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The real problem for Black college students | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, GOP (and Dems) don’t get what’s really immoral about America’s defense budget.

I can’t imagine a story that saddens and sickens me more than the drowning of a child. Today, this is the big story here in Philly, as the search continues in Bucks County for two small children swept away by floodwaters on Saturday when about six inches of rain fell in less than two hours, thanks to our hot, moist skies fueled by climate change. Nationally, the Houston Chronicle’s Ben Wermund has a stunning scoop that Texas authorities ordered state troopers to push migrant children back into the dangerous Rio Grande.

We are ignoring global warming to instead funnel resources into inhumanity at the border. America has its head screwed on backwards. I am in despair.

📮 Last week’s question about President Joe Biden’s controversial decision to send cluster bombs — banned by many of the world’s nations because of the increased risk of civilian casualties — drew a large and impassioned response. Most of you agree with me that it’s a terrible move. “My son pointed out that those cluster bombs both look like toys to children, and also have a high percentage of duds, so the possibility would exist that Ukraine kids might, for several years hence, be picking up those things and getting their arms blown off, or worse,” wrote Evan Meyer. Added Jeff Trionfante: “The excuse is that more civilians may be killed if Russia is not slowed down. Not a convincing argument.” Right.

This week’s question: Was the Supreme Court right or wrong to strike down affirmative action in college admissions? How can our universities increase Black and brown enrollment? For a chance to be featured in my newsletter, email me your answer.

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The real ‘affirmative action’ is college that young Black and brown people could afford

The big story around higher education this summer has the U.S. Supreme Court ending more than a half-century of affirmative action in college admissions — raising questions about future campus diversity, not to mention the diploma dreams of striving Black and brown high school students.

But the High Court ruling isn’t the issue facing Philadelphia’s Jeron Williams II, an ambitious 18-year-old African American who had no problem getting into his top pick — Temple University, where he can study entrepreneurship while saving thousands of dollars by living and eating at home, just 20 or so blocks away in Strawberry Mansion.

No, Williams’ real college problem is one he shares with millions of other young Americans: How on earth are he and his family going to pay for it?

Williams, who graduated from the city’s selective Central High School this spring, told me that even after maxing out on the federal student loan programs, his out-of-pocket costs for Temple were initially pegged at over $6,000 for 2023-24, and he fears that could now top $7,000 after the North Philadelphia university — ghosted by the state lawmakers who once provided considerable aid — announced a more-than 4% tuition hike.

Those are dollars that neither Williams nor his parents have right now, with the start of fall classes just 41 days away.

“It’s been causing a strain in my family,” said Williams, who has long dreamed of becoming the first member of his immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree. He remains optimistic he’ll be in a classroom this August after his dad assured him he will find a way to get the money. But he said there’s a chance he’ll instead take a “gap year” working locally for the VISTA Corps service program, which could result in a $7,000 scholarship for 2024-25.

Williams is, in many ways, a perfect symbol of America’s deeply imperfect system of higher education. I closely watched the Supreme Court debate and its ruling to bar race-based college admissions, which has major moral ramifications and was, in my opinion, wrongly decided.

Yet, after deeply researching and writing a book on the roots of our declining faith in college, and the political ramifications, I think what’s happening with affirmative action barely scratches the surface of why the one-time American Dream of a diploma is slipping away from many families, especially in Black and brown neighborhoods. Instead, the die was cast when America decided to privatize higher education amid the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”

There was actually a time at the end of 1970swhen affirmative action had more backing both from voters and under the law, and, more importantly, public-university tuition was low — when Black college enrollment was about the same as the proportion of African Americans in the population. That moment of progress has slowly slipped away as tuition skyrocketed, and massive debt became the only way many working-class kids could attend.

From 2010 — a recession year marked, not coincidentally, by steep cuts in state higher-ed funding — through now, Black college enrollment has fallen by roughly 30%. That occurred, remember, while affirmative action was still legal. White enrollment also dropped during those years, but by notably lower amounts.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand that when government dollars disappear, tuition for students and their families fills the gap. Nowhere has that happened more dramatically than right here in Pennsylvania. By 2021, the Keystone State ranked 49th among the 50 states in public higher education funding per full-time student. At the same time, a separate report ranked Pennsylvania the third-most expensive in America for the cost of attending a public institution — with an average annual price tag of $26,040 for in-state students, a whopping 70% higher than the national rate. Those are the extra dollars causing so much stress for families like the Williams’.

This happened over decades — government support for higher-ed from Harrisburg went from about 75% in the late 1980s to less than 25% now — and so the impact was like a frog in boiling water, with little outcry. University underfunding — which threatens the diploma dreams of so many Pennsylvania families — wasn’t even an issue in the 2022 governor’s race. And now, as political conservatives have lost faith in the very concept of higher education, the lack of state support is happening two ways: gradually and suddenly.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House took advantage of a loophole to block funding for four state-supported universities — Temple, Penn State, Pitt, and historically Black Lincoln — which needed a two-thirds vote to allocate $650 million for lowering tuition for in-state students. GOPers cited a range of issues including the so-called “culture war,” such as university health systems performing gender-affirming transgender health care. Few right-wing lawmakers seemed to care that they were raising tuition for their own constituents.

Democratic State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Temple alum whose district includes the university, told me that “watching some House Republicans stand, clap, laugh, and cheer as funding was withheld takes the cake. Cruelty is the point and tragically, even in the slimmest of minorities” — Dems have a one-vote advantage in the House — “they are using whatever power they have to harm students and middle class families.”

Temple has had a rough year that included the ouster of controversial president Jason Wingard, a contentious grad-student strike, and the killing of a campus police officer amid rising crime fears. Enrollment has been falling. There couldn’t be a worse time to cut state funding and hike tuition. On a campus that was created in the 19th century to educate Philadelphia’s growing middle class, the impact on young men like Jeron Williams II is devastating.

“I want my parents and my family to have pride in me,” said the 18-year-old. Involved in a blizzard of extracurricular activities including student government, the loquacious Williams admits his grades at Central suffered but says he aced the SATs and now he has big plans for Temple, perhaps running for student body president. If he can afford to go, that is.

“There is this traffic pipeline, especially for Black inner-city kids, who don’t make it out of high school, don’t graduate — and don’t see 18,” Williams told me. This youth, who celebrated his 18th birthday a couple of weeks ago, said he is determined to flip that script. Right now, he is feeling optimistic. After a recent call with his father that Williams described as “heartfelt,” he said “my family has assured me we will figure it out.”

Society should have figured out how to make higher education open and accessible to kids like him a long time ago. We’ve been so focused on an important but narrow debate over race and admissions at a handful of elite campuses, yet the greatest barriers to elevating our striving young Black and brown people into the middle class through higher education are the economic hurdles we’ve erected. Shame on the so-called grown-ups in Harrisburg and everywhere else who are failing Jeron Williams II, and so many like him.

Yo, do this

  1. When did the hate affair between much of the American public and its beleaguered news media actually begin? Heather Hendershot, a professor of film and media at MIT, makes a more-than compelling argument that we can pinpoint the last week of August 1968, when the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was rocked by a violent police riot against street protesters — and millions turned against NBC, CBS, and ABC for bringing the conflict into their living room. Her newish book When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America is both a fascinating look at how the news worked (or didn’t) in the pre-internet age, and also how we got to our grim present.

  2. My editors told me during the newsletter launch back in 2020 that this section should be about what I’m reading, watching, etc. — apparently unaware that no one else is watching what I watch. Case in point: A surprise visit home from my adult son Friday night was the perfect excuse to finally watch one of the greatest documentaries of all-time, Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Academy Award-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. It’s a stunning look at a desperate strike by besieged Kentucky coal miners against a cartoonishly evil Duke Power, with moments of actual violence and real tension captured on film. In a new moment of labor unrest, her film is a remarkable tribute to the power of class solidarity. It’s currently streaming on Max.

Ask me anything

Question: With [Bryce] Harper playing first [and] someone coming in from the trade, what chance does Rhys Hoskins have of remaining with the team? Bat spiking fans want to know. — Via Tu Huynh (@kaleotu) on Twitter

Answer: It’s been a while since I answered a Phillies question, maybe because I was waiting for the team to heat up after a slow start. One of the main reasons for that slow start was the gruesome spring-training injury to Hoskins, their home-run-hitting first baseman and wildly liked clubhouse leader. With his contract expiring, this season was meant to prove whether Rhys is the guy who hit that inspiring, bat-spiking dinger against the Braves, or the guy who had a long hitless streak preceding it. The analytics are probably going to tell the front office to let him walk, but to me his intangible value as a team leader is priceless. Bring him back!

Backstory on what’s really immoral in Pentagon $$$ fight

For the first time in decades, Washington’s remarkable bipartisan consensus over the biggest line item in the federal budget — an ever-booming Pentagon budget on track to pass $1-trillion-a-year before the middle of the 2020s — is falling apart. Last week, the annual Pentagon spending blowout passed the narrowly GOP-led House by just a 219-210 margin, with a flurry of amendments that are likely to be rejected by the Senate, setting up a showdown for later this year. The problem has nothing to do with the routine scoops about waste, fraud, and abuse in defense contracting, or the fact that the United States continues to spend more than the world’s next 10 biggest militaries combined. No, D.C.’s love affair with expensive killing machines is collapsing over “wokeness.”

“We’re cutting the woke out of the military,” announced South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, who said House Republicans are “getting this country back on a conservative basis.” Those cuts include Republican-backed amendments that block the Defense Department from reimbursing service members who travel out-of-state to undergo an abortion, providing gender-affirming health care for transgender troops, and diversity initiatives. These are all considered “poison pills” by Democrats. The House Democratic leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, said, “Extreme MAGA Republicans have hijacked a bipartisan bill that is essential to our national security and taken it over and weaponized it in order to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people.”

Democrats like Jeffries have been all over friendly outlets like MSNBC and liberal Trump-resister types have been fired up on Twitter, slamming the GOP for failing to support the troops in an era of a more openly diverse fighting force. I certainly agree that the Republicans’ efforts to impose their extremist, backwards views on social issues on the armed forces are a travesty. But I can’t help but wonder why the culture wars at the Pentagon have today’s left so fired up, when there’s barely been a peep about the bigger, ongoing obscenity of how much the United States spends on weapons while so many crises here at home remain unaddressed.

There was virtually no outcry last month when Congress and President Joe Biden struck a landmark deal around spending issues and raising the federal debt ceiling that exempted the Pentagon, and little else, from a spending freeze. This means the budget for tanks and fighter jets will continue to grow, even as spending on things like ending infant mortality, fighting food insecurity, or fixing collapsing bridges will barely tread water. The hawks on Capitol Hill insist the dollars for ammo are needed to keep pace with Chinese militarism, even though America now spends three times as much money on defense as Beijing. The rare voices of sanity, like California Rep. Barbara Lee, co-sponsor of a People Over the Pentagon bill that would immediately slash $100 billion from the bloated Pentagon budget, are rarely seen on TV — not when compared to a red-meat issue like “the woke Pentagon.” As a boomer who grew up with the horrors of My Lai and napalm on the nightly news, I’m horrified to see the best minds of my generation turning a blind eye to the threat to democracy posed by unchecked militarism. It’s great that our troops can fly a Pride flag, but there need to be fewer troops.

What I wrote on this date in 2011

The U.S. job market wasn’t always booming. I got a flashback to what things were like during the Great Recession as I re-read my Attytood blog post from July 18, 2011, trying to reconcile the fact that the American telecommunications industry had seen profits soar — even during the 2008 financial crisis — yet slashed 20% of its non-union workforce. I wrote: “So from everything I can tell from the article, the lack of hiring has nothing to do with ‘uncertainty over the national debt’ or ‘Obamacare’ or all the reasons that people keep shouting at me from my AM button on my car radio. Nope, like a lot of businesses they’re not hiring because they don’t need to.” I explored the paradox of modern capitalism in my piece from 12 years ago titled, “Another reality check on why there are no jobs.”

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. I’m starting to get back into the flow of columnizing after my recent vacation. Over the weekend, the endless string of weather emergencies — culminating in Bucks County’s flash flood blamed for five deaths, with an ongoing search for two small children swept away by the floodwaters — had climate change on my mind. I called on President Biden to address the nation from the Oval Office and declare a national emergency that would be the moral equivalent of a war on global warming. I doubt this will happen.

  2. On one or two occasions, I’ve used this space to brag on The Inquirer for employing one of the best soccer writers in America in my friend Jonathan Tannenwald, who in addition to his stellar coverage of my beloved Philadelphia Union has also done yeoman’s work in elevating the women’s game to parity. I guess his editors see it the same way I do, since they rewarded his hard work — not to mention his many readers — by supporting his travels halfway across the planet to cover the Women’s World Cup finals that kick off Friday in Australia and New Zealand. The American back-to-back defending champions start their pursuit of a third straight title that night against Vietnam (hopefully not a grudge match). Check out his preview of a revamped U.S. team, and a look at some of the superstars they’ll need to beat. Then it’s time for you to finally subscribe to The Inquirer, because you’re going to want to follow this entire month of soccer heaven Down Under.