via Coalition for TJ YouTube channel

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here. 

Fighting for TJ

We started with a relatively simple question: What’s the fairest way to select 500 eighth graders for a spot at a special high school when 3,000 want to go? Soon, though, we found ourselves in the middle of passionate debates about immigrant dreams, the notion of “spurious precision,” the case for “collective merit,” and, most importantly, race. 

This week, the latest episode of our podcast collaboration with EdSurge examines an admissions fight at one of the nation’s best high schools.

The battle in the D.C. suburbs over how Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology should select its students is one of several that have roiled so-called exam high schools in the last year (see fights in Boston and San Francisco, as well).

Working with Jeff Young, the managing editor of EdSurge, we’re creating a podcast series about merit and education that we’re calling Bootstraps.

We wanted to get underneath the debate at TJ, as the school is universally known, because it seemed like a petri dish of so many arguments we hear in other venues. For decades, students got in through a special science and math test designed specifically for TJ. But increasingly that approach is coming under fire. As Jeff reports:

“That’s because the current admissions system leaves out nearly all of the Black and Hispanic students in the area. While about 27 percent of the district is Hispanic and 10 percent is Black, each group makes up just 2 percent of the student body at TJ.

Last fall the school board proposed replacing the test with a lottery. That led to protests, rallies, and eventually lawsuits. In this show, Jeff takes us inside the dueling narratives about educational equity now at play. I asked him to reflect on what he learned:

What struck you doing the story? 

“How parents and alumni on both sides of this debate say they are fighting for the American Dream. One sees the current system as a shining example of how if you work hard (say by studying for the admissions test) you can get access to best education and jobs. The other is focused on equality and wants to make sure students from all classes and races are able to acces the best education and jobs.”

This is one super-selective high school in the DC suburbs. How does this matter to the rest of the country? 

“This local story really does embody some of the biggest national debates right now around educational opportunity and systemic racism. These aren’t new, of course, but there seems to be a renewed willingness to have tough debates and try new approaches.”

TJ, for instance, can be seen as a microcosm of the arguments over the future of the SAT in college admissions. Just as TJ is moving away from its admissions test, plenty of colleges that made standardized tests optional during the pandemic will be wrestling with their role going forward.

Take a few minutes to listen to the episode. You’ll hear deep passion on both sides — as well as Jeff’s attempt to bring two parents from opposing camps together to really listen to each other.

— Scott Smallwood

+ The first episode in the series: On the origin of the phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

++ Even more great audio that tackles a related issue: Planet Money on how the New York City marathon created a fair system to distribute spots — by not creating a single system.

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What difference has a year made?

A year after George Floyd’s murder, Naomi Harris, our reporter in Pittsburgh, examined what has changed — and what has not — at the city’s universities after so many promises were made to make campuses more inclusive and anti-racist. 

Naomi, who works for our partner PublicSource, also explored the personal toll of the past year on Black student leaders, Black professors, and new Black directors of diversity and inclusion who were pushing for change.

“There was a lot of promise, there was a lot of hope and frustration and anger and so many other emotions that Black people felt last summer,” Naomi told Jourdan Hicks, host of a PublicSource podcast about places and people that bring Pittsburgh to life. “I really wanted to see how Black students in particular were navigating this year, from the pandemic to dealing with the grief and the weight of seeing Black lives being slain.”

How, Naomi asked, are Black students waking up every day, logging online, putting on masks, going to class, with that weight still on their shoulders? And how are some students then turning around and demanding change?

“These are students who want more,” Naomi says. “And so I wanted to capture that.”

From Naomi’s series

Everything’s Online — And Worse?

New America released its annual survey this week of Americans’ perception of higher education. Should we be concerned that 3 out 5 people think online instruction — the delivery method that expanded dramatically in the past year — is worse than in person?

Dig into the various demographic breakdowns and you’ll find that no group thinks online is better. It’s more a matter of just how bad they think it is.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In El Paso: “A first-generation student graduates from the University of Texas at El Paso for herself and her family”

In Santa Cruz: A milestone in equity: For the first time, Cabrillo College’s graduating class is 50% Latinx

In latitude(s): Colleges play a dominant role in attracting global talent

In Next: Learning, streaming, and the creator economy

In The Job: Stacking to a degree

In Northeast Ohio: University of Mount Union restructures curriculum, hoping to cut costs and improve retention

In Colorado: University of Colorado labor union calls on the system to rethink its budget priorities

+ Get your own copy of our newsletters here.


One college’s mission: Vaccinate 120,000 people

Can the University of Florida persuade the skeptical and change minds about the role of higher ed?

Illinois colleges are losing Black students. Turning that around is key not just for equity but to build jobs.
Schools need to take the lead in improving equity for students of color, advocates say.

‘I want it for me’: 1st-generation college student beats COVID barriers to stay in school

Experts worry about losing hundreds of first-generation college students.

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