Delightful Museum Surprise

Lincoln -- Recently I visited the Museum of American Speed on Oak Creek Drive in Lincoln. It's not well-known but should be. One does not have to be a car or racing enthusiast to enjoy and admire the immense historical collection, the care with which it is presented, and the story behind the local businessman who made it all happen.

Like several other noteworthy museums and sites in the city and state, it is more of a secret than a popular destination, unfortunately. The Nebraska Prairie Museum in Holdrege likewise comes to mind. Because I came across both of these places more by accident than design, I have a sinking feeling that there are many other such places I am missing.

We Nebraskans should show more interest in our own history. It distinguishes us from the rest of the country in many ways. We should resist easy homogenization into a bland national culture that relegates us to being so-called flyover country. Through our museums and historical sites, we should also resist me-too fads and fashions in analysis and presentation of our history.

To do this, we need first-rate state and local historians and citizen support. The trends are not good. This year, the Nebraska State Historical Society has suffered the premature deaths of three irreplaceable historians. The state university has not had a specialist in Nebraska history for many years. I can understand, appreciate, and defend the UNL history department's expertise in esoteric areas like Coptic civilization and Italian fascist architecture. In fact, as an alumnus I make annual donations to the College of Arts and Sciences to help support such scholarship and gladly support the College with taxes. I believe these subjects are actually more timely and relevant than they might appear at first glance. But these are also subjects of importance to higher learning institutions everywhere. Who is watching out for Nebraska state and local history?

It is a mystery as to why regents, legislators, or others in a position to do so do not make Nebraska history a higher priority. More faculty expertise in Nebraska state and local history would help guide graduate students into the field as well. Many great Nebraska topics are waiting for the attention they deserve in a master's thesis or a doctoral dissertation. It is commendable that local museums and volunteer historians do their best with the resources at hand, but we Nebraskans should be treating our history with the attention and respect it demands if we truly care about our state.



Forty Advocacy Groups Write for Action Long Overdue

Washington -- The trade paper Inside Higher Ed reports this week on a letter from forty organizations that asks the Department of Education to inquire into the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” the letter avows.

Actually, the department has known of the disparity for nearly fifteen years. When I worked at the National Center for Education Research in 2002, I looked at the matter and found that low-income African Americans were being burdened disproportionately with student debt. In a paper in which I investigated the responses of colleges and universities to changes in federal student loan and grant levels over time, I found that regardless of grant levels, loan levels for low-income blacks increased. This was not the case for any other group I investigated. Interestingly, when Pell grants went up, loan burdens decreased for middle and upper income groups of all races and ethnicities (Pell grants being fungible) but loan burdens actually increased for low-income blacks. What was going on?

The department had no interest in the findings and no curiosity as to why I was getting these results. I asked the National Center for Education Statistics to publish its descriptive reports on student debt by race/by income, so the public could see the interactions between race and class, and so that other researchers could develop theories and hypotheses as to how and why federal aid programs were not working as intended for the low-come black population.

But NCES saw institutions as its clientele, and institutions insisted on completely separate reports for race and for class. One reason was that most colleges and universities by 2002 were committed to affirmative action by race and rejected the use of class-based affirmative action as a means of achieving racial and ethnic diversity. They had a compelling logic for this – cost. It was much easier on institutions' budgets to enroll middle and higher income blacks and Hispanics to meet diversity targets rather than to provide aid to the financially needy. Ironically, while institutions publicly disdained class-based affirmative action as inferior to race-based, they enthusiastically employed class as an overlay to race-based affirmative action when it came to their own budgets. They clearly favored the upper-income.

As long as the Department of Education did not report its statistics by combined race and class, institutions were able to talk a good game about commitment to racial diversity, and they do to this day. However, because institutions systematically shortchanged the low-income black population, the student debt crisis has understandably hit this group harder than others. Which is the reason forty advocacy groups have now demanded that the department track and address the issue.

The letter is excellent; action is long overdue.

Pell Grants for Prisoners Revisited

Lincoln -- As the Nebraska Department of Corrections lurches from one crisis to another -- three of the top seven stories in the Omaha newspaper today deal with this department's problems -- it's appropriate to recall a mistake at the national level that has contributed to prisoner recidivism and overcrowding all across the country.

In the 1990s, Congress cut off Pell grant access for prisoners. Prior thereto, many community colleges and other educational institutions had prison-based programs, paid for by Pell grants for prisoners. After the Pell termination, these programs largely disappeared for lack of funding.

Congressional politicians back then were impressed with an argument made by ill-informed families trying to pay for college: why should prisoners be getting Pell grants when their law-abiding children could not? The issue was twisted into the idea that law-breakers were taking Pell grants away from others more deserving of them.

Except it was not true. No otherwise eligible law-abiding student ever lost out on a Pell grant because a prisoner got one. That's because Pell grants were funded as a quasi-entitlement; one person's grant did not come at the expense of another's. Secretary Richard Riley at the U.S. Department of Education explained this to Congress, but was drowned out by many in the media who thought they had come across a scandal. Politicians who tried to explain the facts to their constituents came off as siding with criminals. So there have been no Pell grants for prisoners for over two decades.

There is now an effort to restore Pell for prisoners. I hope it is accepted. Many in prison could benefit from education and training. It would reduce recidivism and improve public safety. Governors should get behind it. Taxpayers should get behind it as well.

As a Nebraska taxpayer, I am angry about the messes at the Corrections Department and the huge costs required to clean them up. The Pell cut-off many years ago was unwise, but it does not excuse Nebraska for failing to step up with its own education and training programs. Many other states did. In recent years, several other state and local governments have had remarkable success with truck farming and horticulture programs, for example, to get prisoners trained and turned into gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens once they are released. I write this not out of compassion for those serving time for their misdeeds, but from a practical budgetary and public safety standpoint. How many more front-page stories of prisoner escapes, guard assaults, and personnel misbehavior must we read before state officials take the necessary action?



A Cold-Hearted Report on Student Loans

Washington -- The White House Council of Economic Advisors has released a head-scratcher of a study on student loans. The message? Not to worry. Current policy is hunky-dory, especially with all the added improvements accomplished by the Obama Administration.

While giving full credit to the Administration's achievements, I believe the consensus of policy experts (that is, those without vested interests) holds that current higher education policy at both federal and state levels is a mess and the country is headed in the wrong direction in paying for college. This is reflected in the national political debates and all the activity in think-tanks to come up with better programs that would deal more effectively to control escalating tuition fees and student debt.

In a rejoinder to the CEA report, Mark Huelsman asks the obvious question of current-policy apologists: compared to what? He writes, "Those of us concerned with student debt are not saying that students should avoid college, any more than we would complain about high rent and recommend homelessness instead."

What bothers me especially about the CEA report is its cold-heartedness. Current student loan policy, with its appalling default numbers and its shameful debt collection practices, has ruined the lives of countless borrowers and their families across the country. Too often it is the convoluted system itself that is to blame, a system the U.S. Department of Education has never effectively administered or regulated. Although I left the department in 2005, I still get calls and emails from borrowers across the country who are desperate for help. I only wish I could make things right for all of them. What I can do is register my profound disappointment at the CEA report for its insufficient attention to the very real human suffering brought about by current student loan policy.