SAT, AP—RIP, College Opportunities for Low Income Students and Students of Color—dream at your own risk…

Written By Jasmine D. Gary

Earlier this year, the College Board (parent of the SAT), announced several changes to its exam and services as part of a redesign effort. For those who qualify to take the SAT for free, College Board is doling out up to four college application fee waivers.

For some students, standardized college-entrance exams are a barrier to college because of costs, test anxiety, or lack of academic preparation. Advanced Placement (AP) courses and other higher level courses such as Calculus and other high level English language arts courses, are viewed as courses that can prepare students for higher levels of course work, similar to what they will see in college. Students that enroll in such courses gain necessary skills and knowledge that propel them into more rigorous learning. However, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, Black and Latino students make up 37% of students in U.S. high schools but only 27% of students enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course. Students not only need to have access to such rigorous courses, but be supported to enroll and complete such courses if they aspire to attend college.

But even if they are prepared academically, they may feel anxiety about sitting for a long testing period to complete a test that determines such an important part of their future. But still, if they feel they can brave sitting for the test, being able to pay the testing fee may also be an issue. ​

Recognizing the financial barrier of college entrance exams for low-income students, college entrance programs and organizations have begun offering participants fee waivers for exams. However, the road to enrolling and attending college doesn’t stop after sitting for an exam or completing an application. Students must also submit that application, usually with a fee ranging from $50 to $150 per application. For most low-income students, this one application may pose a challenge for them and their family budget. They earned good grades, took the exam, scored well, completed a college application to a university that has their program of interest, but now what? This should not be the end point for any student. This goes against the notion that one will be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and use their education as a means out of poverty.

I commend the College Board for taking this bold step to improve outcomes for low-income students. The College Board’s redesign, in my opinion, is call for state and local administrators and educators to step up to the plate and help all students, especially low-income students to excel. At the end of their high school careers, low-income students can have a waiver to take the SAT and apply to four post secondary institutions of their choice. The barriers to applying to post secondary education would no longer be financial. The only barrier would be academic preparation for the SAT through rigorous course work, instructional supports for those students in need, and access to AP courses. State officials, education administrators, and district level administrators and educators would need to ensure that the academic and social-emotional needs of all students, especially low-income students, are addressed so that they may have the educational experiences that would enable them to use this opportunity. This means higher standards, instructional supports for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities (SwD), and most importantly, innovative ways to allow teachers to maximize their time with students and in schools.
Up to this point in this post, my mind was optimistic with the idea that more young people would be able to see their college dreams come to life. Unfortunately, after I drafted this post the residents of Ferguson, Missouri saw a different picture of possibilities for their youth. Michael Brown, a recent high school graduate set to start college at the end of the summer, was fatally shot to death by a police officer. He was unarmed. My heart is very sad about this and the many incidents of police brutality and gun violence. What good is it if our youth have great opportunities but their chance of receiving them gets cut short by such acts of violence?

Fighting the Good Fight: Is There a Place for Activism in Academia?

Fannie Lou Hamer hands up

Photo of Mississippi voting activist Fannie Lou Hamer, June 1963.

Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

“But you see now baby, whether you have a ph.d., d.d. or no d, we’re in this bag together. And whether you are from Morehouse or Nohouse, we’re still in this bag together.” — Fannie Lou Hamer

With the recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent civilian protests and militarization of the Ferguson Police department, I’ve been feeling a type of way. I’m feeling tired and sad. I’m thankful that I get to hug my own Michael Brown every day, but afraid that at any moment that privilege could be taken away. But most of all, I’m frustrated. Frustrated that unarmed black people keep getting killed by police and vigilantes, and then slandered in the media. Frustrated that 50+ years have passed since the civil rights movement, and I will still have to teach my future child(ren) about how things are different for them because they are black in America, that they must take extra care just to stay alive. Frustrated that even if they do everything right, no matter how tailored their clothing or how many degrees they earn, sometimes people will treat them as if they are less than human. I want to DO something about it. I want to get in my car and drive to Missouri to march, protest, yell and scream. Do SOMETHING. But I feel like my hands are tied. I worry about how my activism might affect my career. When it comes time for job applications and interview requests, I consider whether I’d be placed in a box as “combative”, “militant” and “not committed to her science/work” right before being placed in the “not interested” pile. I know these things shouldn’t matter to me, and that it is important that my voice be heard, but I still worry. And I ask myself: “Is there is a place for activism in academia?”

From my experience, the greatest emphasis in academia is placed on doing exemplary and innovative science. You are expected to spend some of your time doing other things, whether it be teaching or mentoring students or community outreach (which should always be science related). Otherwise, you should be working in the lab, writing a grant proposal, giving talks at conferences or submitting a journal article for review in top journals. Anything else is considered a distraction, and should be excised from the budding scientist’s list of priorities.

With federal funding for STEM research in a precarious position created by sequestration and the subsequent slashing of funding agency budgets, followed by the abrupt removal of job security during the government shutdown, scientist-activism has found an opportunity to blossom. There are advocacy programs where researchers can spend a day in Washington, lobbying lawmakers to place a greater value on the potential of scientific America, to increase scientific funding and to find ways to better distribute funding for research. In fact, you can read about one experience here. Others arrange carpools to the nation’s capitol to picket and protest the current state of scientific funding. Still other academics organize campaigns to write letters to governors, congress, and anyone who will listen about the dire financial predicament that science finds itself in today. These people argue passionately for their cause and sometimes even inspire change. But again, this activism is science-related and thus convincing to the powers that be that it’s ok to devote a bit of time to this activity. Thus, this type of activism meets general approval.

Things get trickier when it comes to activism for things affecting scientists outside of the lab. Things like immigration reform. Women’s reproductive health. Race-related killings by the police. I watch (tenured) professors like Tricia Rose in the Africana Studies department of Brown University vigorously advocate for social justice on television and in their classrooms, with a sense of envy. I also wonder how many bright students gravitate toward the social sciences because of perceived ability to be vocal about issues of social justice in those fields, and a sense of intolerance for that type of expression in ours.

To a lowly postdoc, it appears that their tenured status and already successful careers make it easier for professors in the social sciences to speak up without fear of retribution; in fact many of them have made a lasting mark on their fields simply because of their passionate pleas for social equality and justice. But why shouldn’t that also extend to early career investigators, and for that matter, to professors in the hard sciences? Why should they have to pretend that issues that directly affect them and their daily lives, are of lesser consequence than getting that fantastic paper published in the “right journal”?

As part of the intelligentsia, it is tempting to believe we should be above the fray, caring only about what the scientific method and our own intellect can tell us about the world. But we shouldn’t forget that many of the social issues being debated and protested today affect all of us (and our science). Graduate students who worried about their family being detained and deported may have a hard time focusing on their work. Professors who have to worry about being arrested or even killed for being the wrong skin color in a certain part of town may have the same problem. So why shouldn’t they be allowed space and time to advocate for social change?

I believe that the passion of young professionals for changing the world around them and for making a difference should be seen as an asset. Because, honestly, isn’t that what science is all about? We all want to find the solutions to the problems of the world. Scientific discovery is a tried and true way to achieve that goal. And activism, in its many forms, is a valid pathway to lasting change within our society as well. As Fannie Lou Hamer says in the opening quote: “We’re in this bag together.” Maybe it’s time we started acting like it.