I’m in Indianapolis at the SHEEO (State Higher Education Executive Officers) Policy Conference. It’s a gathering of 250-300ish people from around the country who work in, or with, state offices of higher education.
It’s the first time I’ve been to this conference. It’s not just, or even primarily, community college folks. Walking through the crowd at the opening reception, I kept having moments of “I know that face from…uh…” That makes for a funny blend of familiarity and cluelessness.
It’s also my first time in Indianapolis. The hotel is located right next to the minor league baseball stadium, so that’s a point in its favor. Anyone with dining tips for Indianapolis is invited to let me know. In matters culinary, I like to try local specialties whenever possible. Buffalo has wings, Philly has cheesesteaks, Kansas City has barbecue; what does Indianapolis have? So far, everyone I’ve asked has been stumped, but I’m hopeful that I’ve just been asking the wrong people.
The kickoff plenary was a presentation by Stella Flores, of the University of Texas. Her focus was “equitable policymaking,” which she framed as the more difficult followup point to equity analyses. What policy changes would it take to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, income, or complicated life story, has a genuine shot at higher education if they want it?
Most of her facts covered well-worn ground. She shared some graphs on college completion rates broken out by race, which showed remarkable stability of gaps over time. She urged greater attention to inequities within the K-12 system, at one point referring to access to trigonometry as a civil rights issue. She mentioned that Latinos (her term) are 1 out of every 5 college students in America, and that the majority of babies being born in the US now aren’t white. With numbers like those, equity and inclusion are practical necessities.
The really compelling parts of her talk, for me, were when she moved away from the statistics and started addressing context. Without spelling it out in so many words, she argued for valuing implicit knowledge. That came through both in her discussion of the importance of including members of various populations in program design and in her discussion of the politics of getting these programs adopted and funded.
She got a knowing laugh from the audience when she asked “Have you ever tried to fill out a college financial aid form in Spanish?” She clarified that the issue isn’t translation of words, exactly, but translation into “the language of the community.” Some of that is the inevitable violence that legal/bureaucratic processes perform on language, but some of it has to do with the fact that Spanish-speaking populations are not a monolith. Students coming from Mexico may have very different idioms and expectations than students from Honduras. An approach that might work well in the Rio Grande Valley might fall flat in Florida. Having people present at the policy table from the local community – and not just one who has to speak for everybody – makes it easier to avoid those mistakes. She followed with a reference to Prudence Carter’s line that there’s desegregation, there’s integration, and then there’s inclusion. The third is the most difficult, but also the most effective.
The point about context was all the more important when someone in the audience asked her about the politics of it all. Simply put, the priority on equity is not universally shared. How to make interventions sustainable when large parts of the community are opposed? I perked up at the question, wondering how she’d answer. The short answer was that context matters. Arguments that work in one setting may need to be adjusted for another. I reflected back to her early statement that inclusion is an economic development issue. It is, of course – you can’t have huge segments of the population relegated to the margins without losing a lot of potential production – but that’s not how it’s usually framed. In some settings, though, that framing may be the one that expands the coalition willing to take the issue seriously. She ended by saying it’s time to “architect a real American opportunity.” Leaving aside the use of “architect” as a verb – not a fan – I was struck by the sudden inclusion of “American” in the exhortation. There’s no reason to cede national pride to those who use it to exclude. In fact, leaving it to those who would use it to exclude only solidifies their assumption that they’re the “real” Americans. “Real” Americans are people who live here, no matter where they came from. Own it.
It was a hopeful start to the conference. On to day two.