A Q&A with Andre Perry, David M. Rubenstein Fellow for the Brookings Institution 

Insights & Outlooks: How did you originally develop a passion for education, both personally and as a career? What are the issues that inspire you most today?

I got my first job in the summer of 1990 as a rising sophomore at Allegheny College in Meadville, Penn. The Pennsylvania Department of Education hired me as a camp counselor for the state’s migrant education program, which brought promising children of migrant workers to my campus to expose them to college life. At the camp, I met my mentee Luis Garcia, a senior in high school. Although Luis’ family brought him to Pennsylvania as a child from Mexico, we had very similar tastes in food, clothing, sports and academic subjects. While under different circumstances, I faced many of the same deterrents growing up in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Luis did go on to Penn State University and eventually returned to the camp as a counselor. However, he could not go back to college the following semester. Because someone brought Luis to the U.S., he wasn’t an authorized resident – his status prohibited him from receiving federal financial aid. He did not break the law, but he was being punished nonetheless. Luis’ story strongly influenced my academic and professional pursuits. My dissertation argued that substantive members of society should receive financial aid, which was a case for the Dream Act, a law that if enacted would make certain undocumented high school graduates eligible for financial aid.

Insights & Outlooks: You’ve followed a very interesting career path from charter school leader in New Orleans to a campaign policy advisor to scholar and author. How has your on the ground experience influenced your views on how to improve student success, particularly for low-income and minority students?

Higher education policy is my academic home base, but that subject area is simply a stage for me to focus on the communities and neighborhood conditions people spend most of their time in. With that said, when you invest in place and not people, you get gentrification and displacement. As a school administrator in New Orleans, I really saw how you can invest in reforms and not people. Based on federal and state estimates generated at the 10-year anniversary, the federal government spent approximately $120 billion on Katrina-related recovery projects, which is almost three times the state’s annual budget. In 2010, $1.8 billion went toward the rebuilding of New Orleans schools specifically. However, 10 years after the storm, poor black people were as poor as they were before the storm. 

Insights & Outlooks: In your column, you write frequently about the interplay between equity issues in K-12 and higher education. What are three promising policies that haven’t yet received widespread attention from policymakers with the potential to improve equity for today’s students?

Although we’ve come to a consensus on the importance of diversity, low-income black and brown students continue to become concentrated in certain schools. Measuring academic achievement through test scores reflects differences in income rather than ability. In February 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group recommended a framework that holds schools accountable to diversity and inclusion goals. The group’s report stressed the importance of not only developing enrollment targets for students of different racial and economic groups, languages, and disabilities, but also implementing admissions criteria that hold schools accountable to these goals. Promoting similar accountability measures will help school systems create integrated and diverse environments. 

Second, safety concerns have led to an increase in the number of weapons and guards present in school. This is concerning for students of color, who face harsher and more frequent punishment than white students. Instead of hardening schools at the expense of black and brown students, some schools have chosen to foster connectedness, engaging students and faculty and investing in conflict resolution and anti-bias training. By prioritizing emotional and mental health, students see improved grades and attendance, among other positive outcomes. 

Finally, how students spend their time outside of school can be driven by socioeconomic status. In order to give low-income students the same opportunities for learning and growth, we must fight to continue funding programs that help states pay for afterschool programming, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant.

Insights & Outlooks: A column you recently wrote focused on the large number of today’s students who work while attending college. While this can help to ease the financial cost of attendance, some argue that part-time work can also potentially impact academic performance and graduation rates. How does part-time work affect persistence and retention, and what are some strategies that institutions can use to support working learners during their experience?

Part-time work can be an opportunity for students to earn while they learn. But taking on an on-campus versus off-campus position affects outcomes differently; students who work for less than 15 hours per week on campus graduate at higher rates than those who work off campus for longer hours. Schools can facilitate successful part-time work in a variety of ways. First, colleges should support work-study supervisors as they develop tools to track students’ progress and measure the impact of employment. Investing in strong, data-driven work-study programs will set students up for professional success.

Insights & Outlooks: Some presidential candidates have released plans to improve college affordability by either providing free college or student debt forgiveness. How can policymakers target college affordability policies to students from underrepresented backgrounds and those with the greatest unmet financial need?

College affordability issues must be addressed, particularly considering the vast racial disparities in student loan debt. Black students take on 85.8% more debt than their white peers, a gap that compounds over time. Although students of color and those from low-income backgrounds might have the largest demonstrated need, policies that give all young people an affordable education are politically salient. Middle-class parents want financial assistance for their own families; including them in such a policy proposal will undoubtedly make the program more expensive but it will help the plan garner enough support to pass. Voters across the country have accepted public preschool programs that will benefit all constituents of varying socioeconomic statuses. A similar logic applies to programs that make college affordable for everyone.