Why the United States Should Improve Support for Colleges and Universities Serving Hispanic Students

President Obama has called upon the country to double the number of Americans with college credentials by 2020, but reaching that goal will be impossible without raising the educational attainment of Hispanics, the youngest and fastest growing U.S. ethnic group. People of Hispanic background are pursing college degrees at higher rates and now surpass African Americans as the largest share of non-white students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. But Hispanics still lag behind other groups in actually completing college work to attain their degrees. The reforms America must undertake to boost Hispanic graduation rates include enhancing resources for what the U.S. federal government labels “Hispanic-Serving Institutions” – that is, non-profit, degree-granting colleges and universities whose undergraduate enrollments include at least 25% full-time students of Hispanic descent. My work looks at the special challenges these institutions face and suggests useful steps forward. (more…)

Why Beards and Mustaches are Rare for Modern American Politicians

Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr CC

In January 2015, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin sported a new beard as he announced he would not seek the GOP presidential nomination for 2016. Commentators rightly connected the announcement to the new beard, because it has been more than a century since the presidency of William Howard Taft, the last White House incumbent with facial hair. In fact, ever since the mustachioed Taft completed his term in 1913, just a few years before American women won the right to vote, few U.S. politicians with facial hair have run for or served in national elected offices. Currently, fewer than five percent of the members of the U.S. Congress have beards or mustaches, according to recent estimates.

Although there has been little research about politicians’ facial hair, analysts have learned that voters make inferences about candidates based on appearance. Skin color, facial structure, and smiles all matter, because voters are ever on the lookout for short cuts, for easy clues to candidates’ issue positions and personal traits. Assessments of appearance are one way voters make guesses about candidates, so it is reasonable to assume that beards and mustaches could influence voter perceptions. Along with two colleagues, Jeanette Morehouse Mendez and Ben Pryor, I have done experiments showing that facial hair does indeed matter for politicians. (more…)

Why Universal and Life-long Higher Education is the Next Step in Advancing the Social Contract

Nearly a century after John Dewey published the landmark book Democracy and Education, the principles of learning he espoused for democratic societies are applicable to higher education. He saw education as the primary vehicle through which democracies develop socially responsible citizens, equipped with the knowledge, skills, and values to become full participants in the economy and democratic social order. By now it is clear that, in an increasingly complex and risk-filled world, all citizens require increasingly prolonged periods of learning beyond basic schooling. Higher education for all becomes a gateway to lifetimes of learning.

The Rapid Transformation of Higher Education

For most of its 800 year history, higher education has progressed at an evolutionary pace, but changes have come at a faster pace in the past generation – not only in the United States but around the world. According to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, the total number of students enrolled in higher education worldwide grew from 28 million in 1970 to 165 million in 2009 – and has been projected to reach 262 million by 2025. In the United States, meanwhile, higher education is in the midst of a veritable revolution, now serving as the main vehicle for lifelong learning. (more…)

Varieties of Civic Engagement in Contemporary America

Image by San Jose Library via Flickr CC

Educators and political leaders exhort Americans to be more civically engaged. Across the country, high schools require community “service learning” projects in the hope that students will pick up good habits. Local newscasts regularly tell people how they can “make a difference” by volunteering – joining walks to end hunger, tutoring a child, or re-painting an elderly person’s home for free. Civic action seems to be accomplished outside of the constraints – and bad influences – of money and bureaucracy, a matter of volunteering a few hours a week serving others; and it is portrayed as a sure-fire way to weave connections and trusting ties among otherwise atomized citizens. But my co-author and I have reviewed many studies and done our own close-up research on housing advocacy, youth service networks, and a variety of other civic undertakings. We find the standard images to be quite misleading. (more…)

In New Immigrant Destinations Across America, Many Poor Hispanic Babies are Hampered from the Start

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Nearly a quarter of all babies born in the United States are now Hispanics, yet many of these newborns start life’s race behind the starting line, poor and disadvantaged.  This issue might seem relevant only to longstanding metropolitan gateways for new immigrants, such as San Diego, New York, Chicago, and Miami. But today it matters for rural areas and small towns as well, because new immigrants have spread out all over the United States. Hispanics account for more than half of all the nonmetropolitan population growth in the 2000s, and in many parts of rural America from Alabama to Nebraska, growing numbers of Hispanics provide a demographic lifeline to dying small towns. Yet disproportionate and growing numbers of immigrant Hispanic children are born into poverty, and the difficult circumstances they face from before birth through childhood profoundly influence their adult contributions to American society. (more…)

Why U.S. States Vary in the Rights and Protections they Offer to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Residents

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Location, location, location is the mantra we often hear about the value of real estate – and the same principle applies to the rights and protections enjoyed by gays, lesbians, and bisexuals across the United States. Those who live in New England, along the West coast and in the Great Lakes states can marry whom they wish and are legally protected against hate crimes and discrimination in public accommodations and employment. In the rest of the country, however, such legal rights and protections are rarely found. Drawing on my own research and that of other scholars, this brief explores why this variation exists. Regional imitation, the presence of gay and lesbian legislators, public opinion, and institutional rules all turn out to matter.

Neighboring States Acting Together

Regional differences in public policies supporting gays and lesbians suggest that the importance of what scholars call “policy diffusion,” where policies adopted in one state spread to its neighbors as their citizens and officials see positive effects and move to imitate. In New England, for example, the process started when Massachusetts legislated against employment discrimination in 1988 and recognized same-sex marriages in 2004, and Vermont became the first state to formally recognize same-sex relationships by instituting civil unions in 2000. Similarly, California and Minnesota were early adopters, setting the stage for diffusion along the West coast and among Great Lakes states. California legislated against employment discrimination in 1992 and against hate crimes in 1999, and Minnesota took action in 1993. (more…)

The Impact of Family Obligations on Women’s Willingness to Seek Election to and Serve in U.S. Legislatures

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Half a century after the start of the modern feminist movement, American women make up only 19% of the U.S. Congress and just 24% of all state legislators. Many factors help to explain such severe underrepresentation – and one of the key issues is that political careers are particularly lacking in job flexibility. Elected officials work long hours, travel extensively, and cannot easily interrupt work obligations to care for children. Because women still do most of the housework and child care, challenges in balancing their obligations dissuade many from running for public offices, in the same way that women often avoid other inflexible careers like business leadership.

When women forego legislative careers, it matters not only for the individuals involved, but for states and the nation, because female politicians are more likely to raise issues and vote for policies that matter to women. With women underrepresented in the halls of government, our democracy not only misses out on vital talent; it cannot fully address everyone’s concerns. (more…)

How Educational Opportunities Can Help Disabled Americans Break out of Low-Wage Occupational Ghettos

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Why have aspirations to improve economic prospects for disabled Americans fallen short? Legal modifications and retrenchments have reduced the effectiveness of the Americans with Disabilities Act as a set of legal tools to counter discrimination. But broader supply-and-demand factors in the U.S. labor market have also played an important role. Employed disabled people tend to be clustered into certain occupations and industries, many of which offer low wages and constricted opportunities for advancement. The clustering of people with disabilities into certain low-wage occupations can amount to a form of occupational ghettoization, reinforcing labor market inequalities that leave disabled workers at a long-term disadvantage. To better understand how future public policies could boost economic prospects for disabled workers, my colleague Michelle Maroto and I have explored the processes that create – and might break down — occupational ghettos.

Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Remain Vital in U.S. Higher Education

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Many observers, including journalists, have sounded the alarm that historically black colleges and universities in the United States are in danger of losing their identity. “Historically Black Colleges are Becoming More White,” blares one headline; and another asks “White Students at Black Colleges: What Does It Mean for HBCUs?” Questions are being raised about the future of these longstanding institutions. That’s the great news. But the problem is that claims about what is happening in historically black colleges and universities are largely false and feed popular misunderstandings of their continuing nature and contributions.

The data are clear: although a small handful of these institutions have experienced a slight increase in non-black enrollment over the last decade, most did not. Race and economic class matter more than ever in the early twenty-first century United States, and students of color often report chilly racial climates at predominantly white universities. As a result, historically black colleges and universities remain very important for black Americans as stepping stones to opportunity and as safe places for black intellectual and personal development. (more…)

The Harm Done by Media Coverage of Political Disputes about Public Health Measures

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Media stories about measles outbreaks in California and Arizona have featured prominent politicians weighing in with conflicting messages. Should vaccination be required for all children with few exceptions? Are vaccines safe? Should parents have a choice – when refusing vaccines can put their own and other people’s children at grave risk? The stories are dramatic, but scholars and public officials warn that it is dangerous to turn vaccination into a political football. Other widely publicized controversies reveal that the insertion of politics into media coverage can be hard to reverse, as it may undermine public trust in doctors and public health officials.

Political Controversy Sticks

Our research examines two recent politically charged health controversies – the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening guidelines and the 2006-2007 debate over whether middle schools should require girls to get vaccinated against infections by the human papillomavirus (“HPV” for short). Specifically, we found that local and national media coverage did not start with a focus on political controversy. But once news stories started to highlight partisan arguments among political leaders, political controversies became the focus of subsequent coverage. (more…)