Forty Advocacy Groups Write for Action Long Overdue

Washington -- The trade paper Inside Higher Ed reports this week on a letter from forty organizations that asks the Department of Education to inquire into the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” the letter avows.

Actually, the department has known of the disparity for nearly fifteen years. In 2002, when I worked at the National Center for Education Research, I looked at the matter and found that low-income African Americans were being burdened disproportionately with student debt. In a paper in which I investigated the responses of colleges and universities to changes in federal student loan and grant levels over time, I found that regardless of grant levels, loan levels for low-income blacks increased. This was not the case for any other group I investigated. Interestingly, when Pell grants went up, loan burdens decreased for middle and upper income groups of all races and ethnicities (Pell grants being fungible) but loan burdens increased for low-income blacks.

The department had no interest in the findings and no curiosity as to why I was getting these results. I asked the National Center for Education Statistics to publish its descriptive reports on student debt by race/by income, so the public could see the interactions between race and class, and so that other researchers could develop theories and hypotheses as to how and why federal aid programs were not working as intended for the low-come black population.

But NCES saw institutions as its clientele, and institutions insisted on separate reports for race and for class. One reason was that most colleges and universities by 2002 were committed to affirmative action by race and rejected the use of class-based affirmative action as a means of achieving racial and ethnic diversity. They had a compelling logic for this -- cost. It was much easier on institutions' budgets to enroll middle and higher income blacks and Hispanics to meet diversity targets rather than to provide aid to the financially needy. Ironically, while institutions publicly disdained class-based affirmative action as inferior to race-based, they enthusiastically employed class as an overlay to race-based affirmative action when it came to their own budgets.

As long as the Department of Education did not report its statistics by race/by class, institutions were able to talk a good game about commitment to racial diversity, and they do to this day. However, because institutions systematically shortchanged the low-income black population, the student debt crisis has understandably hit this group harder than others. Which is the reason forty advocacy groups have now demanded that the department track and address the issue. The letter is excellent; action is long overdue.

Pell Grants for Prisoners Revisited

Lincoln -- As the Nebraska Department of Corrections lurches from one crisis to another -- three of the top seven stories in the Omaha newspaper today deal with this department's problems -- it's appropriate to recall a mistake at the national level that has contributed to prisoner recidivism and overcrowding all across the country.

In the 1990s, Congress cut off Pell grant access for prisoners. Prior thereto, many community colleges and other educational institutions had prison-based programs, paid for by Pell grants for prisoners. After the Pell termination, these programs largely disappeared for lack of funding.

Congressional politicians back then were impressed with an argument made by ill-informed families trying to pay for college: why should prisoners be getting Pell grants when their law-abiding children could not? The issue was twisted into the idea that law-breakers were taking Pell grants away from others more deserving of them.

Except it was not true. No otherwise eligible law-abiding student ever lost out on a Pell grant because a prisoner got one. That's because Pell grants were funded as a quasi-entitlement; one person's grant did not come at the expense of another's. Secretary Richard Riley at the U.S. Department of Education explained this to Congress, but was drowned out by many in the media who thought they had come across a scandal. Politicians who tried to explain the facts to their constituents came off as siding with criminals. So there have been no Pell grants for prisoners for over two decades.

There is now an effort to restore Pell for prisoners. I hope it is accepted. Many in prison could benefit from education and training. It would reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Governors should get behind it. Taxpayers should get behind it as well.

As a Nebraska taxpayer, I am angry about the messes at the Corrections Department and the huge costs required to clean them up. The Pell cut-off many years ago was unwise, but it does not excuse Nebraska for failing to step up with its own education and training programs. Many other states did. In recent years, several other state and local governments have had remarkable success with truck farming and horticulture programs, for example, to get prisoners trained and turned into gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens once they are released. I write this not out of compassion for those serving time for their misdeeds, but from a practical budgetary and public safety standpoint. How many more front-page stories of prisoner escapes, guard assaults, and personnel misbehavior must we read before state officials take the necessary action?



A Cold-Hearted Report on Student Loans

Washington -- The White House Council of Economic Advisors has released a head-scratcher of a study on student loans. The message? Not to worry. Current policy is hunky-dory, especially with all the added improvements accomplished by the Obama Administration.

While giving full credit to the Administration's achievements, I believe the consensus of policy experts (that is, those without vested interests) holds that current higher education policy at both federal and state levels is a mess and the country is headed in the wrong direction in paying for college. This is reflected in the national political debates and all the activity in think-tanks to come up with better programs that would deal more effectively to control escalating tuition fees and student debt.

In a rejoinder to the CEA report, Mark Huelsman asks the obvious question of current-policy apologists: compared to what? He writes, "Those of us concerned with student debt are not saying that students should avoid college, any more than we would complain about high rent and recommend homelessness instead."

What bothers me especially about the CEA report is its cold-heartedness. Current student loan policy, with its appalling default numbers and its shameful debt collection practices, has ruined the lives of countless borrowers and their families across the country. Too often it is the convoluted system itself that is to blame, a system the U.S. Department of Education has never effectively administered or regulated. Although I left the department in 2005, I still get calls and emails from borrowers across the country who are desperate for help. I only wish I could make things right for all of them. What I can do is register my profound disappointment at the CEA report for its insufficient attention to the very real human suffering brought about by current student loan policy.

Conversations and Tribalism

Washington -- It is sobering and depressing to come back to the States to witness racial divisiveness in America, manifested by police killings. The national conversations we are admonished to engage in to lessen tensions obviously aren't working well. Indeed, there is concern that these conversations serve, counterproductively, to drive competing "tribes" even further into their "respective corners." Such is the regrettable language with which these issues are now discussed.

Perhaps conversations with our historical selves are in order. Looking back, where did we go wrong and is there any way, through such reflection, to get back on the right track?

Some of us are older; our memories go back to the years before and during the civil rights era of the 1960s. It may surprise those of more recent generations to learn that the goal of most moderates and progressives in that era was an integrated, colorblind society, to be achieved relatively quickly. Conservatives of the era held the view that change must come only slowly, which in some cases was a position sincerely held but often it was an excuse for the status quo, and discredited.

My hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, was partly segregated. Several of the cafés and taverns downtown were white-only. As a college senior at NU in the spring of 1965, I joined with friends both black and white to integrate a handful of establishments. Typically, four of us would sit down for service and be told by other patrons that whites could stay but blacks would have to leave. We did not budge and made it clear that if anyone was leaving, it was not us. Rarely was there further confrontation, but I remember one time my friends thought I was heading them into a fight, until the segregationist enforcers abruptly departed after sensing our determination (and that they would come out on the short end of any physical scuffles).

Overcoming segregation at NU itself was more difficult. Several NU affiliated organizations, fraternities and sororities most notably, had white-only clauses in their membership qualifications. University administrators, some of whom were members of organizations with white-only clauses, actually proposed as late as the early 1960s separate-but-equal organizations for blacks, in the tradition of the Second Morrill Act. In the neighborhood once known as T-Town, immediately northeast of the campus and largely black, the university razed housing and, in lease-purchase arrangements, built white-only sororities in the mid-1960s.

I am not singling out NU for criticism in recounting this. NU was not as bad as many universities when it came to race. Within a few years, its overt social discrimination ended.

My purpose in looking back on this history is to raise a question about how to hold conversations about race with those who do not know about this pivotal time. Such conversations would be helpful to understanding and resolving our current problems, I think. I'm afraid many who did not live through the era are unaware that it was once respectable to envision an integrated, colorblind society, and for a time much of American society acted accordingly. There were real advances in racial harmony. After a few years, a prominent black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, even wrote The Declinining Significance of Race.

But now progressives have placed their bets on identity politics, which emphasizes racial differences and voting blocs; conservatives do not want to acknowledge their troubled history with race or that they now sound like progressives of decades past; universities are heavily invested in racial distinctions, both in their academic departments and admissions offices. Words like integration and colorblind are not only out of fashion, they are ridiculed. Those with an interest in fanning racial resentment flames dominate discussions, despite evidence that wide majorities among all races have other priorities, such as economic advancement.

Who is going to pass along to younger generations that there was once a time of success and achievement, and that perhaps we should be having conversations about how to bring the better sentiments of that time back once again?






A Different 'Good Life'

Berlin -- Being a native and resident of Nebraska, I know all about 'The Good Life.' (It's a good state slogan, by the way. Let's keep it.)

But living in Berlin presents a different Good Life. Some aspects are even preferable, or at least serve as a refreshing alternative.

Der Tagesspiegel is a quality daily newspaper, always free online, with real news. No having to skip over three stories about football coaches to see if the world is at war or at peace.

• Public transportation alleviates the need for cars. Much is within walking distance.

• Mercifully, there are few chain stores. In Berlin-Kreuzberg, mom-and-pop establishments prevail. Grocery stores, taverns, cafés, restaurants, general stores, art galleries, and specialty stores are to be found all over, not to mention the markets that spring up almost every day selling everything imaginable for day-to-day living.

• Safe neighborhoods. Children walk the streets safely. Inventive playgrounds -- the pride of Berlin -- are everywhere. No guns around. Barnyard animals for children in neighborhood parks.

• No obsession over manicured lawns. Lots of natural areas. No chemical smells. Wonderful linden-tree aromas waft through the streets and along the canals in the summer.

• In Berlin-Kreuzberg, peaceful relations and tolerance prevail among the many ethnicities.

• Cultural activities for every taste. Lots of classical music performances, many free in churches. No oppressive, loud music in stores. Lots of singing birds in the parks and gardens.

• Delicious, fresh-baked rolls of a wide variety are waiting every morning to take home for breakfast. (I'm partial to Schrippen, Kürbisbrötchen, Roggenbrötchen, and Weltmeister.)

• Crazy sidewalk gardens. Architectural delights around every corner. Eye-popping juxtapositions. Wild building colors and murals.

• Peopled streetscapes at all hours. Interior courtyards for peace and quiet, and for contemplating the virtues of different ways of life and living.


Soviet Memorial in Berlin

Berlin -- It's been many years since I last visited the Soviet WWII cemetery and memorial in Berlin-Treptow. Today's walk through the site was the first time I've done so since our own WWII memorial was created on the mall in Washington, DC.

The Soviet memorial is noteworthy for its huge statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child, erected on a mound of earth three stories high. Sixteen imposing sarcophagi -- one for each Soviet republic -- line the approach, each featuring stone relief carvings in socialist realism style. Josef Stalin's words are featured on all sixteen. The memorial was completed in 1949. It is overwhelming in its scale and totalitarian messaging.

When the plan for the WWII memorial in Washington was revealed, more than a few critics condemned it for its imitation of totalitarian grandiosity. I didn't like it -- still don't -- for that reason and because to me it seems like a memorial to Americans' directional confusion and geographic illiteracy. It places the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on the north and south, where Canada and Mexico are, not on the west and east sides of the memorial where they should be. It also makes it seem as if the war was fought by individual states, in an attempt to make some kind of misguided connection to the Civil War. It also has hundreds of five-pointed stars, which looks like an attempt to outdo the number of such stars in the Soviet memorial.

Many Americans say they like our WWII memorial. Surely a lot of us are just being polite and don't want to offend WWII veterans. It's too late now, but could we not have come up with something that better symbolized our great WWII victory without the whiff of a Soviet-style memorial?

Hamburg

Berlin -- A recent weekend trip to Hamburg casts light on an important time in our family's history. In October of 1880, my great-grandparents, John and Johanna Oberg, with their two young sons, Otto and Ben (my grandfather), left Europe for America. They traveled from Sweden to Hamburg where they embarked on the S.S. Wieland for Le Havre and New York.

Hamburg has established a new emigration museum on Veddel Island, the site from which my family likely departed. The museum deals mostly with emigration after that time, so the buildings and replicas are probably not those my family would have known. According to other family histories recounting emigration around 1880, it's likely the emigrants got into small boats at Veddel Island to be transported down the Elbe River to meet the larger ocean-going ships at the mouth of the river.

The museum nevertheless has mock-ups of between-deck accommodations on ships like the S.S. Wieland, a ship of the Hamburg America Packet Line (HAPAG). The small wooden bunks with low ceilings would have made for a difficult voyage. Families had to supply their own mattresses and bedding. Oberg family lore tells of an unpleasant voyage to New York. In New York, the family likely entered through Castle Garden, on the Battery, as Ellis Island was not yet in operation. The Statue of Liberty was still a few years away as well. In America, my family went first to Chicago to relatives who were already there and then, in 1885, to Nebraska.

As far as I know, I am the first of my family's descendants to re-visit the departure point in Hamburg. Hamburg today would be recognizable to 1880 travelers, because it prohibits high rise construction that would obscure church spires and lighthouses that go back centuries. I can imagine my ancestors' feelings and impressions as they embarked on their voyage.

The ship's manifest seems to have the age of the boys wrong, as it lists Otto as being eleven months old and Ben being one month old. In fact, Otto was born in 1877 and Ben in 1878, so they were three and two, respectively. John was thirty when they left for America; Johanna was twenty-eight.



Refugees in Berlin

Berlin -- In my Kreuzberg neighborhood, the welcome signs are still out for refugees. Across the park, a volunteer center enlists those who want to help handle the newcomers. There are many such volunteers.

That's the upbeat side of the story. The reality of the situation is not so good. Local, state, and federal governments are overwhelmed by the refugees. Unscrupulous hostel and hotel owners have been packing refugees into uninhabitable conditions to make quick profits off government payments. Government payments are so slow, many otherwise good service providers have given up on attending to refugee needs. This includes those offering German language instruction.

Last weekend I went over to the Templehof neighborhood to see conditions there. The huge building at the former airport -- still the third largest building in the world -- shows few outward signs of housing thousands of refugees, as it did over the winter. Many have been moved out once their asylum applications were approved. Some refugees have returned to their native countries, not liking the prospects here. Surely being sequestered in an old airplane hangar during long, cold Berlin winter nights was not what refugees hoped for.

Those refugees still in the hangars apparently are not allowed out into the adjoining park, Templehofer Feld, which is fenced off. Looking through the fence, one can see a few children riding bikes on the apron next to the hangars and a few pieces of laundry hung out to dry. It looks desolate.

Kreuzberg is multi-ethnic, so refugees among us do not stand out. Surely there are many. On the U-Bahn, a family of four looks as if they could be refugees. They apparently have been clothed by donations, as their clothes are fresh but ill-fitting. One of the little boys is delighted with an oversized pair of goggle-glasses. The mother looks pleased that her family is safe and together. The father looks worried about the family's future.

Postscript: Two news stories illustrate the latest developments. Der Tagesspiegel reports troubles among refugees who don't want to go back to Templehof hangars. The New York Times gives a more optimistic view of how newcomers are being welcomed in Berlin.




Pox All Around

Washington -- The New York Times recently offered readers what appeared simply to be good financial advice in an article "The Best Way to Help A Grandchild with College." But in a quick rejoinder a college president said he was stunned that the article appeared, claiming it was shameful to try to hide potential tuition-paying resources from colleges. He said his college was doing its best to help students pay for college with institutional aid based on merit and need, and that grandparents and parents should not try to game the system.

A college admissions officer was even more blunt: "I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid."

College officials would have more credibility if only they were transparent about their own financial aid gaming. Colleges routinely siphon off federal aid aimed at needy students. The trend of financial aid is unmistakably toward those who don't need it, at the expense of those who do. So much for the argument that grandparents who read financial advice columns are responsible for the lack of aid to needy students. Colleges even mislead charities willfully, falsely telling them that the funds they raise will help needy students pay for college. These are not isolated examples. Colleges are engaged in widespread, systematic gaming of students, families, charities, and taxpayers.

A pox on all of the gamers, including those in Congress who perpetuate such a diabolically difficult student financial aid system. Let's add a pox on the U.S. Department of Education, too, for not cracking down on those who undermine the purpose and mission of federal programs.

There is an opportunity coming up to change things: the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is being drafted in Congress. But don't get your hopes up. There is little evidence that we are in for anything but six more years of financial aid gaming by whichever parties are clever enough to do it or, to put it another way, naive enough not to.

Worried About Nebraska

Lincoln -- Nebraska is no longer the same place I grew up in. Although I was born here and Nebraska is still my domicile, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

When I was growing up in the 40s and 50s, Nebraskans had remarkable longevity compared to the rest of the country. Hardy pioneer stock, we explained. Good food from our fields and gardens, we thought. Now we Nebraskans lag behind places like New York City and San Francisco in longevity. It may be the result of our less healthy, car-centric, HFCS-swilling lifestyle, combined with a more toxic environment. One disturbing new indicator: Nebraska has the highest incidence of Parkinson's disease in the nation, according to research that correlates the disease geographically with pesticide usage.

The change is about more than health indicators.

Our literature of the past several decades comes nowhere close to the works of earlier Nebraskans like Cather and Sandoz. Our politics, which once produced the founder of the modern Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, and produced a remarkable Republican, Nobel laureate Charles Dawes as well as the maverick Republican George Norris, hasn't seen their likes since. Nebraska is not a competitive two-party state, nor is there much room for other than an imported, grump-talk conservatism for the prevalent ideology. Bryan, Dawes, and Norris likely would not stand a chance if running for office in today's Nebraska. Indeed, my congressman is actually from Louisiana and the man who won the primary in my state legislative race is from Texas. These are not people of the Nebraska pioneer strain.

State government, which once summoned the resources and will to build the architectural wonder that is the Nebraska State Capitol, has sunk to new lows in prison scandals. No one from the governor on down seems able to keep track of prisoners' sentences, despite tough talk on fighting crime. This year, in a vote I thought I'd never see, the Nebraska legislature sacrificed the state's independent pork producers to a company owned by China, which will now dictate terms as to how hogs will be raised in Nebraska. (Yes, Red China, the authoritarian country of unfathomable food safety problems and choking environmental pollution.)

Nebraska's cities are no longer the tree-covered oases of my childhood. No more shade-dappled streets and homes with front porches; the houses now favored have great expanses of concrete slab fronting forbidding garage doors, behind which are hidden afterthought houses. Flip through Lincoln's "Parade of Homes." The vast majority of these houses are for people whose lives are not centered around neighborliness. The buyers want nature subdued, not celebrated. The more that can be paved-over, the better.

The State University, where the first graduate college was established west of the Mississippi, and which once was known as the Harvard of the Plains with only mild exaggeration, has fallen in national esteem. It has been voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities, of which it had been a proud member (led by its natural sciences faculty) since 1909. No other university in the country has suffered the same indignity. And few in Nebraska seem to have much cared.

Grain prices are low. At the nearest local co-op, corn is $3.56 per bushel, wheat is $3.59, sorghum is $3.24. Farmers are continuing to leave the land, as they have been for decades. Farmers with diversified operations to hedge farming risks across wheat, feed grains, hay, and livestock, using crop rotation to preserve the soil, are mostly gone. Chemical agriculture has replaced them, luring farmers into dreams of high commodity prices driven by markets that too often proved illusory. Chemical agriculture is also responsible for the dangerous decline of pollinators essential, ironically, to many kinds of food production. It has also led indirectly to the deadly chemical of choice for many disaffected rural youth: meth. The decline in longevity in Nebraska is due in part to a vicious cycle of hopelessness linked to changes in agriculture.

There is a glimmer of hope, so small it seems almost foolish to raise it. The new UNL chancellor has been working to bring the faculty of the agriculture campus and the faculty of the city campus closer together. The gulf between them is wide. The ag faculty has, inadvertently or not, championed the changes that have depopulated much of the state, while the sociology, botany, history, political science, and economics faculties have recorded the declines in many social and natural science indicators. I wish the project well. It's about time they got together. I'm worried about Nebraska. We can do better.