The esteemed panel discusses higher education as a path to economic opportunity and social mobility.
Higher Education with John B. King, Jr., Michele Siqueiros and Douglas Haynes
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Higher education has been seen as a path to economic opportunity and social mobility, but more and more, students who enter college don’t ever finish. Tonight, a conversation first about why this is happening and what can be done about it.
Then singer Clint Holmes joins us for a performance and conversation about his latest project. It’s called “Rendezvous”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: A startling number of students who start college and increase their debts don’t end up finishing. Tonight we’ll explore with our special panel why this is the case.
Pleased to welcome Douglas Haynes, Vice Provost of the University of California Irvine, John King, Jr., former U.S. Education Secretary and current President of the Education Trust, and Michele Siqueiros, President of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and glad to have you all on tis program.
Let me start with the obvious question, which is why there are so many students starting and not finishing and particularly, Mr. King, students of color in that category. Why is that?
John B. King, Jr.: Well, we’ve got a couple of things going on. One is economic challenges. So for many students, they are spending a very large share of their family’s income on the cost of college, even with the aid of their receiving from the federal government and often from their state government.
We know low-income students can be spending as much as three-quarters of their family income on college tuition, whereas for affluent students, it’s a much smaller portion. But once you get over the financial issues, there are lots of issues around what it’s like to be on a college campus for students who may be the first in their family to go to college.
College can feel very unfamiliar. That first bad grade can lead them to feel defeated or they may find that they don’t have quite the academic preparation that they need. So there’s a lot that institutions of higher education can do to actually make college a more successful environment for students.
Tavis: Why is that percentage of income gaps so wide for poor versus wealthy families?
King: Well, one of the factors is that, over the last few years, we’ve seen states really systematically disinvest in public higher education, so families are bearing a larger share of the cost, and that is the biggest impact on folks from low-income communities.
And we also have all of the complicated American history around race and class that results in families of color typically having much less in terms of family wealth than certainly white upper middle income students.
Tavis: You wanted to add to that?
Douglas Haynes: Yes. I mean, the challenge keeps growing. There’s been a 20% decline in state support for public higher education since the recession. California alone is 9% and those costs too often are shifted to parents, low-income parents, and it does have a significant impact. But universities are learning how to improve success for students.
Tavis: How are they doing that?
Haynes: Well, first they’re looking at it as a long game instead of a short term game. It begins with outreach early on, K through 12, demystifying the process of applying to college, visiting colleges to actually see what it’s like as a physical space. Then equipping them to navigate the application process and financial aid.
We do that through our Centers for Education Partnerships. It’s very important because a majority of our students are first generation, so what we try to do at UC Irvine is to collectivize the social capital of the university so more individuals who are first generation or low-income can not only apply and get admitted, but thrive while they’re at UCI.
That’s the key thing, to thrive while they’re there, provide the appropriate support that could be additional tutoring, but also thinking beyond college in terms of an ecosystem. So when they leave college, they’re part of a network of people who are helping them build their careers.
Tavis: Michele, this seems so unfair that you have these first generation college students who still have to bear these kinds of burdens, financial and otherwise. It would seem, after all the practice we’ve had at this, we’d be better off than we are now and that first generation students wouldn’t have to carry this sort of weight.
Michele Siqueiros: I think that’s what’s disturbing that we all know that higher education is really the pathway out of poverty and the value of going to college, especially amongst Black and Latino families across the country, is incredibly high. That’s the dream that we all have for our own children.
As somebody very sage once said, “Do what rich people do”, and rich people send their kids to college. So it is disturbing because that is the path to the American dream and we’ve got to make sure that our states are investing.
We also have to hold institutions accountable to do some of the things that UC Irvine and other campuses are doing to ensure that welcoming environment. We’ve got to make sure professors support students when they do get that first bad grade.
I remember when I was in college, I got a C and a note from the professor, “Come see me”, which I thought meant they were definitely kicking me out of campus. Thankfully, it wasn’t that conversation. It was a conversation about what kind of support do you need, how can I help you with the readings? We need to do much more of that.
Tavis: Well, at least you got a C. I ain’t gonna tell you what I got [laugh], but you can guess. It was worth than a C when I got called in in my second semester in school. I’m not naïve in asking this question, Mr. King, but tell me why it is that the cost of education is going up so fast. What’s driving the increase in education?
King: It’s a variety of factors. For some campuses, it’s that their faculty have gotten older and they have liabilities that’s been absorbed over many decades for pensions and healthcare benefits. For other campuses, it’s that they have invested in facilities and facilities upgrades that are costly.
But at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is that the support for students from the federal and state level hasn’t kept pace. You think about Pell Grants, the primary federal support for low-income students. It’s at a 40-year low in terms of what portion of the cost of higher education covers. We should be doing a better job supporting students.
Tavis: Why is that? Because every president that runs — you worked for one, Barack Obama, who said this. Trump said in his own way that every person who’s ever run for president always says in their own way, “I want to be the education president.” Nobody’s going to downgrade education while they’re campaigning, so how is it that those numbers are going in the wrong direction?
King: Well, unfortunately, there’s been a reluctance to make the necessary investment. Now over the course of the Obama administration, we added $1,000 to the maximum Pell Award. Index Pell to inflation, so at least it was keeping pace with inflation, but that’s actually going to end this year.
A big question for Congress is will they continue to invest, hopefully increase the investment? Or will they follow the lead of the current administration and retreat from investment? They’ve actually proposed very significant cuts to higher education assistance for students.
Tavis: What do you make of that? Why do you think our rhetoric is so disconnected, our rhetoric about the value of education is so disconnected from our public policy?
Haynes: I think it’s accountability. Just to give you an illustration, the University of California basically competes with prisons for discretionary funding.
Haynes: Right. It costs more to support an inmate than it does to education a student in the University of California. So whatever politicians say, their actions speak volumes because, in some sense, that first generation Latino, that first generation African American that’s going to college needs more support.
And it’s just a matter of time before institutions really have to face the existential decision. Can we afford a world class education for students who are different, who are low-income students of color from a low-income families?
Tavis: How much of this is not about — how might I put this — not about equality, but about equity. I know the three of you know the distinction that I’m drawing here.
I don’t know that we can ever get to a real conversation about equity, meeting students where they are, giving them what they need, if we’re constantly fighting about what school has this, what school doesn’t have this. How do you get to the equity conversation?
King: Research first. I want to go back to the point…
Tavis: Isn’t the research clear about that already, though?
Haynes: Well, the research that I’m thinking about is universities understanding how they actually teach students, how do they actually support students? Because in the absence of that, you can have a commitment to equity, but you will have very inadequate delivery.
So now there’s a push that I’ve noticed certainly at UCI, but elsewhere, in trying to learn more about how students learn, to equip our teaching assistants and faculty to actually know how to manage new learners.
King: We’ve got equity challenges at every level of the system. We’ve only got about 40% of four-year-olds in public preschool, so access to early learning is where we start. In K-12, we know some students are getting much more than others. We know, for example, from the civil rights data collection survey that there are high schools where you can’t take Physics or Chemistry or Algebra 2.
What chance do you have to pursue a STEM career if you can’t even take those classes in high school? So you got an equity challenge in K-12. And then in higher ed, we often have institutions with a mindset, you know, the kids are first generation, the students are low-income students, they’re working. It’s not really our fault. We do the best we can.
On the other hand, you have institutions like UC Irvine, like a Georgia State, for example, that say, no, no. We’re responsible for not just getting students to college, but through college with a meaningful degree. We’re going to provide advising. We’re going to provide tutoring. We’re going to reach out to students and make sure they have the support they need. And that institutional behavior is critical.
Siqueiros: I would just add that we need, you know, courageous leaders and the public to be creative to talk about race and equity in the ways that make us feel uncomfortable because folks don’t want to talk about race. But the reality is that we all stand to benefit, whether it’s in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois. If we are under-educating Black and Brown children, we’re all going to pay the price for what that means.
Tavis: Well said. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for your work. Good to have you on this program. For more of this conversation, go to our website at pbs.org/tavis to hear more of what these brilliant minds have to say about how we fix this crisis specifically for students of color trying to get a high-quality education.
Up next on this program, singer Clint Holmes. Stay with us.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.