Michael Smith, CEO of AmeriCorps, volunteered with others for MLK Day of Service.

Hi, my name is Naomi Harris and I cover race and equity in higher education. If you’re new to the newsletter, welcome and check out my previous work. You can sign up for your own copy here.

In the new year, I’m thinking a lot about the ways students from marginalized backgrounds might fall through the cracks of the education system. How is race and status connected to quality education?

In this issue, I talk with experts and leaders about opportunity gaps from childhood education all the way to graduate school.

AmeriCorps’ role in equity

Late last year, the U.S. Senate confirmed Michael Smith as the new chief executive officer of AmeriCorps, a federal agency focused on public service work. Smith, the former director at My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, has centered social justice and public service in his work with marginalized communities.

He talked with me about his new role and how he wants to use it to help close equity gaps.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. When thinking about social inequities in this country — and the connections to issues like poverty, discipline, and graduation — how can the K-12 and higher education systems address education gaps students of color, especially young men of color, face?

There were six milestones that we tracked where young men of color were really lagging behind their peers due to systemic inequality. Of those six milestones, four of them fall squarely in K-12. We have to start early. We can’t just go all the way and wait until the young men are in their 20s. Then you go and make sure our kids graduate from high school on time.

The year that we started My Brother’s Keeper, we were celebrating an 82% graduation rate for our high school students and that was a turnaround on the dropout crisis. But if you were a Black or Latinx boy — you were looking at a graduation rate that was on average about 50%. In some school districts, we were seeing graduation rates at 10%. We have to focus on that and all of the reasons that contribute to … our young men not graduating on time. We have to look at making sure our kids not only enter college or post secondary education, but that they actually complete it. Both of those are challenges. That’s not just a matter of dollars, which is important, but it’s also a matter of cultural competency and making sure that when we send our kids away to college — we’re focused as much as keeping them there as we are at getting them there.

Q. What types of conversations are important to have with families when thinking about school and future careers?

I benefited from a village. My parents were teen parents. They gave it their all and they gave it their best and I am grateful for who they were. But they made sure I was in church and in Sunday school. They made sure that I would go to my local boys and girls club, where I had a second group of moms, dads, uncles, and aunts that were taking care of me. They made sure that I had the chance to talk to guidance counselors. They made sure that people who had different careers or were coming from different walks of life had a chance to water into me.

I would say no parents, no caretaker, no guardian should feel like they have to do it alone. But really, how do we lean on our village to make sure that everyone is taking an active role? President Obama would say we have to get to a point where we realize that our neighbor’s child is our child, and that we rise and fall together. And that makes me think a lot about the work that we do with national service, which is about engaging folks to say that we all have a responsibility to give back to our communities.

Q. How did the summer of 2020 help shift the discussions around structural racism and the lives of young men of color?

It forced America to reckon with our path, to reckon with the conversations that we hadn’t been willing to have, to reckon with how systemic racism wasn’t something that belonged in the 1960s or belonged in the 1860s. But the vestiges of that still live within our society, and many people benefit from it and many people are still denied opportunities as a result.

I was happy to see companies having the conversation about shifting resources. I was happy to see political leaders having the conversation about changing policy. I was happy to see law enforcement having the conversation. At the Obama Foundation, we launched our reimagine policing pledge where we had more than 330 community mayors that had committed to changing use of force policies and looked at other ways that systemic systemic racism shows up in law enforcement.

So I think it was a good start. It gives me hope that we can continue to get the work done.

Q. Now as the CEO of AmeriCorps, how would you define your vision?

I want to make sure we do even more, that national service continues to be seen as a tool that can be used when communities in the country are going through some of our toughest challenges. I’m really going to be focusing a lot on making sure that national service represents that diversity, the rich diversity of not only our country, but the communities that we serve. We’re actually seeing some good numbers of diversity on a national level, but there’s more work to be done when you get down to a local community to make sure that our kids can understand that national service isn’t just a group of people coming in to help you. But national service is something where you get to use your unique gifts and abilities to give back to your own community.

What we found with national service is it creates great pathways to the future. So whether you are just getting out of high school and not sure what you’re going to do in your next phase or you’re getting out of college and you want to test a new career opportunity, national service provides you an opportunity to have real world experiences that are giving back but also building you up to put you into a path to a brighter future as well.

Barriers to graduate school

A survey found the challenges to grad school for undocumented students. (The Dream.US)

There’s been a lot of focus on policies that affect undocumented students’ ability to attend college: whether they should be eligible for in-state tuition, for example, or federal student aid.

But for those who do make their way to graduation, what’s next? A report released in December by TheDream.US, a national college and career focused program, found that nine out of 10 expressed an interest in graduate school.

Nearly 1,000 undocumented college graduates were surveyed about their experiences in higher education. Many wanted to pursue graduate school because they were in very practical careers like teaching, engineering or nursing, said Hyein Lee, director of measurement & evaluation at TheDream.US.

As this pandemic has shown, there is a clear need for education and healthcare professionals. Part of that labor need could be supplied by undocumented graduates, said Lee.

“So many of our graduates and undocumented college graduates, want to become teachers, want to become nurses, want to become doctors — but they cannot pursue the education the graduate degree that opens up those career pathways.”

Here are a number of barriers in the way, the survey found:

  • The graduate school application process is confusing. There are a range of questions undocumented students have that don’t have very clear answers. Are there fellowships or assistantships readily available to them? Survey respondents asked for more support from colleges while applying.
  • Lack of funds. The costs of graduate school also present a problem. Some university staff are unclear about tuition and aid, which adds confusion to the process. Undocumented students end up paying out of state tuition costs, even if they’re eligible for in-state tuition, or apply for private loans, Lee said.
  • Will employers invest in them? Without permanent immigration policies, employers are also more hesitant — some alumni had their job offers rescinded, Lee said.

Recommended reading

Mississippi continues to give financial aid to students who can already afford college
Of the nearly 25,000 students who received state aid last school year, 20% were from families that make less than $30,000 a year. Nearly 50% came from families with an annual income greater than $75,000. www.opencampusmedia.org

This Texas community college group is offering free tuition — and much more
College promise programs that pay for local high school students’ tuition have multiplied throughout the country. hechingerreport.org

Students Notice Diversity. That’s a Good First Step.
Creating a more diverse campus must include fostering a sense of belonging, writes Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president of equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Utah. www.insidehighered.com

Thanks for reading!

I’m working on stories about the role of merit aid in the South and about the college-going journeys of Californians, this time in Los Angeles and Riverside. (Read the first set of stories from Stockton here.) If you know people I should be talking with, or have other story ideas to suggest, reach out at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.