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

The college has been in the news a lot this year. When you go home for the holidays, family and friends may have questions about the latest developments in affirmative action, student debt, and critical race theory.

Five experts told us how they would talk about some of this year’s biggest high-profile topics with family and friends who might not be well versed in the world of academia. Here’s a quick guide to answering some of the questions that may come up around the dinner table this Thanksgiving.

Why do colleges still use race in admissions decisions?

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

Institutions want to encourage students to learn from each other, prepare them to be leaders in a multiracial society, and break down stereotypes that some students may have. Creating a diverse class of students can further those goals, Garces says.

Is affirmative action unfair to certain students?

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

First, he says, it’s a misconception that institutions put their thumb on the scale when considering race in admissions. In fact, “it’s just one of many pieces that come into play when admissions officers make decisions,” he says. He says it would be unfair not to allow students to include all of their experiences in their application, including how their racial or ethnic background has affected them.

Another is disagreement over what criteria colleges should consider when deciding which students to admit. Some people believe that colleges should prioritize standardized test scores over anything else. While that may be a factor colleges consider, it’s not the only one they consider relevant, he says. “And it’s best for colleges to decide what’s important to consider when creating a cohort.”

Finally, he says, “There’s this idea” — he insists it’s flawed — “that we stop racial discrimination by simply not thinking about race.”

How did student loans become such a big problem?

Student debt didn’t rise overnight, says Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education and chair of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As you might expect, the main driver of the problem is the rising cost of higher education, he says.

Running a college has become more expensive for a number of reasons. Kelchen says students want and need more campus services than in the past, such as mental health counseling. Academic counseling used to be done by lecturers, but now it is done by professionals. And of course, colleges and universities also have to contend with inflation.

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

Declining state aid for higher education, Pell Grants that haven’t kept up with inflation, and stagnant wages have meant that students and families have to use more of their income to pay for college, says Associate Professor Fenaba Addo. A public policy researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies debt and wealth inequality. These trends, in addition to the rising cost of college, have disproportionately affected certain populations, Addo wrote in an email Chronicle.

Low-wealth and black households tend to accumulate more debt, and default and delinquency rates are higher among those groups, he says. The same goes for people who never graduated from college or attended for-profit schools.

Should the government forgive student debt?

The question “ultimately comes down to who do you think should pay for college,” Kelchen says. He says that his colleagues have different opinions. Some believe the government should forgive all student debt. According to Kelchen, they are concerned about the racial wealth gap and the need for borrowers to delay starting families and buying homes.

Those who argue against loan forgiveness point out that programs such as means-tested repayment already exist for graduates who are struggling financially. There’s also a question of fairness, Kelchen says.

Addo believes the government should forgive all student debt. “The current landscape of student debt and the debt burden many students and their families face are the result of policy decisions about higher education,” he says. He also points out that existing repayment plans have not helped reduce the burden on the population 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 the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

“When your uncle Roy says you can make a good living as an electrician, he’s not entirely wrong,” Carnevale wrote in an email. Chronicle. But there are fewer good jobs for those without a degree, and “a bachelor’s degree is still the gold standard in today’s economy.”

According to him, a bachelor’s degree is on average better paid in the labor market than a lower education. He explains that the “perpetual lie” that college isn’t worth it tends to resurface during recessions — and may soon be fueled by a temporary surge in infrastructure jobs, many of which don’t require a college degree. But the degree continues to pay off, Carnevale predicts.

The Center for Workforce Education projects that in 2031, 79 percent of jobs for workers with a bachelor’s degree will be “good jobs,” paying an average of $72,000 for workers ages 25 to 64, and at least $38,000 annually for workers older than that. 25-44 and a minimum of $49,000 for workers 45-64 adjusted for state cost of living.

What am I hearing about critical race theory in college classrooms?

In recent years, there have been many Republican-sponsored bills aimed at teaching critical race theory. To understand how we got to this point, says Taifha N. Alexander, who directs anti-CRT activism research at the University of California, 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 to include more anti-racism education in training and curricula. The number of courses discussing race or racism increased; academic departments and divisions issued letters expressing their anti-racism efforts; and more institutions required or encouraged employees to complete diversity training.

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

As a result, these efforts have targeted course topics that may not be critical race theory, but that may have a foundation—such as ethnic studies and history. In states with anti-CRT laws, professors don’t know what they’re allowed to talk about in the classroom, and sometimes they don’t say anything at all.

“It prevents professors from teaching and students from learning,” says Alexander.

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