My college career began with remedial courses at a community college and ended four years later with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.
This makes people flinch. But we all have an unexpected flame inside of ourselves waiting to be lit. I always believed this to be true. Others did not, and justifiably so, as my grades in high school were inconsistent. The marks on my report card followed the waves of my depression.
President Obama’s proposal to expand access to community colleges has many asking why the country should focus on students with the odds against them. I offer my story as one to think about amid this debate.
When I was a high school senior, expensive private colleges seemed unrealistic and only small, flimsy envelopes arrived from four-year state colleges. I scanned the website of Raritan Valley Community College, remembering that a high-achieving friend had just enrolled. That was enough to convince me to apply.
I received a startling text from my aunt after announcing my decision to attend Raritan Valley. “You're going to fail out and ruin your life," read the message. My aunt knew the stereotypes of community college too well. Those who attend two-year schools are thought to be defeatist, uninspired, and lacking in follow-through, according to the stereotype. My parents started community college with the intention of earning a degree, but walked away empty-handed.
Feeling perplexed, I quickly wrote back, “Students transfer from community colleges into top schools like Pepperdine and Syracuse all of the time! There's also an honors society. Some people even get full scholarships. I just need to get above a 3.5.”
"That's never going to happen,” read the message that flashed across the screen of my phone. I was disappointed. She feared that if I went to community college I would derail, forfeiting all hopes for a successful life.
For me, forfeiting wasn’t an option. The eccentric and quick-witted professors, personable and encouraging nature of the college president, and wealth of opportunities to explore made Raritan Valley Community College a well-kept secret that I was fortunate enough to discover.
My mathematics professor enlightened our class with her first lesson. “To be fully proficient in any subject,” she said, “studying an additional six to nine hours each week is essential.” I went home and immediately reorganized my schedule to accommodate this formula for mastery.
The tutoring center was my sanctuary. Although passes to the center were limited, I still managed to convince my professor to give me a few extra. I treated them like golden tickets, rejoicing as I danced down the hallway to book my appointment. In the end, my professor’s ultimate study formula proved to be correct. The high-achieving student within me finally took form.
I was no longer ashamed of not having it all together in high school. I belonged in this land of lost toys. The students I interacted with varied in age. They shared identical challenges but told unfamiliar stories. Community colleges accept more than just everyone’s application. Community colleges welcome all students and support them in their pursuit to improve their lives with education. There’s a reason no other academic institution is more accepting.
I applied to Cornell University with my fingers crossed. When I was accepted and decided to major in communication, I knew the odds were still against me. I didn’t anticipate that community college would lead me to graduating from one of the most competitive universities in the world. However, the tenacity I gained over those two years enabled me to face the odds and flourish.
Now, I share the stories of academically struggling children from low-income neighborhoods for the education nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect. We accept all types of scholars because we know they can achieve academic success through our five-week summer education programs. Learning in an environment that promotes acceptance, whether a summer program or a local community college, can strengthen a weak flame into becoming an invincible fire.
Please think about my story when you think about why community colleges matter – in the decisions of high school guidance counselors, state legislators who allocate funds, and members of Congress who now have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
Casey Randazzo is communication coordinator for Practice Makes Perfect, an intergenerational program that matches struggling elementary and middle school students with high-achieving middle and high school students with the supervision of college interns and expert teachers for an intensive academic summer program. She studied communication at Raritan Valley Community College and received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2013.
The problem is that such claims are largely false, and they feed popular misunderstandings of the role of HBCUs in the 21st century. The data are clear: while a small handful of HBCUs experienced a slight increase in non-black enrollment over the last decade, most HBCUs did not. In a re-segregating society, where race and economic class matter more than ever and contemporary accounts from students of color reveal chilly racial climates at predominantly white universities across the country, the future of HBCUs is most important for black Americans. Many of these students rightly view HBCUs as one of the few remaining safe spaces for black intellectual and personal development.
There are 100 HBCUs in the United States, and over 80 percent of them are four-year colleges and universities. A tiny number, however, make most of the news — think Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, Howard and Florida A&M Universities. Despite representing only 3 percent of all U.S. higher education institutions, HBCUs enroll approximately 9 percent of all black undergraduates in higher education today, including almost 11 percent of all black students attending bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.
That’s the real story. But journalists are distracted by the idea that non-black students also attend HBCUs, because that story seems to fuel the narrative of a post-racial movement in America and leads the public to believe that HBCUs are in danger of losing the unique culture that produces the “HBCU experience.”
The fact is that between 2000 and 2010, there were as many non-black students enrolled at 10 HBCUs (mostly community colleges) as were enrolled at all other four-year HBCUs combined. Fully 50 percent of all non-black students at all HBCUs attended just those 10 colleges and universities. But four-year HBCUs experienced no increase in non-black enrollment during the 2000s. In fact, three out of four public HBCUs and many HBCUs with the largest shares of non-black enrollment experienced significant decreases in non-black enrollment between 2000-2010. In other words, most HBCUs are becoming more, not less, segregated.
These facts have been presented before, yet ignored. In 2005, the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education released a report titled, The Persisting Myth That the Black Colleges Are Becoming Whiter, which received very little attention. Contrary to what today’s headlines suggest, the facts have not changed much since 2005.
It is not only important to know that most HBCU student bodies are not becoming less black, but to understand why that is OK. Even though the overwhelming majority of black college students are enrolled at predominantly white institutions, HBCUs continue to pull their (disproportionate) weight and remain the top producers of black graduates in many disciplines. They are able to produce such results because of their explicit commitment to educating black students in nurturing and supportive environments — facts that are missed on state and federal policymakers who still largely ignore and neglect HBCUs when developing higher education policies.
For examples of this, look no further than recent policies that had detrimental consequences for HBCUs, such as the change in federal Parent PLUS loans that cost many HBCUs millions of dollars in funding through steep and sudden declines in student enrollment. Many HBCUs must already deal with being persistently and significantly underfunded compared to predominantly white universities in their state, so policy changes that may be financially inconsequential to larger state institutions have far different implications on HBCU campuses. Another more extreme, yet very real, example of the genuine disinterest for HBCUs is the constant efforts of policymakers to simply get rid of HBCUs. In 2014, North Carolina legislators proposed shutting down Elizabeth City State University because it is “small” and “unprofitable,” even though it has consistently been a top performer when it comes to graduation rates among HBCUs across the country (and because that’s what public universities are supposed to be: profitable, right? Insert sarcasm.). Even the new College Scorecard ratings system proposed by the federal government has received criticism from the HBCU community for using metrics that inherently disadvantage these institutions.
These are just a few examples out of many, but it demonstrates that these attacks on HBCUs are not relics of history. Policymakers continue to regularly demonstrate their apparent disregard for HBCUs and channel their support — both financial and otherwise — to larger, predominantly white flagships despite the accomplishments of HBCUs. So until there is evidence that equitable outcomes are being achieved when it comes to access and success for black students more broadly, and until more students of color are reporting positive experiences with regard to race on predominantly white campuses, HBCUs should and will remain critical support systems for black intellectual development in the U.S. higher education system.
C. Rob Shorette II is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, a former HBCU presidential aide, and a graduate of Florida A&M University. He is also the co-editor, along with Robert Palmer and Marybeth Gasman, of a forthcoming monograph in New Directions in Higher Education, Exploring Diversity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Implications for Policy and Practice.
For years now, the main trend in public university policy has been to impose budgetary austerity on them. Regardless of the revenue level that universities seek or the efficiencies they announce, the result is always the same: inadequate public funding coupled with rising tuition and student debt.
On the surface, 2015 promises more of the same: more austerity, more fees, more adjuncts, more tech, more management, and more metrics— metrics as a substitute for money. Years of attacks on austerity economics by prominent critics like Paul Krugman have not damaged austerity politics, which favors some powerful interests and which has hardened into a political culture. Our public universities have been stuck in a policy deadlock that I think of as halfway privatization. This has meant the worst of both worlds: not enough tuition and endowment income to escape the perma-austerity of state legislatures, and not enough public funding to rebuild the educational core.
University officials opened with their only revenue move — a tuition hike. UC President Janet Napolitano, who had been the Democratic governor of Arizona and then President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, proposed an annual 5 percent hike for UC students for each of the next five years. The state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, responded by saying the hike would break an agreement in which the state is to increase California State University and University of California funding 4 to 5 percent per year on the condition that tuition stays frozen, as it had been for three years.
From there, the parties made a series of scripted points. Napolitano responded that UC couldn’t maintain academic quality with funding levels that were lower that when the recession began. The state replied that UC had more than made up for the massive cuts with its even more massive tuition increases. UC officials countered that the state’s math was wrong. An existing line was redrawn in the sand: we need more versus you have plenty. Much of the state’s top brass showed up to argue against Napolitano and the regents. Though the speeches were especially passionate, no votes were changed. The tuition hikes passed 14-7, with every politician on the board voting no.
Some editorialists were impressed that Janet Napolitano had started a new public discussion of the university’s fate, and yet the austerity script generated the standard follow-up gesture of split-the-difference. UC officials said they would rather have the state buy out the tuition increase by adding $100 million to the general fund allocation of about $3 billion. In response, Democratic leaders hatched his-and-hers halfway measures. His, from the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate, was a full tuition hike buyout funded by a raid on the legislature’s halfway measure of last year, a “middle class scholarship” plan, plus a hike in the triple-tuition paid by non-resident students. Hers, from the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, was half a tuition buyout linked to higher teaching loads for faculty and a gesture toward “zero-base budgeting.”
Regardless of which components prevail, the austerity outcome is already programmed: not enough money to fix basic problems. The California tuition fight is about who would pay an additional $100 million, but that comes to 1.4 percent of the university’s core budget of $7 billion, and is a drop in the bucket of its $27 billion overall budget. UC also says it has a structural deficit: exact size varies, but one estimate was $2.4 billion by 2015-16. The tuition increase (or state buyout) comes to 3.3 percent of that, so that the university system would need about 25 years of such increases to close the deficit it will have next year.
UC managers and state politicians are debating mirror versions of the same austerity molecule. Either way, academic planning is ruled by insufficient funds, and quality upgrades are kicked further down the road. The university system actually needs 16 to 20 percent annual increases in funding for five years to get back on track, and yet the budget script assures that the university will neither ask for nor receive the reinvestment to do so, defined as growing at the same rate as state personal income. The tuition debate and its larger narrative aren’t about advancing public higher education but about sustaining the austerity already imposed on it. The outcome for students, year after year, is that they pay more tuition to get less education.
And yet something has happened in the last few months. The three leading players began to tire of their roles.
First, there are the university’s senior managers. Their deal was to accept austerity, but instead they were getting insolvency. They had spent every year since 2008 announcing major efficiency programs, but political leaders were never satisfied. Operated from the Office of the President in Oakland (UCOP), these programs had nine-figure savings goals, consumed immeasurable amounts of staff time, pushed expenses onto already-suffering campuses, cost the central administration most of whatever good will had remained among the rank and file, and yet still didn’t help the university.
One flagship efficiency measure, an IT centralization plan called UCPath, has missed all its time and cost milestones and is now being funded through borrowing. The most likely outcome is that the university will spend $220 million to save a net $5 million per year over a couple of decades while going into debt to do it. The university could get real savings through major structural simplification, but that would take knowledge, money, and trust that UCOP doesn’t have, and bottom-up initiative that it doesn’t support. All this efficiency programming has done little to close the deficit.
Faced with weak results and mounting unpopularity, an administrative glove or two finally came off. The university’s senior budget official used phrases like “I fundamentally disagree with the notion that tuition increases have made up for cuts”— fighting words in the deference culture that normally prevails — and appeared on multiple radio and TV shows to plead the university’s case. Political leaders can keep forcing university officials to accept their lump of coal, but the change this year is that perma-austerity has undermined their united austerity front.
As for the Board of Regents, the deal was that cooperation would maintain prestige and not produce humiliation. Board members have been very good at taking their austerity medicine — with the expectation that someday it would reward them with improved fiscal health.
One sign of health would be for the state to rescue the regents from their single biggest fiduciary mistake, which was to have stopped employer and employee contributions to UC’s retirement fund and not to have restarted them for almost 20 years. But the state’s Democrats have been as unwilling as its Republicans to fund the state share of the employer’s re-started contributions, now at 14 percent of payroll, although it has always done this for the California State University system. Since the state has also been unwilling to fund cost of living increases, the result of the restart in employee contributions was a 12 percent faculty pay cut between 2010 and 2013.
The board resembles the faculty in one way, which is its lack of political clout, and they are now angrier about this than I have ever seen them. One regent described the state’s relation to higher education funding as “breach of contract,” and this was just one of many expressions of frustration and disgust. Cost-free complicity between the university board and state leaders has come to an end in California. Its days may be numbered elsewhere.
The third major player is the undergraduate student body, for whom the deal was to pay more for the same, not to pay more for less. Worried about jobs and skills, they have started to zero in on declines in educational quality. As part of the tuition hike debate, Caitlin Quinn, a student government leader at UC Berkeley, said, students “aren’t seeing this supposed quality education. I've been [at UC Berkeley] for three years and ever since I've been here students have been struggling to see the value of a UC education. We’re in huge classes. I’ve been in classes as big as 800 people. I don't think there's more than one or two professors who know me by name.” Students increasingly doubt that public universities can give them the individual attention they need to build the special capabilities now required by a permanently demanding job market.
As a result, UC students were as disgusted with the austerity Democrats who opposed tuition hikes as they were with the UC officials who proposed them. The tone was nicely captured by a UCLA Daily Bruineditorial that began, “State Senate Democrats say they ‘stand with California’s students and their families’ with their new proposal for funding the University of California.... But this is an outright lie.”
Students were now calling not just for flat tuition but also for the public reinvestment that would rebuild quality. They were clear that no decision-maker was offering this. There was a new multilateral hostility to all of the solutions proposed by the university and the political establishment — a pox on all your houses! Events this past fall began to decouple mainstream students from the mainstream policy options in a way the country hasn’t seen since the 60s.
The weakening of higher ed's austerity front reflects the weakening of Democratic fiscal politics. For years, Democrats called for inclusive progress without paying for it through the taxation levels of the high-growth postwar economy. This has helped them to hang onto wealthy liberal donors and the progressive upper-middle class, but lost them the confidence of most working people. Their “politics of drift” allowed them to coast along with Republicans on the investments of the past, even as the freeways, laboratories, electrical grid, and everything else aged and declined.
By 2000, the country no longer had the world-leading pubic infrastructure that would sustain the inclusive economy Democrats still said they wanted. Public research universities were primary victims of their austerity drift. Austerity Democrats have been as invested as Republicans in the fantasy that prosperity’s infrastructure didn’t need high levels of investment, just more techno-efficiency that somehow needed no investment itself.
Although austerity theory still rules public colleges, three of its major players no longer project future benefit from following their scripted roles: cutting and squeezing (administration), political compliance (governing boards), and tolerance for higher tuition and debt (students). It has become clear to them that these austerity policies will never make things better.
The decline of austerity’s political coalition offers a second chance to two other parties. One is the body of university faculty, whose senate voices have largely echoed those of their administrations. The other consists of the families of college students, who are poorly organized and have not held politicians accountable for their destructive cuts. Each has a crucial piece of the puzzle. Educational quality can’t be defined and pursued without the faculty. The full impact of student debt can’t be understood without the families who, through mechanisms like Parent PLUS loans, are now indebted for college along with their children.
Were these groups to push for real public reinvestment, they would face weaker opposition from the austerity coalition than they would have faced in the past. A strong push would make 2015 the year that the country finally started to rebuild its public universities and colleges.
Christopher Newfield is professor of literature and American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.