How to Talk About Higher Ed at Thanksgiving Dinner, 2022 Edition

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College has been in the news a lot this year. If you’re heading home for the holidays, relatives and friends might have questions about the latest developments on affirmative action, student debt, and critical race theory.

Five experts told us how they’d talk about some of this year’s biggest higher ed topics with family members and friends who may not be well-acquainted with the world of academe. Here’s a brief guide for how to answer some questions that might come up at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.

Why are colleges still using race in admissions decisions, anyway?

Colleges consider race in admissions for a number of reasons, says Liliana M. Garces, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Institutions want to encourage students to learn from one another, prepare them to be leaders in a multiracial society, and break down stereotypes that some students might have. Building a diverse class of students can advance those goals, Garces says.

Is affirmative action unfair to certain students?

Garces says there are three misconceptions or disagreements she hears most often about race-conscious admissions.

First, she says there’s a misconception that institutions are putting their thumb on the scale when they consider race in admissions. In reality, “it’s just one of the many pieces that come into play when admissions officers are making decisions,” she says. It would be unfair not to allow students to present their full set of experiences — which include how their racial or ethnic background has impacted them — in their application, she says.

The second is a disagreement over what criteria colleges should consider when deciding which students to admit. Some people believe colleges should prioritize standardized test scores above everything else. While this can be a factor colleges consider, it’s not the only one they find relevant, she says. “And colleges are in the best position to decide what’s important to consider when they build a cohort.”

Finally she says, “there’s this idea out there” — a flawed one, she asserts — “that we end racial discrimination by just not thinking about race.”

How did student loans become such a big problem?

Student debt didn’t balloon overnight, says Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education and a department head at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As one might guess, a key driver of the problem is the rising cost of college, he says.

Running a college has become more expensive for many reasons. Students want and need more campus services than in the past, Kelchen says, like mental-health counseling. Academic advising used to be taken on by faculty members but is now done by professionals. And of course, colleges and universities must also contend with inflation.

But “it’s a complicated set of factors as to why college has gotten so expensive,” Kelchen says. “And unless you’re the kind of person who wants to hear about deferred maintenance at the Thanksgiving table, it’s not the best conversation to fully have.”

Declines in state governments’ support for higher education, Pell Grants that haven’t kept up with inflation, and stagnant wages have meant that students and families must use a greater share of their income to pay for college, says Fenaba Addo, an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies debt and wealth inequality. Those trends, in addition to the rising cost of college, have disproportionately affected certain populations, Addo wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Low-wealth and Black households accumulate more debt, she says, and rates of default and delinquency are higher among these groups. The same holds true for people who never finished college or attended for-profit schools.

Should the government forgive student debt?

The question “ultimately comes down to who you think should pay for college,” Kelchen says. He says views among his colleagues vary. Some believe the government should forgive all student debt. They’re concerned about racial-wealth gaps and borrowers’ having to delay starting families and buying homes, according to Kelchen.

Those who argue against loan forgiveness point out that programs like income-driven repayment already exist for graduates who are struggling financially. There’s also the question of fairness, says Kelchen.

Addo believes that the government should forgive all student debt. “The student debt landscape as it exists today and the debt burden so many students and their families carry result from policy decisions we’ve made about higher education,” she says. She points out, too, that existing repayment plans have not helped reduce the burden among populations most affected by student debt.

Is college worth it?

It’s true that a college education isn’t the only ticket to economic security, says Anthony P. Carnevale, who directs research on education and employment at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“When your Uncle Roy insists that you can make a good living as an electrician, he’s not completely wrong,” Carnevale wrote in an email to The Chronicle. But there are fewer good jobs available to those without degrees, and “a bachelor’s degree is still the gold standard in today’s economy.”

On average, he says, a bachelor’s degree has better payoff in the labor market than less education. The “perennial lie” that college isn’t worth it tends to resurface during recessions, he explains — and it may soon be fueled by temporary growth in infrastructure jobs, many of which don’t require college degrees. But a degree will continue to pay off, Carnevale predicts.

The Center on Education in the Workforce projects that in 2031, 79 percent of jobs held by workers with bachelor’s degrees will be “good jobs,” which pay a median of $72,000 for workers ages 25 to 64, at least $38,000 per year for workers ages 25 to 44, and at least $49,000 for workers ages 45 to 64, adjusted for cost of living by state.

What’s all this I’m hearing about critical race theory in college classrooms?

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of Republican-backed bills purporting to target the teaching of critical race theory. To understand how we got to this point, says Taifha N. Alexander, who directs research on anti-CRT activity at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, it’s important to look back to the summer of 2020.

After the murder of George Floyd, institutions — including colleges and universities — began incorporating more anti-racism education into trainings and curricula. There was an increase in the number of courses discussing race or racism; academic departments and divisions issued letters stating their efforts to fight against racism; and more institutions required or encouraged employees to complete diversity training.

Then came the backlash. The campaign to reject critical race theory, Alexander argues, can be best understood as an attempt by politicians and others to restrict access to information about systematic racism in general. The term CRT has been “co-opted and defined in a way to attack anything that can be remotely attributed to critical race theory.”

As a result, course topics that aren’t necessarily critical race theory but may have a foundation in it — like ethnic studies and history — have been targets of these efforts. In states where anti-CRT laws have been passed, professors don’t know what they’re allowed to talk about in the classroom, and sometimes default to saying nothing at all.

“It’s restricting professors from being able to teach and students from being able to learn,” Alexander says.

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