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© Max Lubin


RISE | Part Two

by Max Lubin
May 8, 2019

This interview with Max Lubin, the co-founder of RISE, a student advocacy organization working on free college in California, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

Part one of this conversation can be found here.

Max: Why don't we talk about who we're interviewing in this month.

We started by speaking with Michelle Miller-Adams

What'd she tell you?

We talked a lot about the Kalamazoo Promise. What the influence of it looks like in Tennessee, what it looks like in Rhode Island, and a look at the original model of it.

We've talked to students. Alexa Victoriano and Lauren Schandevel to start. Lauren from the University of Michigan who made the Being Not-Rich at University Michigan doc, which is so clever. 

We spoke with Chancellor Oakley. We spoke to Karina Salazar about college recruitment practices. Where often the data shows students from low income backgrounds and students of color being ignored. 

I want to say on that front, I don't think that phenomenon is driven by individual malice. I don't think that happens because there's a guy in admissions who's racist and doesn't like poor people and so he recruits accordingly. I think what happens is when colleges and universities are dealing with these massive cuts in say funding, like in Arizona, we are talking about the state completely defunding two of the largest community college districts in the state, they have to make up the balance of lost revenue.

It pushes the colleges to see students as just their tuition instead of intrinsically valuable members of their community.

The recruitment practices reflect that because if they don't reach a certain quota of students who can pay the full price of tuition, they can't run a university over that model. What their [Karina Salazar and Ozan Jaquette] research shines a line on is what kinds of students get prioritized and why. That's why it's so important.

Yeah. Decision making that may have seemed okay at the time has snowballed into this dysfunctional and complicated higher education system that seems really difficult to untangle.

It also feels like a lot of the work, because this has unfolded over the last two decades, is new. The data is fresh. When I was talking to Michelle she said something really interesting – she would want a debate based in information and research but can't, not because the candidates don't know the information, but because a lot of it doesn't exist. 

It's not the sexiest thing in the world to invest in and it's a relatively new problem. 

One of the reasons why Francisco Rodriguez who runs the LA Community College District and Chancellor Oakley deserve so much credit is because they are two of the very few university leaders or college leaders in the country who have taken a hard look, and produced academic research about their student body and their needs.

It's ironic that universities conduct hundreds of millions of dollars worth of academic research every year but most of them don't know what's going on in their own campuses when it comes to food and security and housing in particular. The financial aid process is typically a black box. It's not transparent in terms of who gets awarded what kind of aid and for what reason.

In medicine there's tens of thousands of randomized control trials and rigorous studies conducted every year. There's just a few hundred in education or higher education. We're operating without a lot of information, we'll have to make difficult decisions. Malcolm Gladwell talks about how ten things have to go wrong on an airplane for the airplane to crash, and that's sort of what you see in higher education.

It's not one thing, but states are cutting funding, the federal government's investment hasn't kept up, you have unscrupulous loan servicers for student loan debt, student loan debt can't be discharged in bankruptcy –

Student loan debt can't be discharged in bankruptcy?

It cannot.

I didn't know that. Do people know that?

We can do a story on that.

That's insane.

Those are five of the ten things that are causing this airplane to crash.

There are some of us who want to see higher education as a vehicle for social mobility, instead of an incubator for inequality.

If we want that to be what higher education is for, then that's a system we have to advocate for.

In terms of the selection of folks, what we tried to do was bring together a set of diverse perspectives that represent many facets of the higher education system. People, not just who have done that, but who have used their respective positions to try to change it for the better, and so have a perspective in that sense.

What I want frank readers to know ultimately is that the system we have doesn't have to be the system we keep.

That higher education is something we can make better for not very much money, for not very much relative investment and advocacy, if you compare it to solving the climate crisis or stopping gun violence. Part of what has made RISE successful so far is that we don't have a lot of opponents out there. There's no NRA fighting free college, there's no Exxon or Chevron trying to make college less successful and affordable. But that also means if we want to change the system then we need to invest on the other side. I hope your readers understand that we can make the system better and that there are lots of ways for them to help do that if they want to.