Incognegros: ‘Hidden’ Blacks on Campus

Incogs. That’s what we called them. Short for Incognegros. This was the term/label for Black students who didn’t associate with the Black community in undergrad.

I don’t recall how I learned this term, but I know it was very early in my undergraduate career. I can remember walking around campus freshmen fall trying to figure out who everyone was. When explaining to my (now) best friend who someone in the dorm next to mine was, she said ‘oh, she must be an incog.’  I blithely agreed and we kept it moving to dinner.

As a 17 year old freshmen at an Ivy League college I wasn’t dumb or naïve. I knew that label was wrong, inappropriate, judgmental. But frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because another part of me—a larger part—was annoyed at these students. Why with only 350 Black students on campus would you choose to disassociate? I felt like we needed to ban together. We needed to support the African American Society and other affinity groups on campus. Yet these particular students never showed up to meetings, events, and they certainly didn’t speak to us in the cafeterias.

And we didn’t speak to them.

As an adult I wonder if the ‘Incogs’ consciously chose to not associate with the Black community or if they were simply forging friendships with whom they’ve always befriended. I hope it is the latter because why would anyone purposely choose to not speak to an entire racial group, especially when to everyone else on campus, you are a part of that group?

I know now that most of these students were doing what everyone does: staying in their comfort zone. I can admit that it is difficult to connect with people you’ve never had the opportunity to get to know. You don’t know the social norms of that group, and it takes a lot to learn them past the age of 8.

But there is hope.

My research takes me into middle schools, but my volunteer work allows me to closely work with high school students. During my weekly practices with my high school students, I notice a stark difference in their school compared to my own high school: friend groups are significantly more diverse. The social clubs and organizations, along with the sports teams are also more diverse. There is not the age old White soccer team and Black football team. Even my step team has males and females, freshmen through seniors, and at least 5 racial groups represented. I love it!

But I don’t see this on my campus. It may be the small numbers of ethnic minority students to begin with, but having lived on campus in faculty housing last year, I still did not see many diverse friend groups hanging out on campus. If in fact high schools are more socially integrated now (which may not be the case in most cities—I have no idea), why isn’t this trend sustained in college? What is it about college that pushes students to prioritize their identities and make relevant social connections? And what can I, as a faculty member, do to encourage interracial student interactions?

Or is this even a necessary battle to fight?

Why Does College Cost ‘So Much’?

A few posts ago I gave my opinions on why people should stop complaining about the price of college these days (College is Not a Yard Sale ). After sitting in a seminar given by an economics professor (and president of a liberal arts college) about the costs of higher education, I felt the need to share *objective data on the subject. For clarity, I am dividing this post into general data, data relevant to public colleges, and data relevant to private colleges.

General Data Points

  • There are 4,314 degree-granting institutions in the country
    • These schools serve 21 million undergraduates
    • 40% are public colleges
    • 38% are private colleges (3-4% are liberal arts)
    • 8% of those are for-profit colleges (up from about 3% just 10 years ago)
    • (the remainder are 2-year or vocational colleges)
    • The graduation rate for online education is less than 10%; the default on loans rate is 15% for this population  compared to 5% for private college graduates (I have another post outlining my distaste for online learning: My Beef with Online Learning )
    • 15% of students pay more than $30,000 a year for college
    • Almost 60% of students pay less than $12,000 a year for college
    • The average amount of debt per college graduate is $25,000.
      • The average difference between yearly salaries of college graduates and high school graduates is $30,000
      • The worst the economy, the higher college enrollment (because people can’t get work so they go back to school with the hopes of improving their likelihood of being hired)
      • Household incomes have decreased across all SES groups since 2000 (in some groups as large as an 11% decrease)

Public College Facts

  • While public colleges comprise 40% of all colleges, they educate 76% of undergraduates
  • As the economy gets better, the cost of public education goes down
  • As the economy gets worse (like now), the cost of public education increases because of lower state appropriations (i.e. they get less money from the government so they have to make up the difference by increasing tuition)
  • Since 1981, the cost of a public college education has increased 3.5x (or 350%)
  • 50-60% of the cost of attendance at a public college is subsidized (when appropriations allow for such a large amount)

Private College Facts

  • While private colleges comprise 38% of all colleges, they educate only 15% of undergraduates
  • As the economy gets better, the cost of private education rises (because more families can afford to pay)
  • As the economy gets worse, the cost of private education remains stable (with appropriate increases for inflation)
  • Since 1981, the cost of a private education has increased 2.8x (or 280%)
  • Approximately 30% of the cost of attendance at a private college is subsidized by the college (through gifts, financial aid, and the endowment)

Summary Points

In the words of the presenter, ‘this is the perfect storm’. What she means is that we have 3 things that give the illusion of significantly higher college costs: increased enrollment, increased costs to meet enrollment demands, and decreased family income.  The former two will always rise and fall together, but with the addition of the third, the gap between what people can pay out of pocket and the cost of college is much wider than it has been for 30 years. College tuition is determined by the intersection of supply (operating costs) and demand (students). Non-profit colleges do not make money. Any extra money at the end of a fiscal year is reinvested in the college endowment. Conversely, 85% of the profit made by for-profit colleges is from federal funds (e.g., Pell grants, federal aid), and it is not reinvested in the college (it often is moved into the private sector).

The point here is that the general public is outraged at tuition prices, yet the reality is, most college students are not being ‘overcharged’. In fact, they are almost always undercharged (even full pay students) because of subsidies. What is it that you want colleges to do? Lower the price? With that comes lower quality. Choose your choice.

Rock the Vote.

*Sources for these data: The College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges; NCES, Integrated Post Secondary Educational Data System (PEDS); U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey

My Beef with Online Learning (at for-profit schools)

People aren’t going to like this post, but frankly, it needs to be said: Online learning is a terrible idea. Especially at for-profit schools. (And yes, I have experience being an online and ground instructor while working for a very popular for-profit school.  I did this during grad school to earn some extra money. It was a terrible, terrible experience, but the details of that are for another post)

Wait, wait wait. Before you get outraged, allow me the opportunity to explain why.

1)      Online learning is not about learning; it is about degree attainment.

Most people who enroll in online classes do so because they have a very specific goal in mind. This is often the attainment of a degree just to say they have it and feel accomplished, to get a raise at work, to take a few classes they need to get into a specific program or school, or to cure boredom (this is common in retired adults). The motivation is not intrinsic, nor is it focused on task-goals. Research clearly states that individual’s learn more when they actually want to learn. But hey, if you just want a degree on paper…this is the way to go.

2)      Online learning is primarily student-led.

What I mean here is that online learning is asynchronous, which means students do their work when they want. They log on, review some slides, answer some questions, post some questions, and turn in their assignments when they are due. Where is the instruction? For those who don’t know, instructors at for-profit schools (as most online schools are) are handed a curriculum to post. The learning goals, assignments, grading rubric, powerpoints, and text are chosen by the school, not an instructor. Frankly, the instructors don’t do much besides post and grade.

3)      Online learning is a waste of money.

I was outraged to learn that students at the school where I taught paid $10,000 a year!!!! IT IS NOT WORTH THAT! People, you can read some texts and teach yourself that information. Or you can attend your local community college or state college for less. Where is the value for that kind of money? What exactly are you paying for? Some powerpoint slides you can find online? Mediocre feedback given by instructors with little time for you after they work their full time job? Interactions with your ‘classmates’ via email and phone? What skills are you learning? How is your content knowledge being assessed? Do you even know if your instructor is qualified? Most of all, what are you getting here that you couldn’t get on your own? A lot of these schools aren’t even fully accredited. So many past students have emailed me saying that after all their effort, they still can’t get hired. Perhaps this is because while you may not know it, businesses know that online degrees just aren’t ‘worth’ as much as traditional degrees.

4)      Online learning is about convenience.

Let’s be honest. People take online classes because they are convenient. Most people enrolled in these courses are non-traditional students. They have full time jobs, a family, are older than 25, and frankly don’t have the time to go to classes on a strict schedule. Online courses allow people flexibility to fit schooling into their lives. Basically, this way, school doesn’t have to be a priority (because for many people, it can’t be a priority when you have a family to care for). My question to you is: if you aren’t investing in your learning, why should we invest in you?

5)      Online learning occurs in isolation.

Some online classes require students to do projects together. Rarely do these people actually physically meet one another. What do you do when you have a question? Do you email your instructor and wait 12 hours for him/her to respond? Do you even care about the answer at that point? There is little discourse in an online class. There are few opportunities to discuss content with your classmates, learn from their experience, understand their perspective, challenge their assertions. Yes, you can theoretically do this through an online discussion forum, but if it’s not in person, you lose tone, body language, and immediacy. You lose the affective components that make an educational experience ‘real’. Are those things necessary to learn? Absolutely not. But research assures are they are a critical aspect of an educational experience.

6)      Online learning is rarely rigorous.

Let’s be for real. These institutions are about making money. Their goal is to enroll and keep as many students as possible. They are hesitant to give you too much criticism because you may feel discouraged and drop out—taking your money with you. This is probably the aspect I struggle with most. When I was an instructor, I gave a lot of feedback (positive and negative) to my students. Then my Dean told me I was giving too much feedback and overwhelming the students. He advised me that faculty must use the ‘sandwich’ technique when giving feedback so that there is always twice as much positive as negative feedback. Uhmm, it’s not my job to make students feel good. It’s my job to help them learn.

Additionally, creating powerpoint slides, writing papers, and taking tests are hardly difficult things to do—especially when everything is conceivably open book. Where is the assessment there? And I’ve seen these rubrics (both during my time teaching and as I observed friends and family take online courses). They are hardly asking you to do much. If you write coherently and include 80% of what they asked you to include, you get an A. Hmm, in my class an 80 is a very low B-.


Okay. I know some of you are itching to comment. I encourage you to do so. But allow me to make my last point: My anger about online learning is not directed at the students; it is directed at the institution. These are the people who know they are giving a low quality education to a demographic who may not realize it is low quality. They are taking advantage of students who need to get their degree and cannot do it any other way. This is a business. Supply and demand is clearly at work. They will charge as much as the market can bear and give as little product as possible. Why would they not?

I am not saying don’t take an online course. I encourage the attainment of knowledge and skills. What I am saying is to better investigate the quality of the education you are receiving. For those of you enrolled in online courses where you feel challenged, supported, and most of all, where you are acquiring knowledge and skills…well done. I ask you to spread the word about your school so that others can also have an intellectually substantiated degree.

*Note. I in NO way believe that all traditional college courses are of high quality. Many suffer from similar issues as those outlined here. And I would say that those classes are also a waste of money.

An interesting article in the NY Times on for-profit colleges


Black Women on a White Campus: You Got a Ghetto Booty!

Today, the class of 2016 moves into the dorms. My school is proud to have successfully recruited and admitted around 20 African American freshmen. This may not sound like a lot, but let me contextualize it for you. The undergraduate student body contains roughly 2000 students. Of that 2000 last year, about 10-15 were self-identified African American (not ‘Black’. Black is a race; African American is an ethnicity. International students from Africa and the Caribbean for example may check Black as their race, but they do not identify as African American). I know for a fact that we graduated at least 2 of those 10-15 students. To bring in 20 is basically doubling the African American population on campus. Great! Well done! Hats off to you!

Now, what are you going to do for them?

I am gravely concerned for these students. So much so, that at the end of last academic year, I met individually with African American students to gain their perspective on the lack of diversity and segregated sense of community on campus. I wanted to know how they were faring. What I found was a gender difference. The guys are doing just fine for the most part. They’ve each found their niche—be it in academics, sports, music, whatever. They are dating, going to parties, going out of town with classmates, and having a great college experience. They are in effect, enjoying many of the advantages of male privilege.

The women are struggling. They are bonding with one another out of necessity, not always out of desire. They find themselves left off emails inviting floor mates to eat lunch together. They find themselves navigating social scenarios wherein other women say things like ‘you got a ghetto booty!’ They feel like objects on display for white women who’ve never had a ‘black friend’. These women want to touch their hair, ask them about their eating habits, and try on their ‘urban’ clothes. My African American female students know their classmates do not intend to be offensive. But that does not make the abuse easier to bear.

Interactions with white male students are worse. The ladies shared many stories about things their white male classmates say at parties once they’ve had too much alcohol. I won’t be crass and repeat them here, but I will say that no woman, regardless of ethnicity, should have to suffer the verbal and sometimes physical assaults these women endure. They are not viewed by these men as friends, and certainly not as possible girlfriends. They are an anomaly only seen on TV or from across the cafeteria. They are merely tolerated, never accepted.

So the African American women retreat. They hang out together in someone’s dorm room. They go out of their way to befriend students at other colleges. They join clubs and sports teams in the community. They travel to another city to get their hair done. In essence, they’ve created their own college within the college. We’ve pushed them away by not offering any support. By not creating a community in which they are a member, not a neighbor. We have not offered them the same opportunities for a college experience as we’ve offered their more privileged classmates. We have displaced them. Yet we are doing nothing about it. Instead, we place the burden on them.

And they carry it well.

I commend my students for still trying. For not responding to their peers in anger. For having the courage to speak with me about sensitive issues. For not letting their social experiences affect their academic experience.  For still being extremely excited—despite their personal experiences—that a new generation of African American students are coming to campus.

It is only youth who can endure such hardship and still be smiling and enthusiastic. Still want to mentor and befriend a new generation. Still want to develop organizations and clubs and make them open to the entire campus. Still find the strength to not shut down, but to be even more open to new people and new opportunities. I admire their fortitude. I admire their determination. I admire their positivity.

But for how much longer can we expect them to silently bear the burden of creating community?

Yes, we have a new class, but an old classroom. Things haven’t changed all that much.

A Letter to College Students (from all Profs)

Dear Students,

Before the academic year begins, I have a few things I’d like to discuss with you. Please listen carefully. No, no, no-don’t speak. Just listen. In fact, take out your phone and record what I am about to say.

Number one: Read the course description before you register for my course. Pay close attention to the course title and number as well. The numbers are not arbitrary. 100, 200, and 300-level courses increase in difficulty. This means that my 300-level course is probably not suitable for you first semester freshman year.

Number two: If I email you before the beginning of the course, please read that email. In all likelihood, I am relaying some important content in that message. In fact, I AM relaying important content. For example, you may need to have some readings done prior to the first day of class. You are responsible for those readings whether you read the email or not. If this bothers you, drop my class.

Number three: If I email you during the course, please read that email. Again, I am either a) clarifying course related information (scheduling, assignments, readings); b) providing you with extra information to aid in your learning process; or c) asking for your feedback/input on course related issues. If you do not read the email, you are still responsible for that content. If this annoys you, drop my class.

Number four: I do not exist for your amusement. I have a life of my own. I do not sit in front of my computer waiting for you to email me at 10:52pm so I can give you feedback on your paper draft. You have friends for that. Use them.

Number five: This is MY course. I choose what time we begin, end, if we have breaks, when assignments are due, course readings, grading scale, and learning goals. Now, on the first day of class, I always negotiate these things with my students. If you are absent on the first day of class, your vote will not be counted retroactively. And if I choose to not put any of these issues up for negotiation, I have that right. If you think this is unfair, drop my class.

Number six: IT IS ON THE SYLLABUS. You will hear me repeat this at least one time per 35 minutes of class. I will repeat it now as an example of what you will hear in class: IT IS ON THE SYLLABUS. In case you are confused, the ‘it’ I am referring to is whichever piece of information you ‘swear’ is not on the syllabus. This includes but is not limited to: the title of the course, the course description, the course number, my email address, my office number, office hours, required texts, due dates for all assignments, due times for all assignments, the grading scale, policies regarding late work, policies regarding absences, policies regarding athletic travel. So, for what I wish would be the last time: IT IS ON THE SYLLABUS.

Number seven: Excuses—I don’t need them. If you have excuses, drop my class.

(you may stop recording now)

Have a wonderful year 🙂

The Road Not Taken: Myths of Failure in Grad School

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.  

-Robert Frost

In the 5 years I spent in grad school I almost quit twice. The first time was after my qualifying exams. The second was after a natural disaster destroyed 30% of my dissertation data. That second one really did me in. Couple that with two family crises (one of which was the passing of my brother—which coincided with the loss of data), and getting my PhD just wasn’t worth the emotional toll it was taking on me. I started looking for jobs using my Masters degrees. I applied to said jobs. I’d made up my mind that if I couldn’t recover that data at the start of the next school year (I research during the academic year in middle schools), I was out. And anyone who knows me knows that once I make up my mind, I stand by my decision.

I told my parents and my closest friends that they needed to prepare themselves for the possibility that I would leave my program. They of course, protested. Chief among their complaints was ‘the time already invested’. They felt like I’d worked so hard and invested 4 years so I shouldn’t just quit.

I was supremely annoyed at them. I wasn’t quitting. I was making the best decision for myself at the time. There is a difference between quitting and making a new choice. Unfortunately, many high achieving people can’t make that distinction.

This post is about change. About admitting you made a mistake. About learning and making informed decisions. About finding the courage to stand up for yourself when everyone seems to disagree.

One of my lab partners in grad school left at the end of her second year (the end of my first). My only other lab partner was 3 years ahead of me and in a completely different phase of the program (though she was and continues to be a fabulous supporter, friend, and statistical advisor). When *Erica left, I remember thinking: ‘Wow! I am very impressed with her. It takes courage to admit this isn’t for you.’ Erica handled it with class. She informed our advisor a semester in advance and then told me shortly thereafter. When I asked her why she was leaving, she replied ‘this isn’t what I thought it would be.’ Truer words were never spoken.

Erica wasn’t the only person I saw leave. In the year ahead of me, a male student left after our debacle of qualifying exams (that’s a future post about the lack of guidance in a PhD program). Also in that year was a male student who’d left a PhD program in Political Science after 5 years to start a new PhD Program in a different field. I also watched someone three years ahead of me fail his dissertation defense. My own cohort member had to deal with her advisor leaving the University after our first year, and manage the effects of not having a primary advisor for the remainder of grad school.

I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people flip off their committee and walk out (yes, that really happened). And I’ve watched others struggle through difficult situations and still push on. I always wondered if they stayed in the program because they felt invested, they still wanted that PhD and all that came with it, if they simply didn’t know what else to do, or if they didn’t want to be viewed as a failure.

I always wanted to walk up to those people and say: ‘You didn’t fail; you learned. That’s what grad school is all about, right?’



*Erica is a pseudonym

The Miseducation of Generations

With the election happening, I hear a lot about increasing the number of students attending college—especially students of color. For some reason, people think that by purely increasing college attendance rates, our society will be uplifted. Sure that data would look great, but what about the data on college drop-outs? On the number of students enrolled in remedial classes? What about the data that clearly demonstrates we are not preparing our students—ethnic minorities or otherwise—to excel in college?

In our haste to raise summary achievement scores (e.g., standardized test scores, college admission rates, SAT/ACT scores), we’ve neglected the process in favor of the outcome.  We’ve promised them we won’t leave them behind, so we water down our curriculum to ensure everyone can ‘make the grade’. We’ve hired teachers who know nothing about teaching or learning so we can say we have smaller classes led by graduates from top institutions. We’ve ‘transformed’ schools by giving them a random designation as a ‘Magnet’ with no real changes in instructional practices. We’ve provided students and families with ‘choice’ in their schools, but refuse to equally equip schools to provide quality educational opportunities. In other words, we’ve focused our efforts on looking good instead of being good.

I argue that our focus should not be on increasing college attendance rates, but instead on increasing college readiness rates. So many students enter college lacking the writing, reading, computational, and study skills to succeed. If we want our students to do well, we have to help them develop the knowledge and skills that facilitate academic success.

What does this look like? Most important of all, I believe this means universalizing K-12 education. The tracking that leads to academically segregated college campuses begins in middle school. It begins with the opportunities students have to learn. Take a simple example borrowed from a great book on educational opportunities, Inequality for All:

Emily and Carrie are first graders from similar families with similar SES living in qualitatively similar communities in different states. Emily’s state has math standards that contain 10 topics not covered in Carrie’s state. With different teachers using different textbooks and different standards, the two girls have very different opportunities to learn mathematics.  Emily is exposed to fractions a bit in second grade and a lot in third grade. Carrie is first introduced to them in fourth grade. By 6th grade, Emily is well prepared to transition into more complex issues of positive and negative integers whereas Carrie is just becoming comfortable with the ideas of decimals, fractions, and distributive and associative properties. In 7th grade, Emily is ready for Pre-Algebra. Carrie takes a Basic Math class that spends time reviewing concepts covered in 6th grade math in more depth.  Emily takes Algebra in 8th grade; Carrie takes Basic Math II which continues to review content from 6th and 7th grade with a bit of algebraic concepts covered. By high school, Emily is clearly on a different track than Carrie. Emily enrolls in Geometry, Algebra II/Trig, and then Calculus in 9th-11th grade, whereas Carrie is required to take the Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and Geometry sequence.

When they apply for college, who is more prepared to do college level math? Emily. Only because she had different content coverage than Carrie, not because there is a true difference in their intellectual ability.

The variability in content coverage in this country is a direct effect of the loosey goosey educational policies that frame our educational system. We allow states to choose their own curriculum; teachers to choose their own texts; students to choose their own courses (with little attention to long-term goals). We confuse ability grouping and tracking, wherein the latter has separate curricula and the former has differentiated levels of the same curriculum.

Our refusal to institute a national curriculum (like most other countries in the world) is one of the primary reasons we see so little diversity in our colleges. We are setting our students up from Pre-K to attend a certain caliber college. The Emilys of the world have been fortunate enough to attend schools in states with a more rigorous curriculum and are therefore well prepared to attend the nation’s top colleges (many of which do not offer remedial courses). The Carries on the other hand have been required to make do and are effectively barred from admittance at colleges that require higher level science and math courses.

Why do we let providence instead of potential dictate children’s futures?