A system of favoritism

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Unequal Influence on a Powerful Board

In many ways, the story that Molly Minta was pursuing was not that surprising. That’s part of why she wanted to write it.

It’s a story of the status quo, and one we’ve heard over and over again: About a powerful governor appointing his powerful friends to a powerful board. But that pattern has consequences, Molly reports for our partner Mississippi Today.

Year after year of insider appointments to Mississippi’s higher-ed governing board, Molly writes, “not only raise ethical questions but are indicative of a system of favoritism that excludes the historically Black colleges and universities.”

She reviewed the 26 trustees nominated by Mississippi’s past three governors to the board of the Institutions of Higher Learning, which governs the state’s eight public universities. Just six were Black. Only two were Black graduates of a public historically Black college in the state, where 38 percent of the population is Black.

Appointments to the university board are some of the most coveted political appointments in Mississippi. One of her sources said it was “almost like a fourth branch of government in our state.” The IHL oversees a higher education system that employs over 27,000 people and educates more than 95,000 students. The board has the final say over contracts worth $250,000 or more and controls personnel decisions ranging from appointing university presidents to approving academic tenure.

Who’s on the board matters, Molly says: “Mississippi’s universities are vital to this state’s future. They can help grow this state’s economy and stop brain drain. The IHL board has enormous influence over that future because they oversee the universities.”

Among the seven appointees Mississippi’s current governor, Tate Reeves, a Republican, has made to the IHL and to the board that governs the state’s community colleges, all but one are campaign donors. Over the past five years, these six appointees and their businesses have contributed at least $155,750 to Reeves’ campaign committees, Molly reports.

State Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat who attended Jackson State University, told Molly that the practice of appointing donors or allies is one way the political system ensures power stays in the hands of Mississippi’s predominantly white institutions at the expense of its HBCUs.

“It’s an opportunity for the status quo to remain,” Bell said.

One thing that struck Molly in her reporting was the history of the IHL, and the irony of its origin story. The board was created in 1943 to protect the state’s colleges and universities from “the blight of partisan politics,” according to “Making Haste Slowly,” a book by David Sansing that chronicles the history of higher education in Mississippi. 

“It was surprising to learn that this political board was supposed to be a check on the governor,” Molly says, “considering how much control he can exercise over it today.”

— Sara Hebel

+ Read Molly’s story.

++ For more on partisan divisions and college boards, read this in-depth analysis from The Chronicle.

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Verification On the Ropes?

This week brought — perhaps — another COVID casualty: FAFSA verification.

We’ve written before about this corner of financial aid that went little scrutinized for years. Verification is the government’s audit-like process that requires many students to provide additional information before getting their federal aid. Historically, it’s snared millions of poor students, forcing them to repeatedly prove that they are as poor as the FAFSA says —and sometimes getting in the way of attending college in the first place.

The Education Department had already made changes last year to reduce the number of students that were being selected for verification. This week, it announced that it would temporarily alter the process, focusing only on identify theft and fraud, not the income and tax verification that affects so many students.

This move is officially only temporary, but the language from the department was the most forceful acknowledgement yet that the process creates an equity barrier.

“This has been an exceptionally tough year,” said Richard Cordray, the chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid. “We need to ensure students have the most straightforward path to acquiring the financial aid they need to enroll in college and continue their path to a degree. Targeting verification to focus on identity theft and fraud this aid cycle, ensures we … reduce barriers to access for underserved students.”

When the federal official sounds more like verification’s critics over recent years, it’s hard to see the department going back to the old system.

+ Past coverage: The Part of the FAFSA We Don’t Talk Enough About

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Kent State is trying new approaches to draw students, including adding scholarships and hosting events at drive-in movies. (Photo: Kent State University)

In Cleveland: Northeast Ohio colleges face continued enrollment challenges. After steep declines last year, many colleges are projecting decreases again this fall. 

In Work Shift: Can microinternships help more women break into tech?Women studying computer science weren’t getting hired for the critical summer internships that lead to jobs—so an enterprising organization decided to redesign the entryway.

In The Job: What a study of Ohio students tells us about the value of short-term credentials. A recent analysis found promising initial results, with wage gains for completers and evidence that students are stacking up multiple credentials, which pays off even better in the job market.

In El Paso: Texas lawmakers look to further restrict critical race theory. Conservative lawmakers wasted no time answering Gov. Greg Abbott’s call to enact further restrictions on how race is taught in relation to the nation’s history in public and charter school classrooms.

Also in El Paso: How El Paso’s colleges are using the millions in federal funds they received during the pandemic. The federal aid helped students like Helen Bonds stay enrolled at El Paso Community College.

In latitude(s): It’s official: Biden withdrew rule that would have put strict limits on student visas. In withdrawing a Trump-era visa-rule change, the Biden administration notes overwhelming opposition to the proposal.

Colleges May Not Require the SAT, but US News Still Will

For decades in admissions — despite some colleges bucking against the system — the SAT and ACT, generally, have reigned supreme.

The pandemic may be breaking down the castle walls. Oh, the tests aren’t going away anytime soon — but clearly the public debate has shifted. The latest attack centers on the most influential college rankings: US News and World Report’s.

A range of education policy and advocacy groups — led by New America — sent a letter this week to US News asking the magazine to stop using average SAT scores of incoming students to rank colleges. The critics argue using this type of input measure never made sense but that shifts to testing since the beginning of the pandemic have made it “preposterous.”

Akil Bello is the senior director of advocacy and advacement at FairTest, one of the 11 organizations that signed onto the letter. He called using the test scores to rank colleges “irresponsible, arbitrary and illogical.”

“This is not what the tests were designed for. This is not a measure of college success. This is not a measure of student performance.”

Back in 2008, amid a previous call to drop test scores from the rankings, US News said it would do so if a “meaningful percentage of colleges” stop requiring them for admission. So far the magazine has declined to comment.

Angel B. Pérez, the chief executive of National Association for College Admission Counseling, called on US News to make good on that promise. Obviously, he said, the pandemic has meant that a meaningful percentage have already changed how they require the tests.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience, that many low income, first-gen students of color are kept out of selective institutions because of the pressure that enrollment officers feel from their leaders to increase average test scores every year. So simply put, the system perpetuates inequality. So the rankings are deeply flawed, and agree with my friends at New America, they’re probably here to stay for a while. But if so, US News can be a powerful driver in changing public perception.”

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