A coalition of civil rights organizations has concrete suggestions for Congress as it considers how to update the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA).

That law informs a vast array of college, university and post-graduate issues, from the provision and terms of student grants and loans to funding educational institutions themselves.

Since the law was last updated 11 years ago, there have been “significant changes to the student body in the country. It’s overdue for an update,” said Liz King of the Leadership Conference Education Fund (LCEF) on an August 30, 2019 telebriefing with ethnic news media.

The LCEF, with almost four dozen other organizations, recently drafted a list of 10 recommendations to Congress to consider “to achieve equity and protect civil rights.”

That document, “Civil Rights Principles for Higher Education” (https://tinyurl.com/LCEF7-19), describes a host of challenges that are particularly steep for students of color pursuing college educations.

Nicole Dooley of the NAACP spoke of “unprecedented challenges and significant barriers for minority students.”  Other speakers included Adrienne Elliott of the National Indian Education Association, Stephanie Roman of UnidosUS and Quyen Dinh of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

Among the challenges the coalition is urging Congress to address are enforcing civil rights laws that protect students who face discrimination over their skin color, foreign birth, pregnancy, sexual orientation, age or other factors.

Another is for-profit institutions and predatory lenders that saddle students with debt that limits their ability to study while still in school and their financial well-being upon graduation.

Overcoming these barriers is “at the center of what the HEA was created to do,” Roman said.

Higher education is understood within the Latino community as “still a person’s best chance of getting a good job and achieving social mobility,” Roman said.  Twenty percent of college students now are Latino, but “completion remains a problem, especially if students borrow and don’t graduate.”  A third of those burgeoning numbers of Latino students don’t graduate.

Three-quarters of Latino college students are the first in their families to attend college and many have to take out loans to do so, which has “serious implications” for their success, Roman said.

Adrienne Elliott described a typical path a Native American student might travel on the way to college: elementary and high school environments where racism, myths and stereotypes about their cultures thrive, but resources to prepare them for higher education, even for things as simple as applying, are absent.

For such a student, Elliott said, “the barriers to higher education begin long before they become a high school senior” and continue through adulthood when they are raising their own children and paying their own bills.

Asked about the circumstances of students from indigenous backgrounds such as Mixtecs and Zapotecs from Mexico, Elliott emphasized the coalition’s recommendation to dis-aggregate data on education, to better distinguish the circumstances of different population segments.

Quyen Dinh also highlighted the urgency of disaggregating data.  When relatively good numbers are touted for Asian American students in general, the “extreme challenges” faced by the largest refugee community in the country – people from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who have been in the United States for decades – are overlooked.  “The first step to addressing inequities for these students is to be seen,” Dinh noted, and that means more specific data.

Other recommendations from the coalition include ensuring adequate funding for historically black universities or HBUs and other institutions that serve underrepresented populations, better teacher training and a renewed emphasis on improving graduation rates.

For black students, college enrollment is decreasing even as high school graduation rates improve, the coalition’s report found.

Although the coalition’s focus is on higher education, speakers also cited broader needs for more culturally competent resources, such as for the five million English language learners in the U.S. K-12 system, or the lack of access to Internet in the reservations.

Asked about opposition to their recommendations, Liz King cited President Trump  and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for “creating opportunities for exploitation of students” and North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, former chair and currently ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, for “undermining all of the issues that we speak to in our principles and in our policy recommendations.

“We have seen opposition to the rights of immigrants and the rights of language minorities. We have seen opposition to LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. We have seen opposition to black people, other people of color and to native peoples’ success in the country.  But we are confident that if we all come together, we will be able to advance higher education policy that ensures equity and equal opportunity.”

Mark Hedin is a reporter with Ethnic Media Services.