prep school

In pursuit of college readiness, a course about "Assimilation"

Mitch Kurz leads students through a true/false quiz about the psychology of dreams.

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurz worked as advertising executive before cashing out— to the tune of millions of dollars — and getting involved in education. Already a trustee of Teach for America, he joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2002 and now serves on the board of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Kurz believes city students fear college and sometimes struggle once they get there because they lack the vocabulary of the dominant college-going culture. At least at selective schools and schools outside of New York City, first-generation college students from urban high schools are a rarity, he said.

“We know adapting to the social environment of college, away from home, can be forbidding for tons of kids. [Alumni] would come back and say, ‘In my dorm room or in the hall or the cafeteria, these conversations would take place, and I never felt like I could participate in them,'” Kurz said.

So he designed a class to give the students something he thought they lacked: social capital, or, as he describes it, “All the non-academic stuff that makes up social intelligence, small talk, making conversation — even something as mundane as table manners. … Many young people have this, depending on their upbringing, but almost none of our students have it.”

Kurz’s recipe for social capital involves a crash course in foreign languages, religion, and schmoozing, in addition to other more academic subjects meant to introduce students to features of the liberal arts, such as sociology and psychology. His syllabus assigns each week a big idea, such as “happiness” or “social currency,” and breaks it down into wide-ranging content.

One day, students learned the rules of dreidel, the game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On another, they simulated eating at a formal dinner party, using plastic silverware and plates to practice dining etiquette. This week, Kurz used photos from his advertising days to teach students the meaning of the golden ratio — a mathematical concept related to image proportions.

The curriculum can seem to careen from one subject to the next, but researchers say the approach has important value.

“The premise of the class is solid,” said Will Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies college readiness. “The idea is supported by research that there are social adjustment challenges first-generation students face — particularly when they go to highly selective colleges and universities where there is a much smaller group of minority, working class students and a lack of information about how to function in college in ways that require familiarity with white, upper-middle-class culture.”

But Perez — who researches education, race and cultural capital — also cautioned that a course meant to explicitly introduce students to those cultural differences would necessarily walk a fine line between teaching students tools for adaptation and suggesting that their own cultural backgrounds are inferior.

The course title would suggest that Kurz aims to help his students become more like the middle-class children of professionals that he expects them to encounter in college. But he said his goal is not to press the students to change themselves but to equip them with the tools to engage in cultural “code-shifting” — altering their behavior based on where they are and who they are with — so they can fit into unfamiliar settings when they want to.

Past lessons in Kurz's class include "How to make an elevator pitch," and "What is Hannukah?"

It’s a mission that resonates with Lisa Delpit, an education researcher who has argued that educators should initiate minority students into the “culture of power” through explicit instruction — not only so that they can succeed in it but also so that they can ultimately influence it.

“I don’t want us to limit where kids can go,” Delpit said. “I think some of the things he’s talking about, students may or may not see in a college setting, but they certainly could come up in some settings. There is power in learning about other settings and other cultures.”

It is less apparent how the course materials may be relevant to students who do not choose to attend liberal arts colleges outside of the city, or do not participate in formal networking events. But Delpit say these subjects can hold value regardless of what students pursue after high school.

Luisa Diaz, a 2011 graduate of Bronx Center, said Kurz let students know right away that he wanted them to head off to college with their own identities intact.

“The first thing he said was, “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to exclude some cultures and include others,” she said. “And everybody in the class’s culture in some way or another was incorporated into the discussions.” For example, Diaz said, Kurz made sure everyone had a crash course in Spanish vocabulary — creating an opportunity for Latino students to share about their backgrounds.

Diaz, now a freshman at Hunter College, said some of the lessons have already come up countless times in her post-high school life.

“We’re studying in college right now the different stages of the human being — id, alter-ego, psychology,” she said. “I came into my religion class once and that was the first thing [the professor] put on the board, and I was the first one to raise her hand. Everyone was in awe, and I was saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Kurz,’ in my head.”

Kurz said he takes his own lessons to heart by challenging himself to leave his comfort zone — in his case, by carrying a grade-book stored in a colorful folder featuring the face of teen pop icon Justin Bieber.

“One of the ways you can make yourself feel more welcome in an environment is to make fun of yourself,” he explained to the students when they laughed about the notebook. “Everyone is more comfortable with people who don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Laura Rivera, a senior, said Kurz’s class inspired her to apply to colleges outside of New York City.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “And it’s helped me connect all my classes together. At first I thought, maybe I want to stay in New York, have my mom do my laundry and cook. Now, all my colleges are ‘aways,’ with exception of CUNY.”

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.

down to the wire

As New York’s free college tuition debate heats up, experts weigh in on whether a flawed tuition bill is worth passing

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

With the state budget deadline approaching, it’s not yet clear whether New York state will make a historic investment in tuition-free college — but it is almost certain that not everybody will get what they want.

With the three key plans — from the governor, Assembly and Senate — on the table, lawmakers now have to decide which aspects of the proposal makes it into the final deal. The governor’s original Excelsior Scholarship proposal offered free tuition at state colleges for families earning less than $125,000 per year. The Assembly wants more help for low-income students and more flexible requirements, and the Senate wants private colleges to also receive a boost.

In the midst of this heated discussion, panelists at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs tackled the question: Is a “bad” bill better than no bill?

Here are their answers:

Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Answer: Yes.

What’s a bad bill here? Everything that you’re discussing can be made more perfect. But please know that you’re talking about the future not only of New Yorkers here, but of people across the country. This is a nascent idea. It’s a difficult idea and it is gathering steam and for New York to step into the fray, even with an imperfect proposal, is very important, and it would be a major step backward to take if off the table. There are lots of states and lots of students around the country watching New York, and I think that the chance for New York and Albany to make history here is really very present.

This conversation and this dynamic is going to continue to play out across the country and it’s absolutely imperative that this moves forward. We should make it as good as it can be and then we should make it better over time.

Kimberly Cline, president, Long Island University

Answer: It really should include private colleges.

We would like to see a bill … that tied more into TAP [the state’s Tuition Assistance Program] because we feel that TAP has not been moved up in a long time, so students have not had the benefit of that. And that could benefit both public and independent colleges and the economy of New York state.

Mike Fabricant, first vice president, Professional Staff Congress, CUNY

Answer: It’s got to stay free. It’s got to stay public. It’s got to help CUNY.

To make is more perfect, I would stay with two things the governor’s done: One, conceptually to speak about free tuition is an incredibly important moment and a critically important point. For him to speak about undocumented students and others to be included is extraordinarily important and we have to hold him accountable on that … And finally, not including privates … is incredibly important as we move in the other direction to invest in public universities.

That said, we also need to be dealing with the other side of the equation, which is in fact the capacity …. My feeling is we spend so much time on the affordability side and we lack parts of capacity to pay for affordability.

Assemblymember James Skoufis, who represents Orange and Rockland Counties. (Skoufis drafted a letter, signed by 30 Assembly members, that called for a tuition plan with softer credit requirements, a raised income threshold and a boost for low-income students.)

Answer: We should fight for more, but in the end, we should do something.

There are some purists in the legislature and I’m not one who believes we should let the perfect get in the way of the good. I’ve been critical of the governor’s proposal in that it only helps 32,000 additional students. That’s the projected number of students who will benefit from his Excelsior Scholarship. I think it should be many, many, many more than that, but look, who am I to say if I’m one of those 32,000 students that gets help that it’s not a big deal to them?

What we have to be wary [of] is that, if the governor’s proposal moves forward or some similar version to it, that we all just don’t celebrate and say “OK, we’ve accomplished free tuition in New York” and now it’s off the table and we don’t try to make it better. That’s the one fear that I do have, that if we do get some watered-down version of free tution that people are going to sort of rest on their laurels on this issue and it’s going to be considered done. So that is one thing I’m wary of, but yeah, we’ve got to do something here. Strike while the iron’s hot.

Kevin Stump, Northeast director of Young Invincibles

Answer: We have to be really, really careful

This is a national moment, this coming from New York right now. This coming from a [possible] presidential nominee for 2020. This is a big deal that will have consequences here on out, which is why it matters to get it right. Because we’re not going to have another moment like this in New York. This is going to set the tone for states across the country, which is why advocates who have been doing this in New York for years are concerned that we’re just going to do this, wash our hands, and walk away. Leave the universities with even greater budget holes and continue to do nothing for the most [needy] students who already have their tuition paid for and already can’t afford to pay for the non-tuition related costs, which make up the majority of getting a college degree. So we need to continue to push and have a conversation about what investment means — and it’s certainly more than $163 million.