Indiana's State Capitol. Photo by Richie Lim on Unsplash

Where We’re Headed in the States

I talked with David Tandberg a little more than three months ago, when we were all just starting to wrap our heads around what it means to live through a pandemic.

Back then, Tandberg, the senior vice president of policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, was worried about the hit state budgets were about to take — and how looming cuts could further erode the public role of higher ed.

Needless to say, Tandberg’s worries haven’t diminished.

As new fiscal years get underway in most states, here’s what he’s noticed so far and what he’ll be watching in the months (and years) ahead:

There aren’t many tuition increases. This is different from other economic downturns when colleges often have raised rates to help make up for state cuts. Now, Tandberg says, colleges seem to recognize that times are tough for students and families. They’re also worried about their enrollments. Keeping tuition rates the same can help colleges compete for students, Tandberg says, or at least not worsen their position in the market.

There’s also the question now of how much students and families will pay for an all-online experience, as more colleges move away from in-person instruction for the fall. Many students are demanding tuition discounts (and some colleges are providing them).

Down the road, though, the numbers aren’t going to add up. Tandberg says he expects that we’ll eventually see pretty significant tuition increases, especially if our economic downturn persists for a number of years.

Quality and completion will almost certainly suffer. To respond to budget challenges, many colleges have laid off faculty and staff, furloughed employees, and left open positions unfilled. That means students will now be missing people who may be critical to providing the education and support they need to finish their degrees, Tandberg says. “My concern is that the research is quite clear that, particularly at low-resourced institutions, money really matters for quality and completions and student success.”

The gaps will only widen between the haves and the have-nots. There’s a simple way for states to try to balance the budget: Make across-the-board cuts. The problem with that, Tandberg says, is that it’s like arguments about a flat tax. On the surface it sounds fair to say that everyone will be assessed the same 10-percent tax rate or face the same 10-percent budget cut.

But the issue, he says, is what’s in the bank account. If there’s not much there, a 10-percent tax will loom large — and a 10-percent cut can be detrimental. For smaller, regionally and locally oriented colleges, there’s not much in the bank, Tandberg says. That across-the-board reduction will cut deeper.

Federal aid is critical. The probability of another federal stimulus package that includes money for higher education is very high, Tandberg says, but he’s worried about whether it will be enough. “Federal funding right now is not optional,” he says. “I don’t see how many institutions can survive, or survive in the ways we need them to, without it.”

— Sara Hebel

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Customers Instead of Citizens

Colleges trying to figure out what to do about the fall are in a hard spot right now because of decades of pubic disinvestment in higher education, Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said this week on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.”

Here’s why: We’re looking at higher education through a customer lens, not a citizen one. There’s a workable way to plan the fall semester for students and for citizens, she said. There’s not a workable way to do it for customers.

“After 30 years of conditioning people to think of higher education as any other consumer good, and to think of students and families as customers, we now have to pay the piper,” she told Hayes.

“The customer wants a certain experience. Well, customers are not the right sort of framework to think about the moment that we are in. A global health pandemic is larger than a customer. A global health pandemic requires a citizen response, a public response. The problem is we spent a lot of time starving our public institutions … And because of that we now have to deal with customers when we would probably prefer to deal with students.”

Watch the full interview:

Belonging, Mentorship, and Race

The popular phrase, “It’s not always what you know, but who you know” explains the importance of relationship building in professional settings. In college, mentors serve as gatekeepers that can help students unlock career opportunities. But student access to these powerful connections is uneven, with Black students often facing more hurdles than their white classmates in benefiting from a meaningful mentorship.

Past research has shown, for example, that race plays a role not only in whether an undergraduate has a mentor but who that mentor is. A 2018 Strada-Gallup survey of college graduates found that fewer than half of the first-generation and minority students who said they had a meaningful mentor reported that that person was a professor. In contrast, three-quarters of white respondents said their mentor was a faculty member.

The importance of mentors was highlighted again in a recent study about social belonging and how colleges can improve students’ transition to college.

How One Hour Can Help

A brief intervention could make a big difference — and set Black students up for success both in college and beyond, the researchers found. The intervention they studied is a one-hour session where the participants heard, and reflected on, stories from older students about their transition to college. They shared how they struggled with belonging and also how that improved over time.

That short session, the researchers said, seemed to make students who faced adversities in their following interactions less likely to view those as any kind of indication that they didn’t belong. Shifting how they viewed their social context may then have helped them do more to thrive in college, including by forming supportive mentor relationships.

Now, looking at the participants’ lives seven to 11 years later, the researchers found they reported greater career satisfaction and success, psychological well-being, and community involvement and leadership.

A Common Worry

Shannon Brady, assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, was one of the researchers. She says she was especially struck by just how much a common worry can impede Black students’ relationships. Even just a one-hour session, she says, helps break down that hurdle because students see that their worries aren’t impossible to fix.

“We give them a chance to reflect on it themselves,” Brady says, “and broadly what we find is people find a way that it does connect.”

Here’s what else she says colleges can do to help:

  • Train staff in how to understand and interact with students from different backgrounds.
  • Track disparities in mentorship, and then fix them.
  • Provide opportunities for students and professors to make organic connections. Events that work like speed dating, for example, could help student-mentor pairs form more naturally around shared interests.

— NaTavia Williams


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The University of Alabama and Auburn University have deep connections to the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Students want more than a statement this fall.

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus