This post is by Shetal Vohra-Gupta and originally appeared on Medium.
Dear Betsy DeVos,
As an educator with 10 years of experience in teaching at a college level and researching how policies intersect with race, class, and gender, I’d love to take a meeting with you. It is clear that you have worked to move the needle in education by offering choices to parents if they are not happy with their child’s education. This market-based strategy should ideally work for all Americans. However, while I applaud the intention behind your efforts, I must assert that this type of policy leaves out the children and families that need the most assistance. Like I once did, Ms. Devos, I think you are speaking from a place of misinformed privilege. And like me, if you took a step out of that privilege to see how new education policies could serve overlooked communities, you could innovate on an unprecedented scale.
As a South Asian female who is a researcher in a top-tier university, I have learned to step out of my privilege to conduct meaningful policy work that impacts the community. Since joining my policy institute, which is housed in a Black Studies unit at the University of Texas at Austin, I’ve had to learn about the intersectional identities of where power lies and how this impacts my research. In fact, a grass roots community questioned how I could work with Black, low-income communities of color. Since I knew nothing of their lived experiences, how was my work going to matter? I took this feedback and learned something important: to approach my work with community through a learning, non-expert lens. While I hold the position of an academic at a prestigious university, I am not the expert, the community is. I also learned to work closely with community champions and to pay them adequately, through research funds, for their work. I now let the community guide my research because it is truly their voice that needs to be heard, especially when it comes to policy.
As a result, I now have a much clearer picture of the landscape we try to reach as educators, and I want to share it with you. I’m writing to ask you to do the following:
1) Commit to making universities more inclusive.
Currently, The United States ranks 14th out of 20 for best education systems in the world, under Poland, Canada, Russia and several East Asian countries. If we ever hope to change that, we need to reach out to all communities equally.
Higher education policy lags for communities of color, and that will have implications for us going forward. In 2011, a study showed that soon, a majority of children and young adults will be racial minorities. Of all the Bachelor’s degrees conferred to US citizens for 2014–2015, 66% were earned by Caucasians (down from 89% in 1977), 12% were Hispanic (up from 2.1% in 1977), 10.6% were black (up from 6.5% in 1977), and 7% were Asian (up from 1.5% in 1977).
As a lecturer, I can’t begin to tell you how important and instrumental it is to have students in my classroom who are from all different backgrounds — in terms of race, gender, gender identity, income classification, and disability . Students themselves increase the education level in classrooms, particularly those who have overcome hardship. As people of privilege, we have much to learn from those who face disadvantage. Many of my students have learned key lessons from classmates from a different background.
My suggestion: Create inclusive policies and commit to giving low-income students tax breaks and assistance to attend college. This would advance education in the United States and increase our global rankings.
2) Stand up for victims of assault.
Ms. Devos, when you fail to commit to sexual assault policies in university settings, you silence one in five undergraduate women and one in 16 undergraduate men who will experience sexual assault. The policies that you dismissed during your confirmation hearing call for giving voice to survivors and requiring universities to report and proactively engage in prevention programs.
As a researcher who spent years collecting narratives and investigating the impact of sexual assault in my state of Texas, I’ve seen first-hand how destructive silence can be for these individuals. The survivors I have spoken with report feeling stigma and shame, followed by depression and anxiety. This combination leads to an increased tendency to skip classes, fall behind, and eventually fail out. The student who was once successful has now lost out because of poor support from college administration due to failed policies.
My suggestion: Commit to all the policies put forth through Title 9 and the Office of Civil Rights to protect sexual assault survivors. Work with higher ed institutions to make mental health services free for all students.
3) Commit to making four-year college degrees accessible.
During your confirmation hearings, you touted “craftsmanship” (referring to vocational and other trade programs) over four-year degrees. Before making this blanket statement, I would implore you to look at how all college programs are resourced.
Of the 10.7 million seeking a Bachelor’s degree, 62% are White, 14% are Black, 13% are Hispanic/Latino, 6.7% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 4.4% other.
Those who can afford a four year college degree or more will make significantly more — up to 65% more — coming out of college than an individual who goes to a trade school. Ms. DeVos, if you don’t level the playing field by offering resources to trade, vocational, and four year institutions, there will be no equality — especially for women of color, who suffer a pay gap that many say will take 170 years to fill.
Ms. DeVos, a “color-blind” approach to your position reaffirms the unequal status quo. I think you can innovate and do better.
My suggestion: Advance financial grants such as the Pell grant system to bring more low-income students into higher education. Invest in university career advisors and mental health counselors who are trained in working with low-income students and first generation students. Work with local community organizations and high schools who have high percentages of low-income students to develop college readiness programs. Parents from low-income families are unfamiliar with the paperwork involved to apply for these grants, and you could streamline the system.
4) Listen to your community.
Lastly, I would ask you to take the time to meet with people like me, and others who exist outside of your network. This will open up channels of creative policy design to be inclusive of all the families and students you represent.
My suggestion: Engage with families, school administrators, community organizations, and state leaders. Listen as a person who wants to learn from their expertise. This will truly make you the leader our country needs.
Shetal Vohra-Gupta, PhD, is associate director of The Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow.