Sign up for the newsletter
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.
Welcome to The Intersection! My name is Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. Are you new here? Sign up for future editions!
Peek into my reporter’s notebook
This year, I asked a lot of questions in phone calls, panels, and on reporting trips. I talked to a lot of people. I covered issues like financial aid and mental health.
Race is integral to this country’s history, so all of my reporting comes back to that. And in particular, I am always thinking about how the history of systemic racism plays into higher education.
I decided to share some year-end reflections with you. Here are three things I learned while covering my beat this year:
When systems are complicated, but you continue on:
I spent almost four months reporting on merit requirements in state-sponsored financial aid. My colleague, Molly Minta, did incredible work at Mississippi Today that covered how possible changes to a need-based grant could make college less affordable for low-income and students of color. Her story was what prompted me to dig in on my own. I decided to look at other Southern states with merit requirements for financial aid. That is how I met Sherry Paramore.
At the time, she worked at Elevate Orlando, a Florida-based education organization that offered mentorship, scholarships and guidance through the application process for high school students pursuing college or careers. But she also saw hundreds of her students, many of whom were Black, work hard and still not get the state scholarship, Bright Futures.
When I talked to her, I could tell how methodical she was with her work. She focused her Ph.D thesis on educational equity. Paramore saw that the percentage of Black students who received the state scholarship in Florida never went above 7%. She looked at how the state scholarship is funded (mostly by the state lottery) and questioned just who was funding the program. She spent lots of time talking to school principals.
It hit her just how few people knew that the program was rarely awarded to Black students.
But seeing her efforts, and her students’ attempts, not end up with the scholarship was disheartening. Even so, Paramore also knew her students were resilient — they saw their SAT scores would not qualify them for the aid needed, so they looked elsewhere to get to college.
“I’m upset to see it happening. But for [the students] they cope. For us, knowing it’s not available to them, we just find other scholarships,” she said to me over the phone back in March.
I thought it was so fascinating to listen to someone fully understand the challenging nature of the Florida education system but continue to push on. That is not to say people like Paramore should have to push past the flaws. But even within a system that benefits wealthy and white individuals, she made sure to keep her students at the heart of her work
When a great career is the goal but the educational path is full of barriers:
Going to college requires a balancing act. There’s class. And papers and exams. Plus, friends and socializing. It is all part of the path towards graduating and, hopefully, getting a great job. But getting through isn’t usually enough — internships are key. And, despite the importance, many students still don’t get paid for their efforts.
This past summer, I talked to students about this reality for a story on unpaid internships. One student in particular stood out to me. Denice Brambila, a Mexican-American graduate student at San Diego State University, was spending her days trying to recover from an intensive school year.
She worked part-time at an elementary school to keep up with expenses. She also had classes through her social work master’s program. And, she worked an 16-hour-a-week internship for free. It became so stressful that at one point, her sister convinced her to take a couple days off. During that time, she remembered how her supervisor at her internship kept trying to contact her to see when she’d be back. Knowing her supervisor was looking for her made it hard for her to actually rest.
It struck me that Brambila had to go through so much to achieve the career in social work that she wanted. When does it become too much for students like her?
Students of color and students from low-income families have to sacrifice so much just to get their foot in the door at an internship. But sacrificing pay for the work they do shouldn’t be part of that calculus, experts argue.
It comes down to money, money and more money:
I talked to a number of experts about the many burdens associated with student debt this year. It was a big topic — President Joe Biden announced a loan-forgiveness plan, and even though it is tied up in litigation, it brought the student debt crisis back into focus.
Nicole Smith at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has looked at student loans by examining the age at which we reach adulthood. Historically, that happened at the age of 25 — when people could afford to purchase cars or homes while starting families.
But now, that benchmark is creeping up — 27 or early 30s. That’s because young people are so saddled with student loan debt that they have had to pause other milestones. The financial burden is only adding to historical inequities.
Student loan debt disproportionately follows Black borrowers. Purchasing a home was already an uphill battle full of bias and discrimination and redlining — and now, it is becoming even harder to afford it at all. This challenge feels real to me, a 27-year-old Black woman with hopes of purchasing a home one day.
These conversations feel really personal. Debt, and systemic inequality, can easily stop people of color from achieving milestones in their lives.
Support my work
The reporting in this newsletter would not be possible without the support of our readers and funders. If my coverage of race and equity in higher education matters to you, will you consider supporting this work?
Your gift goes farther through Dec. 31 — NewsMatch will match your new monthly donation 12X or double your one-time gift, up to $1,000. Please consider donating — and thank you!
Meet Our HBCU Fellows
Our six HBCU fellows will begin reporting in 2023.
Recently, Open Campus has hired its first class of fellows with the HBCU Student Journalism Network. The fellows will cover their campuses and offer the nation a look into the role historically Black institutions play in higher education.
Fellows have expressed excitement in covering funding, enrollment trends and students’ and colleges’ role in social justice. Learn more about the fellows.
Business schools have seen increased diversity after easing standardized testing requirements. What can test-optional admissions offer colleges? Check out Arman Kyaw’s story at Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
Californians are sharing their perspectives on higher education — from dropping out to earning a degree. My colleague, Nick Fouriezos, finished out our profile project for the year.
Thanks for reading! Happy new year!
Have you spent a little time reflecting and want to share with me? My email is open for stories, tips or perspectives! Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To sponsor a future newsletter, please email email@example.com, or check out our advertising information page.