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The 74 Interview: University of California President and Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on DACA, Title IX and the Value of College

By Mark Keierleber | June 25, 2019

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See previous 74 interviews:Education Secretary Betsy DeVos outlines her school choice philosophy, former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue discusses the 21st century workforce, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers looks at putting the brakes on private school choice, and presidential candidate Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter.

Is the high price tag of college worth it?

In the United States, roughly 43 million people have outstanding student loan debt, totaling nearly $1.6 trillion. With such a startling debt burden, it’s no surprise an increasing share of Americans view college affordability as a major problem. Meanwhile, the public’s confidence in higher education has plunged in recent years.

The value of a college degree is among the questions Janet Napolitano is set to address this week as she, along with some of America’s top thinkers, treks to Colorado for the Aspen Ideas Festival. For Napolitano, president of the University of California system, the value of a college degree is absolutely worth the cost. Still, in a recent interview with The 74, she said it’s imperative that colleges be affordable for low-income families.

In 2003, Napolitano, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general in Arizona, became governor of Arizona, where she steered several education-related issues, including legislation to fund full-day kindergarten statewide.

Her focus on young people didn’t stop when she became secretary of homeland security under then-President Barack Obama in 2009. In that role, she drafted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which grants work permits and deportation relief to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children.

She became president of the 10-campus University of California system in 2013, where she’s spearheaded an initiative to better serve the institution’s growing population of first-generation students. Among the University of California’s undergraduates, more than 40 percent are the first in their family to attend a four-year institution — a population that’s nearly doubled over the past 15 years.

Her careers in education and immigration again collided in 2017 when she sued the Trump administration over its efforts to end the DACA program. In fact, DACA remains in effect, in part because of Napolitano’s lawsuit.

Ahead of the Aspen event, The 74 connected with Napolitano to discuss the University of California’s efforts to improve educational attainment for low-income students and other education issues, from Title IX to DACA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Higher education has taken a reputational hit recently. UCLA and UC Berkeley were both caught up in the college admissions scandal. In response, you called for an internal audit. What in the audit most concerned you, and what are the most crucial actions that the university must take to ensure that nobody is admitted fraudulently?

Napolitano: We did this audit at our own behest because I think it’s important that we turn very square corners with students and families on admissions and that we bolster our defenses against those who try to game the system.

We get north of 220,000 applications a year. We didn’t find any new cases beyond the one at Berkeley and the one at UCLA. Nonetheless, we found places where we would benefit from tightening up our processes and instituting some more checks and balances in the admissions system.

For example, we have a category called generically special admissions. Let’s say a coach is recruiting a particular non-scholarship athlete — that coach’s supervisor checks off on the applicant, and the compliance office in the athletics department, an independent office, also signs off so that there’s two levels of review before a student can be admitted through that process. That’s what I mean by instituting some greater checks and balances in the system.

My view is that one fraudulent admission is too many. When you get 220,000 applications a year, it may be impossible to guarantee the veracity of everything every applicant writes or says. But we ought to do everything we can to ensure the integrity of the system.

The UC community includes an estimated 4,000 undocumented students, faculty and staff. You filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the Trump administration over its decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an initiative you spearheaded while serving as secretary of homeland security under President Obama. In part because of your lawsuit, the DACA program remains in place and the Trump administration’s efforts to end it are in limbo. However, people who previously didn’t have DACA protections — but who would otherwise be eligible — are currently unable to apply. What is the UC system doing to support these students?

Yeah. We do have non-DACA undocumented students, and we provide free legal services for them. We have undocumented student centers at our campuses. A number of our campuses have raised some private funds to help them financially since they can’t get federal financial aid. Those are a few examples.

DACA was created through executive order after Congress for years failed to reach an agreement. We are still at an impasse today. What compromises could Congress reach in order to pass immigration reform? 

This is really such a frustrating area because what’s really necessary is comprehensive reform of our immigration laws, and Congress just seems incapable of taking that on. We did get a comprehensive bill through the Senate in 2013. It was a bipartisan bill, the so-called Gang of Eight Bill, but the speaker of the house wouldn’t even consider it, so it died.

In this administration, we’ve been caught up in all the controversy about the border and the rescission of DACA and a real anti-immigrant animus.

There’s a bill in the House, and I hope that the Senate takes it up. They may want to amend it and send it to conference, but don’t just let it die on the vine and leave all these thousands of young people in limbo. These are young people who grew up in the United States. Those at UC, they’re excellent students, they’re members of our community. Why would we throw the resources of the federal government against them and deport them? It makes absolutely no sense.

This is a fixable issue, and Congress ought to fix it.

You’ve also been critical of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her decision to revoke Obama-era Title IX guidance on campus sexual misconduct. What effects do you anticipate will ultimately play out on campuses, including those in the UC system?

One concern I have, and it was raised by a number of people who submitted comments, was on converting every Title IX hearing into a mini criminal trial with the right to cross-examine. I think people lose sight of the fact that these are not criminal cases. These are student and sometimes faculty disciplinary cases. They ought to be resolved through those processes.

Take a student who alleges that she’s been sexually assaulted by another student and she has to decide whether to lodge a Title IX complaint. Now, one of the things she has to take into account is that the respondent will be able, with his lawyer, to put her on the stand and cross-examine her. There’s a lot of natural reluctance by survivors to come forward. This will be just another deterrent.

UCLA is currently under fire for its handling of a misconduct case in which a former university gynecologist was arrested for allegedly abusing patients. How does this latest case inform your efforts to address campus sexual misconduct? What more needs to be done?

The campus has appointed an independent committee, including a former justice of the California Supreme Court, among others, to reverse engineer how it handled that individual’s case. I think that they’ll come up with some recommendations specific to UCLA, but in the meantime, I’ve appointed a systemwide working group to look at how we deal with sexual violence, sexual assault cases and sexual harassment cases in the clinical context because the clinical context is, in some important respects, different than the classroom context.

For example, a gynecological exam, by definition, involves some touching of intimate areas. But how those exams are conducted are governed by professional codes of conduct. How do you make sure that those professional codes of conduct are being adhered to? For example, should there always be a chaperone in the exam room? If there’s a chaperone, should the chaperone be somewhat independent of the physician, so it’s not the same chaperone for the same physician all the time?

Those are the kinds of nuts-and-bolts questions that we need systemwide guidance on.

What is your response to people who argue that the Obama-era guidance strips accused students of their due process rights?

Look, I’ll acknowledge that I had some issues with how the Obama administration conducted Title IX investigations, but those were correctable without swinging the pendulum so far in the other direction. I’m not optimistic, but one can always hope that after considering the comments, the DeVos-led department will substantially amend the proposal.

What specific concerns did you have with that previous guidance?

It wasn’t the guidance so much as the operation. It just took too darn long. Colleges and universities would be listed as being under investigation for mishandling Title IX. Once you were listed, you couldn’t get off the list. It took the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education years to handle these investigations. We had cases where, by the time OCR got involved, the students had already graduated.

In the United States, roughly 43 million people have federal student loans, totaling nearly $1.6 trillion in outstanding debt. Student loan debt has more than doubled in the last decade alone. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, you’re scheduled to debate whether college is worth the expense. In terms of higher education’s value, what’s the best case you can make?

As president of the University of California, I absolutely believe college is worth it. The numbers show that individuals with college degrees tend to make more money over the course of their working lives. It’s about an average of a million dollars more.

There are also other intangible and somewhat surprising benefits. College graduates are less likely to smoke. They have a longer life expectancy. Also, in terms of social mobility, the one tried-and-true tactic that has worked over American history is access to a quality public higher education. That’s what we do at the University of California. It’s what a lot of public universities strive to do.

And yet, social mobility is on the decline. Today, only about half of children will grow up to make more money than their parents. What tangible strategies should universities use to drive social mobility?

To be accessible and affordable, colleges can make sure that they have a very generous financial aid program. For example, at the University of California, we convert one-third of every tuition dollar to financial aid. That means that families of students that make less than $80,000 a year actually pay no tuition at the University of California. Fifty-two percent of our undergraduates have no student loans at graduation. Those that graduate with debt have an average of $20,200, and that to me is a manageable debt load. When you think about it, that’s the price of a small car. Cars go down in value the moment you drive them off the lot. A college education only increases in value over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

You’ve said that preparing first-generation students for college should begin while they’re still in middle school. What should K-12 schools do to better prepare younger students for higher education?

In California, there’s a set menu of courses that students have to take in high school to be eligible for either the University of California or the Cal State system. They’re called the A-G courses. One of the things that needs to happen is to make sure that high school students are taking their A-G classes.

We have one program called the UC Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), where we work with schools, community organizations and families to provide underserved K-12 students with college preparatory advising and academic enrichment opportunities. We have another program called MESA, which stands for Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement, which provides literally thousands of economically disadvantaged students with STEM-focused academic support while they’re in high school. We have another program called Puente, which trains middle school, high school and community college instructors and counselors across California on how to prepare underrepresented students for college.

In short, it’s making sure that high school students are taking their required courses and then having programs that target economically disadvantaged students or underserved students.

Once those students arrive on campus, what factors have you found most hinder the success of first-generation students? What support services are most successful in retaining them?

Every campus does things differently. Each of our campuses has a different menu of supports for students, but I would say, in general, ones that have a measurable positive impact are those having to do with academic advising and peer support. For students from first-gen or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, peer support means that they have places to convene to find support with each other and moral support, among other things. They need academic advising to help them navigate all the choices and options that they have at the university.

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