The Great Equalizer

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“Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark is all deluge.”

These words of educator and social reformer Horace Mann are particularly prescient and poignant given recent events.

We’ve all heard the saying that things happen “in threes,” and this has certainly been the case this week as well. They started with very bad but, happily, have gotten progressively better.

First came the news that many of us have been anticipating: the rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). With Attorney General Sessions’ official announcement on Tuesday, and President Trump’s tweet placing the onus back on Congress to act within the next six months, the full weight of this gut-punch is impossible to calculate. While there are approximately 800,000 individuals (people whom the President has called “incredible” in his past comments) this action will directly affect, the collateral impact on all the others is inestimable, as is the cost to our society.

Like many other institutions, we issued this statement on Tuesday afternoon upon learning the news:

“Eastern Kentucky University joins the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), American Council on Education (ACE) and Association of Governing Boards (AGB) in expressing our disappointment in today’s decision to rescind DACA.

EKU has always been an institution that embraces and fosters individual opportunity for all of our students, and we will not waver from that commitment. We will do everything in our power to continue to support all EKU students in pursuit of higher education and a better life for themselves and their families. It is our hope that Congress takes quick, decisive and bipartisan action on the DACA program to provide a long-term solution for students seeking a college degree. EKU will work to educate our congressional representatives on the impact DACA action will have on our students. The University will remain focused on student success and the path to educational attainment, regardless of where that journey started for our diverse student population.”

The next day, we held a Unity Rally on our campus as a demonstrative show of support for ALL students at EKU and will continue to press our congressional delegation to work on a long-term solution to this problem. We share Bill Gates’ sincere hope that “Congress will quickly pass a permanent fix to allow these young people to stay in the country without the destructive fear of deportation.”

The next event was our hosting one of higher education’s leading thinkers and clarion voices on a whole host of issues, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab. She launched the University’s annual Chautauqua Lecture Series Thursday night to an auditorium filled with faculty and staff, but predominantly students. Our invitation to Sara to speak at EKU also included time at Berea College, just 10 miles down the road in Madison County, an institution she has always wanted to visit, given its work-study program and unique history.

Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s work and research focuses on access, affordability, and – as the title of her latest, best-selling book suggests – the betrayal of the American dream as it relates to ever-rising costs of higher education and further erosion of public support. During the course of Sara’s lecture, she outlined the myriad challenges facing today’s college students, particularly those for students at an institution like Eastern Kentucky University, where 50% of our students are Pell Grant eligible. And these are issues like food insecurity and homelessness – real-life concerns one might not readily associate with millennials given the breezy labels and stereotypes the media and others have given to this current generation of students.

While the summation of her work (her research team tracked 3,000 low-income students over a six-year period) was altogether sobering and alarming, she concluded her talk with this slide: “Hope Is a Strategy.”

I absolutely believe this to be true as well, and that’s why the third and final event of this week gives me so much hope in the future and belief in the transformational power of education as the single best investment a society can make in its citizens.

This morning, we cut the ribbon on an incredibly unique project on our campus. The Eastern Scholar House is the product of a partnership between the Kentucky Housing Corporation (KHC), Kentucky River Foothills Development Council Inc. (KRFDC), the City of Richmond and Eastern Kentucky University.

The $10.5 million project is primarily funded by KHC – the City of Richmond received a $1 million Community Development Block Grant for construction costs – and will be managed by Kentucky River Foothills, which also secured several deferred loans to go toward project development costs. EKU provided the land via a long-term lease and Fahe, a Berea, Kentucky-based 501(c) non-profit, has steered the project since its inception.

Single parents are given first priority to reside in the Scholar House. Residents must be at least 18, be eligible for a Housing Choice voucher, and be full-time students at any degree-granting or specialty institution of higher learning. As of the opening ceremony today, current residents were attending Eastern Kentucky University, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Sullivan University, and Berea College.

In addition to the 39 two-bedroom apartments, residents will also enjoy an on-site, certified child development facility for up to 80 children, receive counseling, participate in life skills workshops, and be near all the services and amenities of our Richmond campus, such as Student Health Services and the Women’s Health Clinic.

As I attended today’s ceremony and met the residents of Scholar House, I looked into the faces of the children now living in this complex and saw the future of our country. I saw an investment in human capital which is sure to pay enormous dividends. I saw lives being transformed by shelter and sustenance and services so that they can pursue the one thing guaranteed to provide them with future opportunities more than anything else: education.

What I saw was the embodiment of this quotation, again from Horace Mann, about the unequaled power that education provides:

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”