Why women and minorities leave STEM careers

I interviewed 25 workers with STEM degrees about the trajectories of their careers. The experiences of the women and minority workers I interviewed could not be more different from the experiences of the white men who spoke with me.

White men spoke of having mentors, robust professional networks and ample opportunities for advancement. Women and workers of color spoke of social isolation, disparate treatment and dead ends.

Is it any wonder that STEM fields continue to have a problem with diversity? Read more from my report for AEI here.

A Texas university uses value and smarts to keep students enrolled

In a world of skyrocketing college tuition and spiraling student debt, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is resolutely affordable. 

Located in Edinburg, Texas, an hour from the U.S.-Mexico border, UTRGV is a new school formed in 2013 from a merger of new campuses and legacy institutions. It enrolls a student body that is more than 90 percent Hispanic and heavily first-generation. The school’s mascot is the workingman Vaquero, Spanish for “cowboy” or “cattle driver,” who dons full ranching attire, including gloves, scarf, and boots. Designed by students, the mascot’s costume is full of subtle messaging, like blue-stitching on the vaquero’s boots to symbolize the Rio Grande river joining Mexico and the U.S.

More than 60 percent of students at UTRGV have incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants. Yet, says President Guy Bailey, “Over half of our students who are undergraduates don’t pay any tuition or fees. Most of our students who qualify for Pell grants pay nothing.”  

Read more at Washington Monthly….

Would you trust a used car dealer with your tax refund?

At the Car-Mart in Rogers, Arkansas, or at 150 other Car-Mart locations nationwide, you can both buy a used car and get your taxes done. If that sounds like an unusual combination, it’s not. According to Car-Mart’s website, the used car dealership offers onsite tax preparation services through Tax Max, a Tampa-based company that works with a jaw-dropping 3,000 car dealerships across the country. Tax Max also works with money services businesses (such as check cashers), collections companies, and even mobile home dealers to help them capture a chunk of their customers’ tax refunds. This might be convenient for some, but it is very costly.

The Rogers Car-Mart, for instance, charges $149 to prepare a federal tax return, plus $49 for the state return, according to a salesperson I spoke with when I called recently. I’d also pay a $93 “bank fee” if I got a refund, plus a $27 “check printing fee” if I wanted an advance on my money instead of waiting for the IRS to cut the check. “So that would be a total of $318,” the clerk told me. That’s equal to 15 percent of this year’s average federal refund of $2,201.

And companies don’t just benefit from receiving a cut of these high fees when they partner with a tax preparer like Tax Max. (Auto dealers, for instance, can charge a $99 “dealership incentive fee” for every return they process.) A car dealership or another business can secure part or all of the tax refund itself. “We prepare your customer’s tax return, but your location receives the refund,” boasts the Tax Max site pitch to prospective partners. “This refund can be used for a down payment on a car and/or car insurance. This refund can also be used to collect on past-due obligations by a collection company. The refund may also be used as a down payment for a manufactured home. Some companies can generate revenue by cashing the checks.” 

Read more at Washington Monthly

Once a pandemic lifeline, universal access to free lunch could end

Throughout the pandemic, Donna Martin’s lunches have been a lifeline for the public school students in rural Burke County, Georgia, where she serves as nutrition director. One in five citizens lives in poverty in this east Georgia county of roughly 25,000, half an hour south of Augusta. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s 4,100 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (meaning that family incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line).

Martin says the meals her staff prepares (breakfast, lunch, and even dinner) are often the healthiest—and sometimes the only—food her students see each day. “Our kids are food insecure, and they’re hungry,” she said. “But we offer amazing food, and we offer a lot of choices every day.” On the Monday we spoke, the menu included turkey tetrazzini, broccoli, and carrot sticks with homemade ranch dressing, and made-from-scratch strawberry muffins. “And we have ‘fruit-mallow,’ which is one of my favorites,” Martin said. “It’s fruit cocktail, but it’s got extra cherries and marshmallows, which the kids really like.” 

But providing nutritious, tasty meals like these could soon get a lot harder for Martin and her staff, who’ve already been scrambling to manage supply chain disruptions and soaring costs as the pandemic has worn on. “Our food prices have gone up 25 percent,” Martin says.

Read more at Washington Monthly…

Glenn Youngkin goes full MAGA

In contrast to his campaign persona as a genial, fleece-wearing dad, newly elected Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has spent his first few weeks in office as a MAGA warrior.

His day-one executive orders canceled school mask mandates and banned the teaching of “critical race theory.” He established a snitchy tip line for citizens’ “reports and observations” of “divisive practices” in the classroom. He nominated Donald Trump–aligned figures to populate his administration, such as the former Trump EPA chief (and coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler. And he unleashed savage Trump-style Twitter attacks on perceived enemies of his agenda. 

These moves have not gone over well in a purple state that has elected pragmatic moderates like U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and that gave Joe Biden a 10-point win in the 2020 presidential election. 

Read more at Washington Monthly….

A Little College Student Debt Relief Goes a Long Way

Democratic proposals for student loan forgiveness have so far come in two sizes: Big and bigger.

President Joe Biden campaigned on a plan to provide $10,000 of federal student loan forgiveness per borrower (though he ultimately left the idea out of his proposed budget). Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, has called for blanket forgiveness of up to $50,000 in federal loans per student, while Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has proposed the cancellation of all student debt, at an eye-popping cost of $1.6 trillion.

But as an innovative effort by a group of Detroit-area colleges is proving, even modest student-debt relief can have a big impact, especially if it’s coupled with a second shot at college completion for those who have discontinued their studies. Programs like Wayne State University’s Warrior Way Back and Eastern Michigan University’s Eagle Engage Corps are offering former students a combination of loan forgiveness with a chance to finish their degrees. It’s a smart – and purposeful – approach to student-debt relief that could benefit hundreds of thousands of students nationwide. Most importantly, it won’t cost trillions, and schools don’t need to wait for Congress to act.

Read more at Washington Monthly

Pell Grants Should Cover Short-term Worker Training Programs

At just 22 years old, Christian Couric is already an experienced professional welder. A specialist in pipeline welding, Couric has worked in paper mills, commercial refrigeration facilities, as well as petrochemical plants in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. Currently, he’s in Reno, Nevada, helping to build a biofuel plant that will process the city’s garbage into jet fuel. He says he earns between $35 and $50 an hour, often working 60 to 70 hours a week. Industry magazines say skilled pipeline welders like Couric can clear as much as $5,000 weekly.

Couric doesn’t have a four-year degree or even an associate’s degree. What got him his start were three eight-week classes in welding from Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Couric grew up. It was enough to earn him a welding certificate and his first job at a local fabrication shop. “This is absolutely way more viable than any college degree I could have gotten for sure,” says Couric. “The guidance counselors and career coaches would always say, ‘Go to college, go to college, you have to go to college, you’re not going to amount to anything if you don’t go to college,’ but they were wrong.”

Couric is living proof that short-term, career-focused educational programs—provided they are high-quality courses for in-demand fields—can put workers on track to high-paying jobs. Most of these programs don’t, however, qualify for federal financial aid through the Pell Grant program, putting them out of reach for workers who are low-income or unemployed. 

Read more at Washington Monthly….

Joe, you forgot about lowering the Medicare age

For middle-income older Americans who have lost their jobs and no longer get health insurance through work, buying coverage through Obamacare is often unaffordable. 

Medicare at 60 would solve many of the health care problems facing this suffering cohort. It would make about 23 million Americans newly eligible for the program, including about 2 million who are currently uninsured.

Read more at Washington Monthly….

How earmarks can strengthen Congress

When I was a staffer working in Congress, a good part of our time was spent on the annual appropriations process – including on earmarks for specific projects in the district the Congressman I worked for represented. If memory serves, the earmark requests the office submitted were for items like research funding for veterans’ health care; money to fund a new freezer at a local food pantry; or funding to build a new health care clinic in a disadvantaged part of district. They weren’t for “pork” – like the famed “Bridges to Nowhere” that earmark critics like to mock.

Earmarks have gotten an undeserved bad rap. And, as I argue, earmarks could be key to bringing back a working – and civil – Congress. Read more here at Washington Monthly.