Hosted by Natnael Shiferaw, with Nancy Kendall and Matthew Wolfgram
Natnael Shiferaw 00:03
Hello, you’re listening to the Ethics and Education podcast. This episode is about the true costs of college.
Matthew Wolfgram 00:13
A warning about any nostalgia about like, oh, you know, college is a is a time when you kind of, you know, you live a Spartan lifestyle, but you work hard and you have this experience and then you come out the other end.
Nancy Kendall 00:24
And the sacrifices people are making are not about eating ramen. They’re really serious.
Natnael Shiferaw 00:33
I’m Natnael Shiferaw, and I recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s in philosophy and biology and a minor in global health. Last summer, I had the privilege to talk to Dr. Nancy Kendall and Dr. Matthew Wolfgram, two of the authors of the 2020 book, The True Costs of College. Dr. Wolfgram is a linguistic anthropologist and associate researcher in the School of Education at UW-Madison. Dr. Kendall is a professor of Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison. Their book looks at some of the assumptions people make about college affordability, as well as how the financial decisions universities make affect low income students.
Natnael Shiferaw 01:17
What comes to mind when you think of college affordability? Before I went to college, I thought of college as this place where students live in temporary poverty where they eat ramen noodles and eat cheap food and incur debt, but it’s okay, because it’s a transient stop on the way to eventual white collar careers. And that’s just not accurate for most college students. These assumptions can often be misleading. Dr. Kendall and Dr. Wolfgram had a lot to say about the reality of college affordability. For some of the low income students they follow during their study, the sacrifices the students made, we’re not trivial. The paradigm of college affordability has significantly changed for many students in the past few decades, especially for lower income students. Dr. Kendall talked about how, in addition to this fallacy that education is always a good investment, we often minimize or dismiss the sacrifices that students and especially low income students make to earn their college degree.
Nancy Kendall 02:10
But the other problem is the assumption that student sacrifice doesn’t actually mean much of anything, you know, so there’s a lot of jokes made about how students will, you know, have to eat ramen for a couple of years, but it’s all worth it, because then they, you know, then they graduate and everything’s fine. And that’s a really outdated model that’s like, you know, maybe what it was like to be a student in the 70s, maybe the early 80s In the US, but it’s not what it’s like to be a student. Now, most low income students have to make really serious sacrifices to go to college, and they don’t go to college and eat ramen, and just be an all time all time students, they work somewhere between, you know, 20 to 4040 hours a week, for the most part. And on top of working, they’re juggling school, and on top of school, they’re juggling family, and they’re juggling social relations, and they’re juggling, you know, moving towards adulthood in various ways. And the sacrifices people are making are not about eating ramen, they’re really serious. The assumption that it costs are really just financial and they’re pretty low, they’re pretty manageable, is an assumption that really doesn’t hold anymore for most low income students in the US.
Matthew Wolfgram 03:16
I think that’s a good thing for listeners that are listening to this podcast and thinking back to their, their own college experience a warning about any nostalgia about like, oh, you know, colleges is a time when you kind of, you know, you live a Spartan lifestyle, but you work hard, and you have this experience, and then you come out the other end, just to question that, that that possible nostalgia for that because, you know, the kind of social emotional, and financial instability that some students are experiencing. It doesn’t equate with that kind of like, you know, Spartan lifestyle that, you know, maybe it’s like going to college in the 80s, or the 90s. For a white middle class, man like myself, you know, I went in the 90s, late 90s.
Natnael Shiferaw 04:04
Beyond just the sacrifices students make for a college education, whether that be financial, emotional or some other sacrifice. We talked about how inequitable the value of that earned college degree can often be, or in other words, the reward for their efforts. Dr. Kendall mentioned, there exists the central notion that you should go to college and although you’ll have some debt, it’ll be worth it. While that is broadly true, the sacrifices that people make for that degree vary greatly. And the return on investment also varies and can often be quite inequitable,
Nancy Kendall 04:34
You might have to sacrifice now, but in the future, you will have higher earnings for having gone to college and that fundamental logic is, has a couple of assumptions built in that are really problematic. The first one is that it’s true that for most or all people, the payoff of going to college will be worth it. Whatever debt it is that people accrued, they’ll be able to pay off, and yet we know from a lot of different studies that that is not even close to equally true for everyone. So in the US, for example, young black men have a much lower chance of making back the money that they put into to college, then then a white guy with exactly the same degree from from the same place. Geography also matters, people who live in very rural areas have a much harder time making back the money from college, than those who are geographically mobile and can move anywhere for the next job. And also random chance plays a huge role. So people who happen to graduate in 2008, at the start of the recession, had much lower returns on investment than those who graduated later or earlier. And so this notion that somehow education is a return on investment and rational individuals will will decide to invest is number one flawed because it assumes that investments are low risk when we actually know that investments are not, they’re not only not low risk, but they’re also not equitable. In our case, and particularly equitable along social and class lines.
Natnael Shiferaw 06:09
I wanted to get more specific with what they meant by the title, the true costs of college, I asked them about what were some of the actual differences between the cost that students expected and the cost that students actually incurred on their way to earning their degree.
Nancy Kendall 06:23
Universities do cost of attendance in slightly different ways. And there have been some studies done about that cost of attendance across different colleges, and how some, some colleges overestimate and and some underestimate the costs. But mostly, colleges tend to underestimate costs. And that that comes largely not because colleges are trying to underestimate costs, I think, but because the system of understanding costs means that universities don’t always have to add on costs that students regularly accrue, but don’t necessarily have to accrue. And that includes things like really common late fees, for example, as well as things like additional expenses for studying certain majors, which just don’t go into the general one number cost of attendance that students often see on, for example, a front webpage or something like that. And it also includes the cost of a lot of activities that students don’t necessarily know they are going to either want to or have to do in order to pursue their educational interests, but that they’ll learn about once they get to college, joining certain professional organizations being part of certain high impact practices, all those kinds of activities. Lastly, and this one was really important in our study, and then I’ll turn it over to Matt, for his thoughts on this. But universities basically don’t recognize health costs, health costs across the US are driving fewer people into bankruptcy than they were before we had some version of a public health care mandate. But that mandate is very unclear to a lot of students who expect themselves to be an age range where they’re expecting to be quite healthy. And many students think that the University Health Services which they pay for basically access like university insurance, they expect that if they have health care issues, they can go to University Health Services, and that will be taken care of. And the fact of the matter is that University Health Services don’t cover many things. And they charge for a lot of different things. And many students, especially the low income students were working with, don’t have external health insurance. And so a lot of them were facing really significant health costs while they were in college. And while that isn’t exactly always directly related to being in a particular university, it sometimes was. And it’s also the case that students confusion about University Health Services and the health costs that they would accrue was so consistent that it’s very obviously an issue that universities need to take up systematically.
Matthew Wolfgram 09:12
I think, along with that, is the the issue of like mental health services on campus. I think many universities provide these services which are often used and and can be helpful. But the they’re often under underfunded as well as university mental health services. And in some of the cases at some of the campuses, they were rationed. So you could only you could only go a certain small number of times. Also they tended to cater to I guess you would call them sort of like lifestyle therapies or let you know, like supporting you through stress or through a breakup of a relationship. They used a lot of group therapy in order to help more students with fewer resources. Really, if somebody had a you know, a serious mental health, either crisis or a chronic mental health condition that required resources to manage, those students were directed almost right away. In fact, you know, in many cases directly out of University Health Services to, you know, either charitable community services, which are also away from campus and difficult to access for students, or, you know, in the, you know, the for profit sphere. And Nancy just mentioned how the struggle was student uninsured students accessing health care like that. So that’s so that’s one thing that I think across the board, one area where universities can do better, and I think that they probably know that they need to do better. It’s a matter of resources and not rationing resources so that mental health services can be provided to students who need it, basically.
Natnael Shiferaw 10:48
Beyond these unexpected health related costs, there are added costs related to professional development. Dr. Wolfgram provided insight into how students often face outside costs separate from formal classes and tuition. Things like professional development are extra, but are still expected in order to be competitive postgraduation. These added costs can lead low income students, especially to find themselves in a difficult financial position.
Matthew Wolfgram 11:12
The other thing that’s really interesting about college going is the degree to which universities are increasingly outsourcing outside the curriculum, all these sort of extra experiences, which are supposed to enhance your education, and develop your career and make you more competitive in the post graduation, job market. And so, this means like study abroad in order to sort of, you know, learn a language or you know, develop some multicultural competencies, it means some kind of learning community, it means joining in a student organization, an internship, the universities that continue to push the responsibility for educating into these extra curricular practices, that’s a, that’s a place where a lot of hidden expenses occur. So that internship might be completely unpaid. You know, and the voluntary voluntary positions are there, there, there was one interesting case I’ll share, which connects the whole issue of health care and this issue of like, needing to volunteer and do all these extra practices. So for competitive majors, you know, to competitive majors or majors where you have to apply usually, in your sophomore year to get into the college, you’re not automatically admitted, as you are to the university as a, as a first time freshmen, or, or, you know, as you as you enter as you enroll. So business is an example nursing as an example, engineering. So for for nursing, you know, it’s when you apply that your advisors have told you, you need to volunteer, you should get a job as a CNA. And so you’re actually working in the healthcare field. Also easy to get A’s in certain classes, you can’t get less than an A, in certain very difficult classes. I think anatomy and physiology are examples of that. And, and really, it’d be best if you were in some student organizations, and maybe even a leader in a student organization. And so that adds up a lot, right. And so you need to volunteer, you should volunteer at the University Hospital, to apply to volunteer at the University Hospital, your application has to sort of have medical, some medical documentation on it. So certainly, there’s a fairly extensive list of vaccines. This is, of course, for your health and safety when you enter the hospital, there’s also a full medical examination. And for students who grew up in a family that had medical insurance, they were able to do this complete this application with no additional extra expenses. And in fact, it could be that they don’t even need to do anything, you know, those vaccinations have already been done and documented. They had a recent physical, and they’re fine. For students who are in families where they didn’t, they were, you know, on public assistance, health care, or they didn’t have access to insurance. This meant of substantial in some cases, couple-hundred-dollar bill, which then, you know, was an obstacle to them, even submitting the application to, to volunteer, much less the fact that they’re volunteering and thus not working for pay, without you mentioned, how much how many students sometimes need to work to support themselves. So these these sort of these these obstacles sort of bind up together, right, the underfunding of public health insurance. And the degree to which student curriculum is being outsourced so much to extra curricular learning opportunities that have hidden costs within them.
Natnael Shiferaw 14:50
I can relate. I was a pre-health student, and I had to do and pay a lot more beyond my classes to get into med school. And I couldn’t agree more with what Dr. Wolfram said for students without much financial give the outsourcing of much needed professional development is tough. for low income pre health students who need to work 20 Or even up to 40 hours a week to support themselves, the expectation that they engage in unpaid volunteering, shadowing and other extracurriculars that are important for admissions can put them in a difficult spot. Beyond that standardized tests and prep courses for those tests, application cost to graduate school interviews, lodging, and more can lead to up to thousands of dollars. And again, many of these things are not included in official cost of attendance, but are nonetheless required for many students in competitive majors or pursuing graduate education. And this can greatly disadvantaged low income students.
Natnael Shiferaw 15:50
The way that universities deal with budget issues unintentionally impacts low income students, Dr. Kendall will talk about how universities often compartmentalize decisions, which leads to individual units doing what’s best for them without much of a holistic decision making process. Universities often make decisions as if most of their students are middle class and have some financial cushion. for low income students. However, these added costs can become unmanageable.
Nancy Kendall 16:15
You know, universities for the most part, certainly the universities that we were at, are really complex institutions. They’re not really one institution the way that it might sound when we say like, do universities know what they’re doing when they do XY or Z, partly, and we can talk at length about, you know, what’s happened in terms of universities, kind of adopting particular sorts of free market or neoliberal logics or privatizing logics. But a lot of universities as they faced increased public cuts over the last couple of decades, they’ve really had to change the way that they think about providing services to students. So we had mentioned earlier, this notion of cost recovery, there’s this notion at most universities now that most aspects of university life have to basically be their own boat. And they have to at least cover their own costs, if not make costs for the sorry, make money for the rest of the university. And as a consequence, a lot of little sub units and universities make decisions that end up having, you know, pretty significant harm for low income students. But they’re, they’re not made, because people in that particular unit, you know, want their decisions to have negative impacts on low income students. In fact, most of them aren’t really thinking about low income students at all that that’s one big problem that a lot of people working in universities still basically assume that the students attending university are kind of middle class students. And they have this, as we said, this extra give, they have a little bit of family support, they have a little bit of financial resources themselves to draw on and so forth. So they don’t really have in their mind, the low income students who are actually attending their campus. But when they make the decisions, they’re not making them to try to make it hard for these students. They’re making them because their logic that their particular unit has to follow is requiring them to somehow find a way to make ends meet. So Matt was talking earlier about University Health Services, you know, doing a lot of group therapy, because they don’t have money to provide full mental health services to every student. The same thing happens with tech services, for example, or with food services. With those units having to figure out how to make smaller and smaller ends meet, they often make decisions that end up having significantly negative impacts on low income students, but they don’t do it. Because they’re trying to do that. Maybe I can give a quick tech example of that, which is, I think, my favorite example of this anywhere at one of our universities. The libraries were responsible for loaning tech equipment to students who who needed equipment, and the library budgets were cut viciously over the last decade. So libraries had, you know, a pretty limited number of laptops, for example, that they could loan out to students, and they were trying to make sure that students had equitable access to those laptops. So they had very strict rules about students needing to return the laptop within 72 hours. And they levied pretty high fees for students who didn’t return them in 72 hours, in order to try to have the laptop available for other students who they knew were also in need. Low income students had who didn’t have a laptop and had to borrow a laptop from the library, were were just kind of constantly struggling to figure out how to make sure that they didn’t get too many of these additional late fees, while they also maintained access to laptops for their work, which is really hard, right? You got to have flash drives that you’re constantly downloading papers that you’re halfway through, you got to make sure that you can transfer that to the next laptop and you won’t use it your lose your work. It’s a lot of additional time and energy to figure out how to manage getting a laptop back and forth to the library every 72 hours. And a lot of the students ended up paying fees. On the other hand, a different branch of the university in an effort to try to assure that cybersecurity was addressed, was giving free access to all sorts of software, including antivirus software, to people who had their own laptops. So wealthy students coming in, had access to all of the software that would usually cost hundreds of dollars for an individual to get. And they were given it for free from the university, did the university mean to give money to wealthy students and take money from lower income students with this arrangement? Know, they had two different, you know, entities in charge of two different aspects of technology. And they were reaching decisions, policy decisions that had actually very little to do with students.
Nancy Kendall 20:51
Or actually, the libraries who were trying to be equitable, because they had such limited resources, created a policy that actually was very harmful to low income students. But it was not a desire to do that it was a desire to be equitable, actually. So it’s very, the logics that university units are using to make decisions are usually not holistic. And it’s partly that lack of whole ism, it’s partly the units logic, trying to just make it just trying to survive trying to make the money it needs to operate to not fire people, or to provide the service they’re supposed to provide that logic is often really a mismatch with trying to support low income students effectively.
Natnael Shiferaw 21:33
Dr. Kendall highlighted how the fragmented way universities go about solving various problems can lead to unintentional outcomes that disadvantage low income students. Again, these aren’t malevolent decisions, they can even be made with equitable intentions in mind. But in the process of compartmentalizing decision making and applying neoliberal or market logics, they could end up hurting those who are already the least off.
Natnael Shiferaw 22:04
I also wanted to know more about how they conducted their research. Their study was primarily an ethnographic study. This means that they had researchers follow students as they went about their day to day lives. I asked them about what unique insights they were able to get from this method of study. And what surprised them.
Natnael Shiferaw 22:21
Could you talk about the lives of the students that you followed? And what did you find in your ethnographic research that couldn’t have been discovered in any other way? Or what surprised you?
Matthew Wolfgram 22:31
You know, so there are four ethnographers; I was one of them. Nancy designed this study, and one of the things we did was, we spent extensive time following students around when I say it that way, it sounds a little weird, right? Like, like, we’re stalking them, but we kind of we, we talked with the students, and we said, you know, in order to really learn about your life, we’d like to spend time with you, on a, just a daily basis, and we kind of we talked about, it made an agreement about that. And, and so I got the opportunity to, to really hang out with students on just normal days, right, not, not anything special days, but just the normal things they do when they go to college. And so I walked went to school, I went to classes with them and hung out with them and their friends, and in all sorts of different settings. The thing about ethnography, that’s sort of distinct from other research methods is just the amount of time that is invested, and the kind of intimacy of the understanding that you can get through that. And, and so I just, you know, I, when, when we talk, when we talk about students having trouble accessing food, that’s one thing, right, you can measure that with a survey, or you can interview someone, they’ll tell you about how, you know, that’s a hard thing, but like, when you’re hanging out with a student, and they’re skipping a meal, and they’re hungry, and you’re like, you’re with them, that that provides a sort of a different level of insight. And that’s kind of when you start to realize, wow, you know, the costs of college, are there physical and emotional, and, and social, and financial, all together, and it’s all felt on a bodily level. And you’re kind of with them and, and so I have kind of, you know, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have done this work and and I got to what ethnography does is it sort of puts you with these people as they’re experiencing it. I mean, of course, I’m not experiencing it in the same way that they’re, they’re experiencing it, but I got to be with them at some of those moments. And so that kind of description can be very description of experience can be very rich. So that’s the sort of benefit of the ethnographic angle.
Nancy Kendall 24:37
If I could give one more quick example related to that. So it’s one thing to hear from students that they’re trying to piece together work and school. It’s another thing to spend the day with them from the moment they wake up at six until when they finally go to sleep at about midnight. And actually, you know, get on a bus going to school. doing your work on the way getting to school, going to class running from class to catch the right bus to go out to work, going to work, running back out from work, running, trying to get back to campus for another for another class on time, and feeling what it feels like to not have meals to not have bathroom breaks, to be frantic about being late once again, for either work or for school. It’s a really different experience than just talking to people to actually have an understanding of what it looks and feels like to move through the world. And it gave us a lot of insights into for example, the geography of people’s experiences and the social dynamics and relations that people felt on campus that you just can’t get strictly through through interviews.
Matthew Wolfgram 25:51
Yeah, see the way you described, like the piling on, of instability and experiences and managing and sort of trying to manage one crisis after the next. And so that’s the kind of thing that’s hard for people to like, describe in an abstract way. And so, so being with them, during those experiences, it can be tiring, and, and emotionally draining as an ethnographer as a social scientist, because you’re with the students when they’re hungry, and, and, and struggling. And I remember, I remember one student lost her, I was with her when she found out that she had lost her her health care coverage. And then, you know, several months later, I was with her when she was trying to figure out how to study for her exams, and she had been rationing her medication that was affecting, like headaches and, and mental health status, or depression and so on. And, and so, you know, it’s like, the way in which those things pile up to consequences. Right, that’s one of the big things in social science research is how do you know what the, you know, what, what’s what’s caused by what, and ethnography, that kind of that kind of angle, and rich description can sort of do that really well, where you can start to see like academic consequences, you know, unfolding over several months. And when you know, you’re with this person regularly, and you kind of you’re with your with them on a on a level where it’s like you can have that angle into their experience, and the way in which it translates into really kind of disastrous results, which is sad. It’s actually sad and hard to hard to document.
Natnael Shiferaw 27:41
I was really moved by the experiences students shared with them. It’s easy to record survey data, or intellectually understand that some students face food insecurity. But to hear the stories of students actually skipping meals and losing health insurance coverage, and then rationing their medications, seeing the effects of that pile up over time can be really heartbreaking. And this sort of rich qualitative data is something that you can really only get through this type of research. I also talked to them about the implications of this research and their book, I asked them, what is it that we should be thinking about that we aren’t already? What exactly should we take away from this? And what should universities be doing? In response? Dr. Wolfgram made the point that we need to ask what actually are the values of these institutions, we should also have a normative discussion around what the values of these institutions should be.
Matthew Wolfgram 28:30
So I think like one of the one of the things that your podcast is interested in is the normative consequences of research like this. So what should universities what are their ethical obligations, what should they do for their, for their students, in particular, their low income students? And I think Nancy mentioned this before the way in which the universities are set up not necessarily intentionally but they’re they’re set up to, to support the success of a sort of Majora majoritarian concept of a student, and that is basically a white middle class student with access to some resources, additional resources to to support their college success. University Leadership universe and university institutions need to, they really need to unpack the assumptions of what is an ideal student, because that those are incorrect assumptions. And so that would be one thing. I think another thing that I know a little bit about Center for Ethics and Education. And one thing that I learned from some of the philosophers is just like the importance of being clear about values, you know, what are the values of the institution? And how does sort of policy and practices and resources support the realization of those values? And I think that universities need to be held accountable and leadership needs to be held accountable for their for their mission statements and for their obligations, you know, to support the diversity on campus include students support the success of all students, including low income first generation minoritized. Students and, and so that that sort of like, you know, coordinating policy, and supports and resources with values is important to do. And that’s sort of like an ethically responsible institution of higher education. So those are sort of two ways in which I think this research relates to kind of normative claims about the ethics of higher education.
Natnael Shiferaw 30:38
Two things we like to do in philosophy are to challenge the assumptions that people make and raise normative questions about the way things should be. I really appreciated Dr. Wolfgram’s insight here. He says that if universities claimed that their goal is to serve a diverse group of people, but make decisions primarily to support the success of the majoritarian student, rather than low income, first generation or minority students, you have to ask, are they really living up to their mission statement or stated values? So how do we view those responsibilities in light of significant financial constraints faced by some public universities, some have faced severe budget cuts, but have also been prevented from raising tuition to balance their budgets, given the sorts of financial burdens that some of these schools face? To what extent do they have a responsibility or even ability to make things equitable for their students?
Nancy Kendall 31:27
So I want to be clear that public universities, I think, have a mandate to create opportunity for all members of the public that they serve, which is usually the state boundary in particular, but particularly students in the state who are lower income and otherwise minoritized. And for whom higher education is expected to play this role of providing opportunities for people to not be constrained by the wealth of the family they were born into, for example. And that mandate doesn’t change as university funding is cut, even though obviously, it becomes much more difficult to achieve that, that mandate. There’s no question that if the public, the state public, is not going to choose to invest in higher education, what it is that public universities can do is going to be really significantly and negatively impact make the state more meritocratic state. But I don’t think that that changes the responsibility to attempt to do so as much as possible. And right now, a lot of universities have policies that intentionally or unintentionally and I think it’s usually unintentionally, but intentionally or unintentionally, serve wealthier students better than they serve lower income students, they serve white students better than they serve students who identify as students of color, they serve straight students better than they serve most students who identify as queer, they generally serve men better than they serve women. There’s no campus that we worked on that didn’t have at least 25% of their female identifying students, saying that they were raped while in college. And the top campus, by the way, had 55% of their female identifying students reporting being raped while at college. So these institutions do not serve students equally well. And they have to take a step back, and recognize that even with limited resources, they have a responsibility to align their policies and their practices, with their responsibilities to serve all students as much as possible in an equitable manner.
Natnael Shiferaw 33:55
So how would they go about trying to serve all their students in a more equitable manner? What’s holding them back?
Nancy Kendall 34:02
There are great examples out there of how universities might do that. So for example, other institutions and some universities have undertaken equity audits of various sources, there are sorts there are some really good models out there of what are often called auditing press practices, that would help universities learn about the experiences that their students are actually having, and what policies might impact those experiences in more in more positive ways. But to do that, universities will have to center not competing for students and not trying to achieve all sorts of outcomes that are externally fixed. And that mean that’s that universities benefit from having wealthier students attend basically, but instead, they’re going to have to kind of recenter their focus on serving students in an equitable manner.
Natnael Shiferaw 34:58
What kinds of schools do this well?
Nancy Kendall 35:01
The universities–or the colleges, I should say–that come closest to do that right now for the most part, our two year colleges, whose campuses tend to be open access, and attend to think about their students very differently. The four year universities where we did our research, do tend to have in mind this kind of majoritarian student, ideal or model. And I think that’s really at the heart of a lot of these issues, they universities really have to think much more carefully and learn much more about who their students actually are, and what it would mean to serve their low income students best instead of serving their wealthier students best. And I’ll give one really straightforward example. A lot of people probably heard of examples like this, but a lot of the universities are building new student unions. And they’re building them because they want students to have an attractive place in which they can gather and meet and hold meetings and enjoy themselves. And it’s also this kind of jewel, in the in the university crown, where you can take all your students who are coming for, for visits and show them how gorgeous your campus is, and everything. But students sometimes pay hundreds of dollars a year in extra fees for those unions. And the students who, for whom those couple of hundred dollars mean the most are generally students who can use the unions the least, because they don’t have the time. So that’s a kind of, you know, it’s kind of a silly example. But when you think about what you’re investing in, colleges are making decisions to invest in wealthier students. They’re doing so because they’re trying to figure out how to stay financially afloat as state resources and federal resources dissipate. And the fact of the matter is, you can’t try to attract wealthy students and create policies and practices that best serve low income students. That’s, that’s not going to come together. And so universities are really going to have to make a decision about what matters most. And that gets at this core, what is their core responsibility? And what is their core mission? I agree with Matt entirely about that. And I think a lot of public universities have been strongly encouraged to move away from a mission centered on equity. And I think it’s, I think it’s something that needs to be kind of very carefully thought through. But I also want to be really clear, it’s it’s a very difficult bind that public universities have been put in. And it’s not for the most part a bind of their own making. The disinvestment, the public disinvestment in higher education institutions, will result in the public, not having equitable educational experiences over time, it’s already we know it’s the case in K 12. And we know it’s the case in higher education. So more generally, we got to wrap our heads around whether we’re willing to pay to have equitable outcomes from our education systems at the state level.
Natnael Shiferaw 37:57
Universities are a microcosm of society; they’re complex. And although the issues facing them are complex, Dr. Kendall still believes that universities and society in general have responsibility to be more equitable.
Nancy Kendall 38:10
I think one of the things that became really clear, a lot of times when we talk about college, we have a pretty strong focus on the institutions. And that’s really important, because as I just said, the institutions really need to be considering some significant changes to to their assumptions into their into their practices. But one of the things I think we often lose track on is that students coming into universities have grown up in an America that’s very different than the America that people grew up in, you know, a generation ago, that’s a silly thing to say, of course, it’s different. And in some ways, it’s different in in positive in positive ways. But our research was focused on low income students in particular. And one of the things that I think we often lose track of in our discussions about about university is that a lot of students have grown up in families that have really struggled for many, many decades. That’s not by chance. It’s not by choice. It has to do with the fact that salaries for wage workers haven’t increased since the 1970s. In the US, it has to do with the fact that we don’t have health care, adequate health care in this country, we’re getting closer. But we didn’t have adequate health care when these when these students were growing up. And as a consequence, a lot of these students come into college with very little give. They have very, very few resources that they can draw on to support them as they come into college. And I don’t just mean family resources, I also mean their own physical health, their own social networks, and often the their their family situations. They really can’t have the university adding to the burdens they face as they do Try to focus in on their academics and their academic success. And right now, universities don’t really have the resources to support students that way or not making the decisions needed to support students that way. But students also don’t get those resources from other sorts, from other sorts of places, we are really shredding, the social safety net across all of the different sectors that influence students lives, the health sector, the transportation sector, the labor sector, the education sector, and those come together when students hit college in ways that can be really complex and often really painful for students really, really damaging in the short and the long term. And so this that is not on universities. But we also need to recognize as a society that that’s what we’re doing to kids. That’s what our 20 year olds have been facing for 20 years. And we need to recognize that means that we need to be making different kinds of politics policy decisions across multiple sectors, and not only in relation to students finances, but in relations to every aspect of their life. And if we if we did that we would be a more humane and an equitable country. And we would also have a better higher education institutions among many other things.
Natnael Shiferaw 41:32
Thanks for listening to this episode of the ethics and education podcast featuring Dr. Nancy Kendall and Dr. Matthew Wolfgram. If you would like to learn more, check out the show notes and please feel free to reach out to us. This episode was produced by me Nathaniel Shiferaw and Carrie Welsh.