Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

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A monthly newsletter that explores issues facing historically Black colleges and universities and follows the work of our HBCU Student Journalism Network. By Naomi Harris.

Cheaper books, better access

What responsibility does a university have to change when its student population changes?

Colleges across the country are facing new pressures to reduce costs and expand services as their student bodies grow more diverse. At North Park University, which recently became an Hispanic-serving institution, administrators like Frank Gaytán, the vice president of student engagement, are rethinking how they meet student needs as their demographics quickly change.

Ten years ago, the small liberal arts college in Illinois was mostly a residential campus that served mostly white and middle-class students.

Over the years, the university’s students became more diverse, with more commuter students and first-generation students. Now 80 percent are students of color, including 42 percent who are Latino.

“We’re still a small liberal-arts college. We have a little leafy campus here in the middle of Chicago and it’s trying to figure out how we could shift enough to meet our students where they’re at,” Gaytán says. “But at the same time to not change our identity and also allow students to partake in that.”

One issue the college identified was an increased frequency in students showing up to class at the beginning of the semester without doing their homework. Quickly a significant barrier became clear: the cost of the books.

“Students would email me the day that an assignment was due, maybe the third week, and say, ‘Yeah, I can’t do my assignment because I haven’t bought my books yet,” says Gaytán.

The cost challenges were a systemic issue, he said. Initially, faculty started using materials that could be reserved in the library, digital materials like PDFs, and other unlicensed but shareable resources.

The university also pursued more systemic solutions. North Park set up book scholarships and a fund for emergency aid that can also be used for textbook assistance.

The university also partnered with Akademos — an online bookstore that helps reduce costs for students by giving them options to buy materials that are either brand new, used, or available digitally.

Nearly 65 percent of students across the country are not buying required class materials, said Raj Kaji, the chief executive officer of Akademos, and college students cite financial concerns.

For students who are able to access course materials, the class passage rate goes up. Compared with students who had to acquire their own course materials, students whose colleges made sure they had materials on day one passed with a C or better at a 4 percent higher rate, according to one study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire.

The gap was even greater for Black students, researchers found, who passed with a C or better at a 13 percent higher rate than their peers.

Shifting demographics also requires a shift in thinking, Gaytán says. Whenever a faculty member expresses frustration with students, Gaytán helps them understand that students who may appear to be unprepared are often dealing with other responsibilities at the same time.

“What I’ve said is $100 for them might as well be $10,000 when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and when gas is $6 or $7 a gallon,” he said.

The promise of success

Pittsburgh Technical College students go through medical procedures as part of an allied-health program. Photo: Naomi Harris

For the past couple of months, I’ve dived into the world of career and technical education — specifically training programs in healthcare. In order to understand those training programs, I talked to experts like Shalin Jyotishi, a senior policy analyst at New America.

Under the umbrella term of allied health, prospective students can enroll in training programs to become nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, surgical technologists, medical insurance billers, and more — the possibilities are endless and, at times, overwhelming.

When weighing their options, prospective students and workers should pay close attention, Jyotishi said, to labor market outcomes. For example, a number of allied-health professions programs that are available without degrees may not necessarily lead to a local living wage.

For my story, I decided to focus on the landscape in Pittsburgh.

Though health and medicine have become pillars of the Pittsburgh economy, colleges that offer allied health programs are struggling to attract students as they deal with enrollment declines.

During my reporting, I talked with researchers, students, and program directors to understand the daily lives of people working in the allied health professions.

Though healthcare work is valued by the public, that does not always translate to solid salaries or good working conditions.

“People appreciate the roles that healthcare systems are playing in changing what Pittsburgh looks like,” says Ray Engel, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh.

Engel and his team of researchers released a survey this past spring that found more than 90 percent of hospital workers considered leaving the profession. The participants cited work condition problems like insufficient staffing, need for higher wages, and mental exhaustion. But people haven’t always appreciated many of those jobs, and the people doing them enough.

“We find it ironic that it was only with the pandemic that people started to see, particularly lower wage workers, as suddenly essential.”

Open Campus and PublicSource will be co-publishing my full story about the complicated reality of a health-care career in Pittsburgh later this week.

Recommended readings

To better serve the state’s population, the University of Arizona is offering to pay tuition or fees for Native American students. More than 400 current students will be eligible at the school’s main campus in Tucson, where tuition currently is $12,700 per semester, according to Sequoia Carrillo at NPR. Read the full story.

How are college students responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade? Emma Folts at PublicSource talked to student leaders as they grappled with the news. Read her story.

What can cause professors of color to leave? A range of experiences, including being attacked because of their racial identity and feeling undervalued or misunderstood, led professors to quit. Check out the profile series by The Chronicle.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at

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