Coming Out in Higher Education: Another New Normal

About a year ago I wrote a series of posts about various issues surrounding the economics of higher education.  I first wrote about college as an investment and then about why college costs so much. Finally, I blogged about professors’ modest salaries. Today I attended another workshop about the student debt crisis and in an attempt to bridge those prior posts I am borrowing the language of this is my coming out story.

I started college at the ripe age of 17 years and 5 weeks. At that point I had $0 in debt and was bright eyed and full of hopes and dreams. I was going to be a journalist! Or a social worker! Or an infectious disease doctor. Well, I was attending an Ivy League college in any event.

On June 11th, 2006 I walked across the stage at the slightly older age of 20 years 11 months and with $25,000 of student loan debt. Even then I knew I’d come out on top because my best friend was graduating with around $70k and many others were approaching $100k. I was fortunate enough to only have $25k because my father took out approximately $40k on my behalf (which actually is only a fraction of the $210k price tag of the total undergraduate experience). In addition to my father’s willingness to be poor forever, my final two years of tuition were paid for by an anonymous alum. I’d also qualified for work study which I quickly learned was a way to have money for books, plane tickets home, and the occasional salad at a restaurant, not a way to fund your education.

I spent the summer between undergrad and graduate school teaching in a residential gifted and talented program for middle schoolers at Northwestern University. At the end of the summer I checked my bank account, and after 4 years of working at least 2 work study jobs and having paid employment every summer, I’d saved a whopping $4000. This was actually a job well done seeing as how I’d had to spend a lot of money on the secret fees associated with college attendance (recreation fees, for example) and on very pricy textbooks until I was wise enough to just not buy the texts (but that’s another story).

I was headed to Tennessee to start a PhD program and I needed a car. I went to Carmax where I purchased a 2002 Oldsmobile Alero. Sticker price was around $10k, but with taxes and fees the total was closer to $12.5k. I needed to get the monthly payments as low as possible given that I was about to be a graduate student with a monthly stipend of around $2k which after taxes was about $1600. I emptied out my savings and put the entire $4000 toward a down payment on the car. My father was nice enough to give me another $500. My monthly payments were $161. I had a car!

Then my mother and I drove to Nashville to secure an apartment for me. We visited a few places and were happily surprised to hear that because of my good financial record and good credit score (especially for a 21 year old) I didn’t need to put down a deposit on my utilities. My apartment application fee and last month’s rent were also waived. I only needed to come up with a deposit and first month’s rent. I used my summer earnings for this.

I needed furniture. My parents—who are nowhere near wealthy, but are firmly middle class—decided to give me graduation presents. We went to Goodwill and got a sofa and recliner, totaling $28. Then, we went to a locally owned furniture factory warehouse where I got a bedroom suite, mattress and dinette set for around $400. Delivery was free. My 1 bedroom apartment was about 650sq ft and had a laundry room. So my mom went to Lowes and used her Lowes credit card to buy me a washer and dryer. This was the most expensive graduation gift I received and I was extremely grateful to my parents.

They left and I started graduate school. After the first semester I realized that I needed a part time job. With medical bills for a chronic illness, I didn’t have enough money for food and had lost about 15lbs by the time I came home for Christmas. I also realized that my car loan had an interest rate of 9% (or maybe it was 12%) and that I could get an education loan with an interest rate of 6.8%. That was actually a smart move. I took out $9k in education loans to pay off my car. My total loan debt was now $34k. But my loans were in deferment because I was enrolled full time in school.

Over the next 5 years I did private tutoring and worked at two learning centers. This extra income was enough for me to buy groceries, pay medical bills, and go out to dinner every now and then. I was doing okay.

Fast forward a few years. I am now an Assistant Professor at a private liberal arts college. I make a decent salary, but after the 6 month grace period, my first loan payments were due. The minimum loan payments were around $320 a month across all three of my lenders. Paying the minimum would keep me in debt for the next 15-20 years of my life. I decided against that. I made the choice to pay one of the loans—the one with the highest interest rate of 6.8%—aggressively. I was putting $729 a month toward that loan and paying about $15 over the required payments on the remaining two loans for a total of $1000 a month.

After one and half years of that, I paid off the 9k loan in full. After two years, I’ve also paid about 2k of the other two loans. At present, at the start of my third year as an income earning professional, I am $22k in debt.

And I am single.

Being in a one-income household means that all financial responsibilities fall to me. All debt falls to me. All financial emergencies fall to me. All financial decisions fall to me.

Having educational debt hanging over your head makes it hard to move forward in life. I would like to buy a house, but my education loans plus my car loan (I had to buy a new car about 5 months ago) are definite negatives on my loan application. Granted, I do not have to be so aggressive in my loan repayment. I technically only have to pay $250 a month in loans and if I did that, I’d be much more comfortable taking on a mortgage. I haven’t decided on that front.

I would like to have children one day, but to do that alone is incredibly expensive. The childcare center at my institution charges over $800 a month that is automatically deducted from your paycheck. What about baby medical bills? Clothing? Food? Diapers? Furniture? It just doesn’t seem feasible right now.

I would also like to continue to save. In a good month I can save 25% of my income. I have a good month like 4 times a year. Most months other expenses arise. Christmas, medical bills, vet bills, mechanic bills, annual renters insurance payment, birthday gifts. All of these things come out of my budget and result in  only saving about 10% of my monthly income. At that rate, I will never be able to come up with a decent down payment for a house.ImnotAshamed

I only owe $22k yet I feel trapped in life. The American Dream is a carrot dangling right in front of me as my colleagues with spouses and partners and two-income households buy homes and have children. I feel a bit of shame about not being able to contribute to the economy through home ownership or even ridiculous spending on frivolous things at locally owned businesses. I have to make financial choices every day about prioritizing my spending. Should I adopt the mindset of ‘live for today because tomorrow isn’t promised’ and take my mother on a trip to Ireland? Should I be a responsible adult and never go out to eat and instead dedicate that money to paying off my credit card balance in full? Do I choose to save aggressively or pay down my loans aggressively? Doing a little of each does not feel like progress and in fact is not progress when you calculate loan interest rates.


I have no answers. I am not an expert on higher education and I am even further from being an expert on economics. My time in college was the best 4 years of my life and I would undoubtedly do it again even with the hefty price tag. But I struggle with how to advise high school students and their parents. Not every parent can or should assume $40k of debt for their child’s education. Not every student will get a PhD or MD or JD or MBA and have a shot in hell at paying back their debt. Not every student will enjoy their college experience so much they are willing to spend the next 20 years paying for it.

I can’t tell anyone else what to do. I can only share my story and frame it in the context of me and what I came away with after 9 years of higher education. I came out with $34k of debt. I came out with 4 degrees. I came out with a few publications and a job. I came out happy. I came out proud. I came out an academic.

Top 10 Hate Crimes Against Professors

My final post in this 3-day “Back to School” series is a simple list of things students do without realizing how offensive they are being. Again, this post was written in jest but the content is grounded in real life experiences.


I was chatting with my best friend about how much I detest grading papers that are overwritten. I shared an example of a student’s paper whose first sentence was 3 lines long and contained 4 words with 5 syllables and 3 words with 4 syllables. What I actually said to her was: ‘It’s like she took an idea and beat it to death for the next 10 pages.’ My friend responded: ‘that’s a hate crime against professors.’  And it is. So I thought of other things students do that constitute hate crimes (because we hate it).

10. Saying you will come to office hours and then not showing. We have office hours because we are supposed to. BUT if we know students are not going to come to office hours, we spend that time working on other things. If a student happens to come, then we stop and speak with…

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A Letter to Grad School Applicants

Day 2 of my reminder to college students as they begin another year. While yesterday’s post was for all students but especially freshmen, this one is for the seniors who will be knocking down electronic doors asking professors for letters of recommendation. Though it is only August, most graduate school deadlines arise in October. Following these steps will keep you ahead of the crowd and perhaps put you in the ‘first glance’ pile of applicants. Good luck!


Dear Applicants,

It’s the fall semester, which means many of you will not be paying attention in class because not only do you have senioritis, your thoughts are on the 12 grad school applications waiting for you. And after you finish not paying attention in class, you will be asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. To make this process easier for us all, I’ve compiled a list of tips derived from my experiences 7 years ago as an applicant, and my experiences during the last 2 years on a graduate school admissions committee.

General Advice:

  • Have an actual plan. Know what degree you want and why. Grad school is not for you to find yourself; that’s what college was for.
  • Research careers associated with your intended degree. You may discover that you don’t need an advanced degree to do what you want to do. Or you may find…

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A Letter to College Students (from all Profs)

As another academic year comes to a start, I want to take this opportunity to reblog a few posts I wrote last fall. The posts will be reblogged in three parts on three consecutive days. These posts are mostly words of advice for college students, especially for those who think college is high school part II. Much of what I say in the following post is written in jest though grounded in factual experiences. Though the tone is light hearted and hopefully begets a few smiles, the message is real: college is a professional endeavor and as such, should be treated professionally.


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…

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Whose Race is it? How “Race to the Top” Exacerbates Inequalities in Higher Education


race-to-the-top-300x242On August 22, 2013, President Obama outlined a plan for improving access in higher education in a speech at the University of Buffalo. This plan is basically a higher education version of Race to the Top wherein colleges/universities will be given bonuses for enrolling students who are Pell Grant eligible; colleges/universities will be penalized (how they are penalized was not made clear) for high drop-out rates; colleges/universities will be ranked based upon measures such as graduation rates, graduate earnings, transfer rates and debt levels. Higher ranked schools will be given more aid.

About a year ago in anticipation of the Presidential election, I wrote a blog post summarizing President Obama’s education agenda. In that piece I report data indicating that Race for the Top, though costing 4.3 billion dollars (at that point), had not provided significant improvements in schools. More recent national data won’t be released until around October at which point I plan to revisit the statistics in hopes of more positive outcomes for a plan that is now carrying a $6 billion price tag.

Given the lack of evidence in favor of Race for the Top I am baffled by the Administration’s decision to implement a similar program in higher education—especially one for which he is already requesting $1.26 billion (this is in addition to the $500 million from the Dept of Labor). I am unsurprised that Obama and Duncan continue to think that by throwing money the state of education in this country will improve. Thus far they’ve increased Pell Grant funding, made loans more accessible to more people, and hoisted responsibility for enacting NCLB on state and local governments. In essence they have not done anything to effect real change and this latest proposal is yet another bait and switch mechanism. While we are all drowning in spreadsheets of statistically unsound data, he and his team will be behind the curtain crafting who knows what other plans to avoid addressing what I believe to be the cause and symptom of our declining global position: inequitable public schools.

To take a plan that is not working in K-12 and apply it to 12-16 is asinine. If anything, such a plan is more likely to fail in higher education because the very colleges and universities to which the President hopes to send more students function in an insular bubble called Academia. In this bubble live the top 100 colleges and certainly the top 50. These institutions have and will continue to function seamlessly regardless of what’s happening at large in the U.S. This is because top tier schools have two things other schools do not: large endowments and a guaranteed market base. The economy crash was an unfortunate event for all places of learning but those institutions most affected were/are public colleges and universities who rely on state funds to supplement their meager endowment. When the economy crashed, these schools lost state funds and thus many were barely able to open. They suffered massive lay-offs, hiring freezes, and in extreme instances, had to choose between closing their doors and selling artistic and cultural artifacts. The same thing happened to private colleges who do not have a guaranteed market. When tuition got too high, loans became inaccessible or undesirable, and the need for immediate employment outweighed the pursuit of learning, students didn’t enroll and those colleges whose budget is heavy reliant on tuition revenue were at a loss for how to serve the remaining students. The switch to adjunct faculty over tenure-track faculty, the erosion of athletic and art programs and the elimination of entire disciplines were the only options left.

President Obama is proposing another option. An option that might be incredibly appealing to schools who need a financial bonus and the lure of increased financial aid to attract students. These are not the top 100 schools. A recent report on educational inequality in higher education stated that low income students and students of color are attending lower tier colleges at disproportional rates as is. Given that the cut off for Pell Grant funding is an annual family income of $35,000 or less, this new plan is targeting students who attend open-access schools, not those who attend top tier colleges. As the report indicates, students at open-access schools graduate at lower rates, take a longer time toward degree, are less likely to attend graduate school and have lower post-graduation earnings. All this new plan does is incentivize colleges and universities to lower their standards so they can increase enrollment, get more low income students and thus get more federal aid, and dilute the rigor of the curriculum so they can avoid high drop-out and transfer-rates and shorten time to degree. In essence, the schools who would ‘buy’ this plan are the very ones for whom this plan should not be available.

If you want to increase economic diversity in higher education, devise a plan that incentivizes schools that do not already have economic and racial diversity. Top tier colleges serve primarily white and middle to upper class students. If you are going to measure schools and rank them, why on Earth would I choose to enroll students who may not improve my outcomes? Most top tier schools (barring the Ivy League schools who now have their own program in place to enroll more low income students) are not need-blind admission for a reason. They want to have a certain percentage of students who can pay. These schools already have high graduation rates and low drop-out and transfer rates. They already get bonuses—they are called alumni contributions. This plan has nothing to do with them. Basic Behaviorism tells us that if you want to change someone’s behavior, you need to implement relevant rewards and punishments. The financial incentives are moot as top colleges have their own pot of money and the know-how to get more of it if needed. The threat of public data is not a threat at all to schools that are already doing well on those dimensions. By all means, measure those variables and rank the schools (btw, U.S. News and World Report already does this). I imagine the top 100 rankings would change very little.

All this plan does, like pay for performance in K-12, is incentivize schools to lower standards so they can meet arbitrary (e.g., standardized tests) educational goals. If I have to choose between laying off staff and faculty, selling institutional history and closing forever or changing my admissions criterion so I can get more money from the government, I choose the latter. And I suspect and expect higher education administrators to do the same.

I just had more hope that our national leaders would focus efforts on remedying causes of educational inequities, not exacerbate them.

Journal Rejections Suck…But That Doesn’t Mean You Do

Audre Lorde






Yesterday I received a rejection for a manuscript I submitted about 3 months ago. The editor and reviewers were reasonable and their feedback was very valid. In fact, I felt vindicated because I knew that manuscript wasn’t that great.

Before you ask “why would you submit work that was subpar” let me clarify: that paper was certainly better than stuff I’ve seen published in journals before, BUT it wasn’t up to my standards. I only submitted it because I was invited to do so personally by the editor. Even after I told him the manuscript wasn’t that great, he pushed and I said hey, the worse they can say is no.

And they did.

I discussed this briefly with a colleague and he immediately assumed I was angry at the reviewers. I’m not. I am actually glad that these reviewers had the wherewithal to spot subpar work. As a scholar I am greatly annoyed when I read published work that isn’t good. My first response is always: who let this through?? (Immediately followed by personal outrage that my self-proclaimed much better work was not accepted). But in this case I am not outraged. My paper lacked a theoretical foundation and the methodology wasn’t clearly explained. I had to transform it from a conference paper to a manuscript submission in 12 days. I did what I could while teaching two 3-hour courses a day.

My conversation with my friend inspired me to write about this thing called publishing and the forces that push us to internalize the rejection of a manuscript as rejection of self. We so often view our work as an extension of ourselves and while this seems reasonable, it is also dangerous. What we write on paper represents only a fraction of who we are in life.

We put so much of ourselves in our teaching and our research that to have 3-5 anonymous strangers whose qualifications are unknown reject our work is hurtful and at times, enraging. I’ve certainly gotten some not so helpful feedback from reviewers that almost brought me tears. I’ve also gotten immensely helpful feedback that vastly improved the quality of my work. It really is a crap shoot and no matter the final outcome, the decision is not a judgment of you; it’s a critique of that single piece of work.

As a junior professor I am still recovering from the denial, rejection and judgment I received in graduate school.  I can still hear one member of my committee telling me at my dissertation proposal defense to think of a new idea because this one ‘doesn’t have guaranteed positive results’. Uhmm what? Is that how we choose what to research?

I can still feel the hurt when that same committee member 4 months prior refused to sign off on my Master’s Thesis in time for me to walk at the Masters graduation ceremony. She gave me feedback 6 days before the submission deadline and said once I incorporated her feedback, she’d sign. I could’ve incorporated her feedback after graduation and all would’ve been the same. Or she could’ve given me that feedback in a timely fashion since she’d had the paper for 6 weeks at that point. Either way, she got to make a decision about my work that affected my personal outcomes.

Much like the tenure and promotion process. Similar to how we assess our students.

So many times I have students tell me their grade on the paper/test/project doesn’t reflect the time and effort they put in. My response: I’m sure it doesn’t. But I can’t grade your effort as I am not there with you throughout life. I can only assess the final product.

The same is true of reviewers. They are not in our offices after hours as we comb through data. They are not cooking us breakfast at 5am as we rise early to get in an hour of writing before the day truly starts. They are not in the passenger seat as we drive around completing our many errands while simultaneously writing an outline for our next manuscript in our head. Because they are not privy to our lives, what we do, nor who we are, their decisions about our work cannot also be a decision about us.

We must learn to separate our work from our personal beings. If you define yourself by what you create instead of who you are, you open yourself to external validation. The things we put out in the world—our voices, our writings, our bodies—are always under scrutiny. We need to save something for ourselves and constantly remind one another that a line on a vita is just that: one line in this epic novel of life.

On Teaching White Teachers to Teach [Other] Students

blurredlines1Teach where you will be most effective.

I say this sentence at least once per 3-5 hour class with my Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students. I say this while looking around the room at their white/privileged/middle and upper class faces. I say this in department meetings to my white/privileged/upper class colleagues in the teacher preparation program. I say this to undermine the implicit message that those who ‘have’ should share with those ‘in need’. I exclaim this to explicitly reject the old narrative of the white teacher savior coming to help them. You know the story. You can probably recite it word for word. It goes like this:

*push play on Bone Thugs in Harmony*

The poor/urban/at-risk black/Hispanic/immigrant kids are in danger. They live in a gang infested neighborhood in single parent households with barely literate hardworking mothers trying to make up for the fact that dad/brother/uncle is in prison and you yourself are a (soon-to-be) pregnant teenager. Then, out of nowhere, the unqualified second career substitute teacher arrives in your not-enough-desk-having classroom with her (because it’s almost always a woman who can nurture us the ways our mothers can’t despite centuries of being the mammy) blond/brown hair, blue/green/grey eyes, thin yet athletic stature and radiant smile.

She is nervous because she’s never been around people like this but she is smiling. She smiles because she feels empowered. She is doing her part to make this world better by teaching these kids. She doesn’t have license or endorsement number one. She doesn’t have even 50 hours of classroom experience in a state that requires 600. In essence, she doesn’t have a clue. But there Michelle Pfieffer and Hillary Swank are to save us from our dangerous minds to help us become freedom writers.

I pass.

In one of my graduate courses I spend two weeks with MATs right before they graduate helping them understand the nuances of instructional differentiation. Until that class, they’ve been taught to differentiate based upon student ability. But I help them understand they must differentiate based upon student….everything. We spend a day each on language, income, sexuality, homelessness, delinquency, and race (among other variables). The race day is of course the most uncomfortable day because for my mostly white teacher candidates, they’ve never had to confront the intersection of their identity with those of their students.

In my first year I learned that texts do a much better job of articulating the intricacies of interracial interactions than I ever could. My passion, which on every other topical day is motivating, is frightening for them. Perhaps because the word ‘race’ primes my blackness whereas all of the other course topics can be swept under the rug of my professordom because I do not wear my socioeconomic status, sexuality, address, or criminal record on my face. Or perhaps because I am a real-life, in your face, counterargument to colorblindness.

To get past their hesitancy, I found an article that is particularly powerful as they are forced to label themselves instead of their students. In 2005 Nora Hyland published an article entitled Being a Good Teacher of Black Students? White Teachers and Unintentional Racism. In this summary of a qualitative study, she describes four teachers who embody the ways most white teachers approach their role in a classroom of [other] students. Each teacher was represented by a guiding principle: A good teacher of Black students is a helper; A good teacher of students of color is assimilated; A good teacher of students of color is an intercultural communicator; A good teacher of students of color is a radical.

Though the principles alone can’t possible relay the (un?)intentional racism embedded in their teaching practices, we can highlight how their word choices serve to subjugate the [other] student as a being in need of help, whose goal should be to fit in despite not mastering the language of power and behaving in deviant, radical ways.

Sigh…this story, like so many stories in our education system is old and tiresome. Instead of trying to undo a lifetime worth of educational experiences through which my MATs were made to learn and live this narrative, I teach them another story. One where [other] students excel in the classroom despite being of no consequence to educational leaders and policy makers.

In this story, classroom teachers are effective because they know their students. They are not interloping do-gooders on a spring break trip to build wells in a foreign country. They do not step into a classroom with the mindset of me and them. They do not see themselves as helpers or cultural brokers. They are not afraid of their students because of how they dress or speak. They do not hide behind district policies as a reason for not visiting students’ homes.

They do not need to do any of this. In fact, it never occurs to them to do any of this. Because these teachers are them. They live in the neighborhoods where their students live. They shop, eat and pray at the same establishments frequented by their students’ families. They understand (though may not adopt) students’ choice of clothing, music, and slang. They track down parents anyway they can, recognizing and respecting that parents’ life contexts may be different than their own.

I am not saying effective teachers of [other] students must share backgrounds with their students; but they must share the present. You do not have to look like your students to know them or love them; but you must understand your students to teach them.

Every year I welcome a new cohort of MATs who’ve chosen this profession to ‘help children learn’. I always want to ask them: which children?