that attorneys general in Massachusetts, California, and here in New York have been stepping up to protect students from fraudulent colleges and deceptive loan servicers. It’s disheartening that the federal government abdicates its responsibility to do the same. But CUNY students, and all New Yorkers, deserve to be protected, and the New York attorney general’s office should keep up the fight.
Finally, I want to invite you to join in advancing and enacting a vision of educational justice in federal law and policy.
Every member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection along with a third of the senate this November.
Whatever the outcome, there will be a new Congress come January, and presidential campaigns will kick off. The Higher Education Act is already five years overdue to be reauthorized.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have both proposed changes to the law. I don’t expect we’ll see any action in this congress, but perhaps in the next one, or the one after that.
At The Education Trust, we are working in coalition with education and civil rights advocates across the country to push for a higher education act that advances educational justice.
I hope you’ll join us.
There are four basic pillars in our vision for a reauthorized Higher Education Act that advances the interests of students of color and students from low-income families.
First, make college affordable.
The Pell Grant is what millions of students from low-income families – who disproportionately are students of color – rely on to access higher education. Despite significant increases during the Obama administration, the Pell Grant is at its lowest purchasing power in 40 years. The maximum award should be larger, it should grow with inflation, and it should be protected from partisan debates about the size of the discretionary budget by being a fully mandatory program. Beyond that, students who are incarcerated and undocumented should be able to use Pell Grants to pay for college. We should be expanding access to higher education, not closing it off.
Proposals for a federal-state partnership to make college truly debt-free are promising and should be part of the college affordability conversation at both the federal and state level.
Second, hold colleges accountable.
Students and taxpayers need to be protected from unscrupulous and ineffective colleges, lenders, and loan servicers. This starts with strengthening protections already in place, not ripping them apart, which is what the current administration is doing.
It should be easier, not harder, for students to get their loans forgiven when they’ve been defrauded.
If we are going to keep accreditors in the federally-recognized oversight role they now play, they need to be even more rigorous, more willing to take swift and significant action to protect students and taxpayers, not softer on the colleges that pay their membership fees.
When colleges promise to lead students to a well-paying job and a better life in exchange for access to billions of dollars in federal student aid, we the people should hold them accountable for their results. That would be easier to do with better education data than are available today, including disaggregated graduation rate data for Pell Grant recipients by race/ethnicity.
Third, improve college completion.
The current rates of success at most colleges and universities are too low. At the same time, we know there are proven approaches to helping students complete their degrees, including well-studied programs right here at CUNY, at Georgia State, at UC Riverside and elsewhere that are showing real results and beginning to be replicated. We need a major federal investment in a completion innovation fund that scales evidence-based practices and builds new evidence for increasing college completion.
Fourth, make campuses safe.
Student safety and civil rights should be paramount for ensuring inclusive and effective learning environments. The current administration’s approach of distributing get-out-of-jail-free cards to colleges instead of enforcing civil rights law … that’s something we should all be deeply concerned about. The next Higher Education Act should include strong protections for students with disabilities, non-discrimination requirements to defend the rights of LGBTQ students, and support for colleges in preventing and responding to incidents of sexual assault and racism on campus.
Making college affordable, holding colleges accountable, improving college completion, and making campuses safe. These are all critical.
What I’ve learned, though, is that you can’t just stop at good ideas. Not if you want to get anything done.
Policy is necessarily about politics. I don’t mean partisan politics, necessarily. I mean politics in terms of power and interests.
A reauthorized HEA needs a majority in the House, 60 filibuster-proof votes in the Senate, and a president’s signature. And there are always competing priorities.
We are not going to change higher ed policy unless we shift higher ed politics.
And that means informing and engaging and activating coalitions of equity-minded community members, business leaders, civil rights advocates, and others with real influence to create the public demand for something that looks more like educational justice.
That’s why at The Education Trust we work in coalition whenever we can, and we’re trying to shift the public narrative in favor of educational justice.
Next week, for example, we are hosting a public event in DC, on October 1, with Ladies of Hope Ministries. Our message is clear: End the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students, and ensure federally funded programs are of high quality.
Women who pursued higher education while incarcerated will share their personal stories. Federal policy advocates will meet workshop-style afterwards, reflecting on the stories and planning to work together to build greater public awareness and demand for change. This is an area where we see some real potential for bipartisan agreement, and we are doing whatever we can to support the leaders in this particular aspect of the movement, which has been active since the 1994 ban went into place.
One common push-back when trying to advance equity-focused policy is “Oh, that sounds too expensive.” That’s exactly what we heard when we proposed America’s College Promise at the end of the Obama administration. It would have made the first two years of college as free and universal as high school education is today. The price tag for the first year, 2017, was just over a billion dollars. Too expensive, Congress said. Recall how much we spent bailing out the economy after Wall Street nearly destroyed it. Or the massive tax cut this Congress passed and didn’t pay for, which will benefit upper-income Americans the most.
It’s not a question of what we can afford. It’s a question of what our values are.
That’s what I want to leave you with: policy is about politics. And politics is about getting people to care, and getting people to act. It’s about never getting too comfortable, watching the balloons fly away at the party – and assuming someone else is in charge, that doing nothing is okay and that everything will be just fine.
Justice is something we have to work for every single day, because there are people working to undermine it every single day.
Making college a reality for vastly more Americans.
Breaking down racial barriers and discrimination.
Protecting students and taxpayers from those who take advantage of them.
That’s what pushing toward educational justice looks like, and, CUNY, it feels good to know that we’re pushing together. I look forward to talking about how we can do just that.