Michele Siqueiros on “The Years That Matter Most”

August 5, 2020
reposted from the Campaign for Free College Tuition blog

In 2019, when the college admissions scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, came to light, like most Americans I was sick to my stomach. Abuse of privilege, wealth and power is not new. My anger wasn’t just directed at the families and the campus leaders that were engaged in the scandal, it was fueled by a frustration at how the least privileged, wealthy and famous among us, have to overcome a million hurdles in order to get to college, and when we do, we are made to feel as if we don’t belong. In response to that anger, I wrote this earlier post as a tribute to first generation students, me included.

Reading Paul Tough’s The Years That Matter Most reignited some of that same anger and frustration.

For me, college definitely mattered. As a first-generation college graduate, the daughter of an immigrant who only had 6th grade education, earning a BA and MA was my path out of poverty, and just as importantly, my opportunity into a career I love. College mattered so much, that for the past 16 years as the President of the Campaign for College Opportunity, I have fought to expand college access, protect financial aid, and champion the types of reforms that can improve outcomes and close racial/ethnic equity gaps in our community colleges and universities.

My mother worked as a seamstress earning just above minimum wage. She never had health benefits, or paid time off, or any kind of job security. We lived paycheck to paycheck, in a small one-bedroom apartment, where my bed was a pull-out mattress that came out every night and was put away in the morning. We had no safety net to catch us if we fell. I knew I wanted and needed more security than that. I was poor, but I grew up with everything I needed, food on the table, a roof overhead, and a strong powerful role model who loved me and nurtured my love for learning and devouring every book the public library allowed me to check out. Because of my experience I am guilty of embracing the idea that college is an effective panacea for a lot of our social ills and for the kind of social mobility that took me out of that one bedroom apartment and finds me today with a home and a mortgage I can easily afford. The research confirms the benefits of a college education, especially for low-income students.

But Tough’s book also finds that the following truths about college are also playing out in America and they are tougher to bear:

  • College perpetuates the existing inequality in our society by disproportionately serving the most well off;
  • Talented and brilliant low-income students are much less likely to enroll in college or graduate from college compared to mediocre low-performing high-income students;
  • Few low-income students are served by the wealthiest and selective colleges across America; In fact, more than two-thirds of undergraduates at Ivy League and other highly selective colleges are very rich, and fewer than 4 percent of students are poor;
  • The multi-billion dollar test prep industry (SAT/ACT in particular) help rig the system even further in favor of the rich; In Trough’s words, “certifying privilege rather than merit” and providing false signals for who is truly able to succeed or not;
  • Talented first generation and low-income high performing students struggle in college environments that are not welcoming;
  • Black students remain ridiculously underrepresented in higher education, especially Black students who are NOT wealthy, biracial or immigrants; And there appears to be a cap on just how many Black students are accepted into Ivy League colleges (8%);
  • Low-income students who do make it into the Ivy League, mostly come from high performing boarding or private schools; In other words, the Ivy League is hardly taking a chance on students attending regular public schools in America.
  • The business of running colleges makes wealthy tuition paying students a big draw for admissions offices; Imagine the perverse incentives of opening campuses during a global health pandemic. And the flawed U.S. News and World Report’s famous college rankings values the least important things about a college and creates perverse incentives for campuses who want to improve their ranking;

If that list is not depressing enough, recently Americans have been engaging in a discussion around the value of college that has grown more political and polarizing. Tough aptly points out how these discussions serve as a political distraction from better funding higher education, financial aid, and dealing with student debt and that those who attack the value of college the loudest, ironically all have a college degree.

Reading this book could leave you feeling pretty down, especially if like me you are busy championing college opportunity and the social mobility we know can come with it. But I found it as a clarion call to the urgent work that we must continue to fight for: Affirming our efforts to ensure colleges and universities drop the SAT/ACT from college admissions. Affirming our work to ensure more inclusive and diverse faculty, college leadership and academic senate bodies that make critical decisions on admissions, curriculum and create a sense of belonging on our campuses. And reaffirming in our successes to ensure a stronger focus on student centered pathways in and through college that eliminate problematic placement tests, ineffective remedial courses and instead recognize the talent and assets brought to campus by diverse students, and the necessary supports that must be prioritized to ensure they can succeed.

Tough ends the book reflecting on the GI Bill – the first big American investment in college and social mobility post World War II. It is exactly the kind of investment we need today. He reminds us that what we value is at the core of how we support (or do not) higher education, how much we force students to pay and how much debt we tolerate them to absorb. Through higher education we can proclaim that every talented American truly can live the American dream and go to college and exercise their full potential. Or we can continue to exacerbate inequality and leave millions of talented Americans behind simply because they are not White or too poor – and that is the continued Varsity Blues scandal in America.

Michele Siqueiros
Michele Siqueiros, President

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Back to Our [Regularly?] Scheduled Programming…

July 22, 2020

Per usual, a fire hose of content, but there has been some really good stuff that I’ve managed to get through in between my adventures with Lucky (who came home with me three months ago on Sunday!!!).

Vikash and his dog, Lucky

On the COVID-specific front, I would highly recommend these recent pieces:

Rob Kelchen writes about the upcoming fall for higher education in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This one will hit all four of the major sources of higher education revenue – tuition, state funding, auxiliary sources like housing, and endowment returns and gifts. The fall will be rough. We will see layoffs, declarations of fiscal emergencies, and colleges that are not well-positioned to weather this storm may close.

Kevin Carey also looks at the campuses in the middle of the financial pack. Harvard, MIT? They’ll be fine. Carey notes that only about 14% of Cal State students live on campus, while other colleges/systems can derive as much as 30 percent of annual revenue from auxiliary services (see Kelchen’s op-ed above). Both types of institution are in for a tough time, but likely for somewhat different reasons.

This is less about COVID and more about never letting a crisis go to waste. Also in the Chronicle, Anthony Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl take aim at merit aid. The piece discusses ways we fund elitism and the elites at the expense of students and campuses that need resources. They see an opportunity to end “affirmative action for rich white people.” I have heard a lot of folks discuss the ways in which societies dramatically shift in the wake of events like this pandemic. Will we seize the opportunities these authors discuss? I hope so.

On the less COVID-centric front:

Two pieces related to less traditional forms of community college enrollment caught my eye. We think a lot about students who start at community colleges, but what about those who start at four-years and take CC courses along the way? My friends Vivian Liu and Maggie Fay have some cool research out looking at students who enroll in a four-year institution, but who also supplement that enrollment with course-taking at a community college. The find that around 8 percent of students who began at a four-year institution in their data also took community college courses during their educational journey. These “supplementally enrolled” students had higher STEM and total credits earned, higher bachelor’s attainment, and better employment outcomes. Community colleges are pretty awesome.

Elizabeth Meza and Debra Bragg investigated community college baccalaureate (CCB) degree students in Washington. CCB students have slightly higher employment outcomes and initial earnings, but it looks like the traditional BA/BS students catch up and overtake their peers within about three years (given the relative recency of these programs, longer-term effects are tricky to study). They also find gaps by race and gender. If I’m reading their table 5 correctly, the earnings gaps between CCB men and CCB women are FAR larger than the earnings gap among traditional degree-earners. Small sample sizes render analysis by race somewhat difficult, but the authors do document racial differences as well. I’m not sure what’s going on with the healthcare earnings by race – those rows are surprising to me.

On the financial aid/financial well-being front, Kasey Klepfer, Allyson Cornett, Carla Fletcher, and Jeff Webster write up results from a student survey regarding student financial wellness. I don’t know that anybody here will be surprised by any of their findings. Perhaps the magnitude will be larger than we expect, but we see a majority of students worry about how they’ll pay for college and living expenses at the same time. Many students are not sure how they will fund their next semester, and students (particularly at community colleges) need to work to support families. There is a lot in here. It’s worth at least reviewing the executive summary.

The Student Borrower Protection Center released a report about race and student debt. Here too, you already know the upshot: areas with high minority residents are seeing faster growth in student debt, delinquency, and default.

The final piece for today is from the American Enterprise Institute. Jorge Klor de Alva and Cody Christensen examine economic mobility, looking at graduates from four-year institutions who are now in their 20s and 30s (side note, I love it when I’m part of a dataset…). In their executive summary, they note there are a number of schools that “beat the odds,” in that their grads climb the economic ladder more quickly than we would expect given the demographics of their graduates. I’ll admit that I have not had the chance to properly read it, but my questions are largely around how well it compares to other studies of intergenerational mobility (like Chetty et al.). Also, they provide their dataset…I do hope to find some time to look at the California subset, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.

Stay home and stay safe!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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After a Brief Hiatus…

June 18, 2020

It’s been a minute…not gonna lie, I’ve struggled to make progress on my reading list these last few weeks. I am grateful for you all, and for those seventeen subscription TV services that have provided me with endless content to binge when I haven’t felt like nerding out.

Last week, the Campaign released an update to our signature report Left Out: California’s Higher Education Governing Boards Do Not Reflect the Racial and Gender Diversity of California and its Student Body. I would encourage folks to take a look at the breakdowns within the full report, but here are some highlights.

Governor Newsom:

  • Governor Newsom made 11 appointments since assuming office in January 2019. Of his appointments, six were women and five were men. Of the six women appointed, three are Latinx, two are White, and one is Black. Of the five men appointed by the governor, all were White. The governor has not yet appointed any American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) or AANHPI to any of these higher education governing boards.

Bright Spots of Inclusion:

  • Women are well-represented in three of our four higher education governing bodies. A majority of the gubernatorial appointees on the CCC Board of Governors and the CSAC are women; almost half of the gubernatorial appointees on the CSU Board of Trustees are women;
  • CSAC appointees are 70 percent racially diverse—in part because of the representation from legislative appointees, who constitute a majority of the Black and Latinx Commissioners (four of seven);
  • The UC Board of Regents has become significantly more reflective of California’s diversity in the past few years. Of the 18 gubernatorial appointees, 44 percent are Latinx, Asian, or Black Californians.

Challenges to Inclusivity:

  • The CCC Board of Governors does not have a single Black male representative despite community colleges serving the vast majority of Black males in higher education in California. Less than a third of Board of Governors are Latinx, while nearly half the community college student body is Latinx;
  • Latinx make up 47 percent of the CSU student body but represent only 20 percent of the current gubernatorial appointed Trustees;
  • There is only one gubernatorial appointee that is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI) on the CSU Board of Trustees and on the UC Board of Regents, even though AANHPI students make up 17 percent at the CSU and 38 percent at the UC;
  • Even though 19 percent of undergraduates in California are AANHPI and one in seven Californians identifies as AANHPI, there is only one AANHPI member on CSAC—a student representative—and no gubernatorial appointees serving as public representatives are AANHPI.

Clearly we have a lot of work to do. But our state’s students deserve leaders who reflect California’s remarkable population. This isn’t solely about the implications for policymaking. Our students should be able to look at the governing boards of their colleges and systems and find role models among their leaders.

There has been no shortage of education research content, as well, so here are a few highlights from the past few weeks.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has published a few studies that are worth highlighting. We’ve long talked about the importance of the teacher in the classroom, but this paper looks to measure the impacts of certain types of instructor-outreach to students. The authors look at a strategy of sending strategically timed emails to students with advice on how to succeed in the course, their current standing, and reminders of the professor’s availability. They find that the strategy improved perceptions of the instructor among students, but did not, on average, have much impact on outcomes. When they look beyond the averages, though, they do find evidence that this strategy actually did improve outcomes among first-year students who were under-represented minorities. In terms of cost, this one is relatively low. Faculty and instructor time is valuable, though, so an approach that targets the intervention towards this set of students seems like a sound one to me!

A study published this week looked at students enrolling in college-level courses in Florida after the state’s policy change allowed students with high school diplomas to bypass developmental coursework. The upshot? Following the reforms, students were more likely to take and pass college-level courses in their first year of studies. And the gains were bigger for Black and Latinx students. More evidence that supports giving students a chance to succeed.

An interesting working paper/white paper/paper I came across a few weeks ago finds a link between noise and cognitive function. I’m tempted to let the lawnmowers and leaf blowers of the amazing grounds crew here take the blame for the aforementioned decline in my reading volume, but I think the more important things to consider are what we do for students who are in schools near a major freeway or airport. Just some food for thought.

This study about the Economic Impact of Access to Four-Years is also from NBER. I like this piece for two reasons. First, the University of Georgia has a minimum SAT score for admissions. I do NOT like that policy, but this allows the researchers to use a “regression discontinuity design” (see previous blog posts about quasi-experimental methods for more, but the gist is that there really isn’t much difference between students just above and students just below the cut-score – this being particularly true for a blunt instrument like the SAT. As such, they can compare students who were admitted to those who didn’t qualify). They find that, by age 30, students who had access to the university out-earned their peers by 20 percent. The gains were higher for students from low-income families.

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice put out this report on basic needs insecurity among students who themselves are parents. The report details that around 20% of college students today are responsible for the care of a child. Among this set, more than half reported food insecurity within the prior month, and almost one in five reported being homeless in the prior year. Aside from the basic humanity of supporting students with children, there is the reality that mothers with degrees contribute more tax dollars to the state and use less in public assistance over their lifetimes than mothers without college degrees. The report is worth a look.

Stay strong!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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Step forward, step backward

May 15, 2020

Greetings folks!

As usual, my tidings of good health and good humor. My dog Lucky and I continue to rough and tumble our way towards figuring each other out. Much as it is with the larger world, there are good days, there are trying days, there are steps forward, and there are steps backwards. But sometimes he asks for belly rubs, and he looks so silly and cute that I know we’re gonna get there. He is stubborn, like his papa…he wants to do things his way, just like his papa…and he will jump through hoops for hot dogs as long as he believes nobody is looking…just…like…his…papa.

In case you didn’t see it, Kevin Carey wrote this for the New York Times’ Upshot blog. One thing I noted is that in the last recession, state funding cuts were largely made up through tuition hikes. At that time, student debt was around $650 billion. It now exceeds $1.6 trillion. Students and families cannot finance another contraction of state funding.

SHEEO published their State of Higher Education Finances for FY2019 this week. Nationally, funding per full-time equivalent student (FTE) rose over 2018 levels, but it remained lower than funding levels seen prior to the Great Recession. The report gives a detailed look at where different states land on a host of measures. A couple of things stood out to me in terms of the California numbers.

  1. California is home to 15% of the nation’s FTE.
  2. Over the last five years, California has seen the greatest per capita funding increase in the nation (pages 53-54).
  3. California is one of just seven states that had met or exceeded pre-Great-Recession spending levels by 2019.
  4. California’s per FTE appropriation is above the US average (fig. 3.2), but when combining appropriations and net tuition revenues, California has the third-lowest dollar/FTE ratio. (fig. 2.2)
  5. This is in part because California’s net tuition per FTE revenue is the lowest in the nation, and tuition accounts for just over 20 percent of public higher education’s total revenue – the second lowest in the country (fig 2.6).
  6. California is on the higher end of the public higher ed support per capita measure (fig. 4.3)

There is a lot here, and so much more in the report! And all of it has implications for the decisions budget-makers will be considering in the coming months. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of it all, but, once again, signs point to the need for the federal government to fill what may be massive gaps. I think this is especially true here, where you consider point #6 – California taxpayers aren’t necessarily shirking their responsibilities. We want tuition to remain low to encourage students to attend, and, as noted, family/student debt cannot finance the system this time around. There is really only one source left…

Getting even nerdier, two articles from the most recent edition of the Review of Research in Education journal caught my attention. One looks at the use of quasi-experimental research designs (QED) in education. I have linked to a few articles in this vein, but this is probably a little more comprehensive than those. Remember, the gold standard way to figure out whether a program works is to randomly assign it to some students (treatment), while the other students get the business as usual (control). In medical terms, think trial drug vs placebo. For obvious reasons, that is hard to do in education. So, we look to other methods. QEDs take advantage of things out in the world that help eliminate selection bias. Sometimes things randomly happen to one neighborhood, but not to the other one right next door which is appreciably similar. In the remedial education space, a lot of studies have looked at students who were just below a cut-off and compared them to students who were just above the cut-off, because the difference of a point or two on those exams was basically statistical noise. This article goes over types of QEDs then examines the growth of this type of study in education, times when these are appropriate, and the implications for what gets studied in a world that prizes randomized control trials and QEDs.

The second Review of Research in Education article concerns an issue that is near to our Campaign hearts – race/ethnicity categories in data collection. This article discusses ways we might do a better job of collecting and capturing this information. Some of the recommendations are smaller, some I would say are quite far-reaching. I think one thing I hear quite frequently from friends in the data analysis world, though, is how frustrating the current data collection and reporting mechanisms are. I’m not sure I’ve given sufficient thought to how I’d change collection and reporting that I can say too much about the authors’ recommendations, but this is a great piece to read if you are thinking about these issues at all.

And finally, one from this week’s National Bureau of Economic Research set. The authors look at the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, using years for which the need-based program was allocated using a random assignment. They find that employment among recipients was lower than control group peers in the first two years following their award. Employment was comparable in the following few years, but then dipped again in years six through eight when we would expect them to have completed and returned to the labor market. The group receiving the award had overall lower earnings for the eight-year span, but higher GPAs, concurrent with the hypothesis that receiving aid tends to substitute for employment and allows students more time to study. The employment issue in years 6-8 is trickier to explain. The authors offer two hypotheses: (1) grant recipients have less loan-debt and can be pickier about employment; and (2) recipients move out of state at higher rates than non-recipients (though this might be tangled up with the idea that high-GPA students move out of state at higher rates).

Stay healthy!

Vikash Reddy



Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research

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Does Covid-19 Hurt College Dreams Too?

By Michele Siqueiros, President
May 12, 2020

There is no playbook for how to best respond to a global pandemic, and while it is virtually impossible to predict the lasting impact that COVID-19 will have on our students and the State of California, the Campaign for College Opportunity is pivoting our work to ensure students remain front and center. As one of the state’s leading racial equity advocates in higher education, we want to ensure vulnerable students still get to college, that they aren’t knocked off their college paths, and that state leaders understand that investing in higher education is critical, especially in times of crisis.

We do not know when this pandemic will end or how severe the economic fall-out might be. But we do know that our community colleges and public universities produce the health workforce that is essential in responding to this pandemic. We also know that those who will weather the storm best are college graduates.

The Campaign continues to work tirelessly toward ensuring greater racial equity in higher education by demanding that education leaders work to close the gaps in college preparation, access, and success for all students. If anyone doubted the inequality of opportunity that exists in our nation, this pandemic has spotlighted it. For many students, especially low-income and first generation students, as well as students of color, the abrupt move to online distance education is impossible without access to basic technology, educational software and broadband internet service. This crisis makes it clear that all students in the 21st Century must have access to a laptop and broadband internet; it is more important than pen and paper. Read more