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Everything old is new again

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.


We’ve been here before

Three higher ed news stories jumped out to us this week. And as is so often the case, they feel like shadows of stories we’ve seen — or written — before. 

First, conservative groups are expanding the battle over elite public high-school admissions, filing lawsuits challenging changes made intended to foster more diverse student bodies

The latest one targets changes made at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. The suit, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, argues that the changes there were meant to racially balance the enrollment at the expense of Asian American students.

The New York Times reports: 

Perhaps signaling the future of the lawsuit, the U.S. district judge presiding over the case, Claude M. Hilton, expressed skepticism about the school system’s claim that its revised admissions policy is race neutral.

“Everybody knows the policy is not race neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” said Judge Hilton, a Reagan appointee. “You can say all sorts of good things while you’re doing others.”

Working with Jeff Young at EdSurge last year, we went deep on the emotional fight over the changes at TJ as part of our podcast series Bootstraps.

​​For the episode, Jeff brought together two parents — both immigrants — with students in the school system and very different views of how one of the best public high school’s should pick its class.

Social mobility elevators

Speaking of lawsuits, another big higher ed story this week centered on a fight over enrollment at the University of California at Berkeley. A neighborhood group challenged the environmental impact of the university’s plans to expand, and a state appeals court let an order stand that would force Berkeley to freeze its enrollment.

The university is appealing, but if the ruling holds it may have to cut its incoming fall 2022 class by about one-third. The decision led to expressions of concern about how this could affect social mobility. 

Berkeley City Councilman Rigel Robinson told the Los Angeles Times that the city also had concerns about the impact of enrollment growth. But he also said that “UC Berkeley’s transformational impact as an engine of upward mobility needed to be shared with ever more students, particularly those from diverse, underserved backgrounds.”

“Do you want some social mobility in higher education villains you’ve got em, it’s the NIMBYs suing to limit enrollment at Berkeley,” tweeted Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of education at Michigan State University.

But, as we’ve written before, maybe the number of seats at public universities like Berkeley isn’t the biggest, or only, problem. Can you imagine how different our social-mobility conversations would be if every rich private university had a 20-year growth plan focused on expanding seats? we asked back in December 2020, in an item about “social mobility elevators.”

Instead, most are more like Stanford. Back in 1970, the university enrolled 6,221 undergraduates. Now — half a century later, during which California’s population has doubled — Stanford enrolls … just about 7,000 undergrads.

A political realm

Finally, there was the news about Sonny Perdue, the former Republican governor of Georgia and Trump cabinet secretary, being named as the sole finalist to lead the University System of Georgia.

The process by which he was selected — and the choice itself of the former politician as chancellor for the 340,000-student system — has led to a lot of outrage. And to us, it’s yet another example of just how politicized higher education has become. A reading list:

Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

Our new network reporters

Welcome to Emma Folts, the new higher education reporter at our partner PublicSource, and to Madalyn Wright, who’s joining our team of student fellows covering community colleges with the CalMatters College Journalism Network.

Emma’s finishing up her last semester at Syracuse University while working at PublicSource, where she also was an intern in summer 2020. Her first story on the higher ed beat ran this week, focused on how continued enrollment drops at the Community College of Allegheny County are affecting the Pittsburgh area.

More than nine in 10 of the college’s graduates go on to live and work locally, Emma reports, but thousands fewer students have enrolled during the pandemic. The college saw a 16.6% drop in students during the 2021 fiscal year.

“Individuals lose out by not going to college,” Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, told Emma, “but the broader community, the society as a whole, loses out too.”

Madalyn is a first-generation college student majoring in journalism, women’s studies, and ethnic studies at Sierra College, a community college outside of Sacramento. They also are editor-in-chief of Roundhouse News & Review, an online journalism platform for Sierra College students, alumni, staff, and community.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Photo by Monica Bourgeau on Unsplash


In The Job: The completion agenda evolves A nonprofit group that was a pioneer in helping more community college students get to graduation is expanding its focus to include social and economic mobility.

In Work Shift: Adult learners in N.C. are teaching community colleges a thing or two. Five community colleges in North Carolina piloted a program to bring in new adult learners this fall. The number of takers exceeded expectations—and two thirds of students completed or re-enrolled.

In Colorado: Debt may no longer block Colorado students from getting college transcripts. Those debts are sometimes for minimal fees, such as parking tickets, library fines, or a few hundred dollars for a final college tuition payment. A bill would limit the practice.

In Northeastern Ohio: What a national research classification means for Kent State University. The new designation, Kent State officials say, helps bolster the competitiveness of its state and federal research proposals and the attractiveness of the university to job candidates and grad-school applicants.

In Mississippi: ‘We are undeterred’: How Mississippi’s oldest HBCU responded to the bomb threats. Since January, more than two dozen HBCUs, including all but one in Mississippi, have received bomb threats, leading to cancelled classes and campus lockdowns.

In The Intersection: Barriers beyond cost. Removing financial burdens, or even making college free, doesn’t always remove other key obstacles to getting to college or staying there.

In latitude(s): A move to reinstate Fulbright in China. A little-noticed amendment in a recently approved China competition bill would reverse a July 2020 decision by the Trump administration to end the signature U.S. government exchange program with China and Hong Kong.

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