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Apr 28, 2018

Institutions of higher earning (rebroadcast)

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode was originally broadcast on Dec. 9, 2017.

It’s no secret that college is getting more expensive – or that America’s student debt has erupted into a full-on crisis. But it’s not just loans that are putting pressure on Americans seeking an education. As this week’s episode explains, students face a variety of obstacles, from rising tuition rates to hard-line immigration laws.

This show contains an update to the original story about the University of Texas System. After it first aired on Dec. 9, 2017, Chancellor Bill McRaven announced his resignation and two of the big-ticket expenditures have been canceled.

In our first segment, reporters Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins with our partners at the Texas Tribune take a close look at their state’s public universities. A little over a year ago, administrators tapped Bill McRaven, a former four-star admiral, as chancellor of the University of Texas System. McRaven immediately proposed a series of “quantum leaps” that he promised would put UT’s enormous endowment to good use – and make it “the envy of every system in the nation.” Several huge purchases later (including a land parcel worth more than $215 million), questions still linger about whether students are benefiting from McRaven’s sweeping changes.

Next, Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus profiles Eddy Medina, a Cornell University student whose financial aid benefits didn’t come close to covering the cost of his tuition. Medina and his family tried everything they could to pay for his education. They depleted savings and sold their possessions; Medina even took a job at SeaWorld. Yet in the end, his story illustrates a troubling trend: Universities are shifting financial aid away from lower-income families like Medina’s and toward wealthier ones.

Students who came to the U.S. illegally face barriers to higher education, too. Although 21 states provide in-state tuition for beneficiaries of DACA (also known as “Dreamers”), others have taken a different approach. Georgia, for example, bars unauthorized students from enrolling at its top three universities. It also charges them non-state tuition at schools they are allowed to attend. APM Reports’ Sasha Aslanian explains how some students and professors are fighting back.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: In an era of inequity, more college financial aid is going to the rich
  • Read: UT System oil money is a gusher for its administration — and a trickle for students
  • Read: Head of agency managing $37 billion endowment for UT and A&M resigns
  • Listen: Dreamers, their opponents and the historical and political events that led to the showdown over DACA

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. I want to start today's show off by introducing you to someone who is behind some of the biggest headlines of the past two decades.

 

Chirs Wallace: Chances are you've never heard of Bill McRaven, but you know his work. He was in charge of the missions that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. Here's our power player of the week. Bill, welcome.

 

Bill McRaven: Thank you, Chris.

 

Chirs Wallace: It's an honor to have you.

 

Bill McRaven: It's great to be here.

 

Al Letson: Bill McRaven is a former four-start admiral and Navy SEAL. His last military post was commander of the US Special Operations Command. Then he took on a completely different mission.

 

Bill McRaven: This board took a gamble and they hired me to lead the University of Texas System even though I had no experience in higher education or clinical care.

 

Al Letson: He went from commanding SEAL Team Six to leading the UT System which oversees 14 campuses including the University of Texas at Austin. It's hard for him to shed that military skin though. You can just hear it in his voice.

 

Bill McRaven: But I think you hired me because for the previous 37 years, I have been leading men and women under some of the most challenging conditions in the world.

 

Al Letson: This is a speech that McRaven made back in November of 2015. It was a big deal. He was a big deal and so was his grand vision for the UT System.

 

Bill McRaven: I will outline some broad and bold initiatives, some quantum leaps that will make us the envy of every system in the nation.

 

Al Letson: These quantum leaps would be expensive. This one would cost $36 million.

 

Bill McRaven: We are going to develop a collaborative healthcare enterprise that will leverage our size and expertise.

 

Al Letson: The next one, $10 million.

 

Bill McRaven: Our intent is to establish UT Network for National Security, a system-wide alliance.

 

Al Letson: So McRaven lays out nine big ideas and when he's done-

 

Bill McRaven: I hope your bold gamble in allowing this old sailor to lead this great institution will be a winning hand. I look forward to the years ahead in watching this vision unfold. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

 

Al Letson: The UT System's governing board is thrilled. They agree to green light McRaven's vision which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Then just three months later, McRaven's back in front of the same board, this time talking about tuition.

 

Bill McRaven: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman and members of the board. I am going to recommend that you approve our tuition and fees. We have made some adjustments to our academic institution.

 

Al Letson: Let me explain what he means by adjustments. Bill McRaven wants to increase tuition by as much as 10%. He says schools needs the money.

 

Bill McRaven: So the fact is most of our tuition and fees are at or well below the national average. The fact is the tuition and fees are the single greatest driver for revenue. The fact is state appropriations continue to decline.

 

Al Letson: So how can Bill McRaven propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on his grand vision and then three months later ask students to pay more? A lot of families across the country are asking a version of this same question as the cost of college keeps going up. That's why we're re-airing this episode from last year when we tried to get answers. Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins from our partners at the Texas Tribune spent months looking into what was happening in the University of Texas System. Their reporting took them hundreds of miles from where all the big decisions are made in Austin all the way to West Texas.

 

Neena Satija: If you want to understand how a state-funded institution like the University of Texas can spend the kind of money Bill McRaven is proposing to spend, you have to come here and you have to talk to this guy named Richard Brantley. Is that a pump jack on your shirt on the map of Texas?

 

R. Brantley: That is a pump jack. Yes, ma'am. Yes.

 

Neena Satija: I had to ask that. I was like ... Richard manages this plot of land we're standing on right now. Plot is probably an understatement. We're actually standing on an oil field bigger than the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Texas set aside all this land in the 1800s as a kind of investment for public universities. No one thought it was worth much at the time, but now-

 

R. Brantley: We feel very blessed to wind up in this Permian Basin which is now kind of the center of the world for oil and gas development. That's where everybody wants to be. It's where a lot of the money's going.

 

Neena Satija: This one old pump jack we're in front of slowly rocks like a seesaw as it pulls oil from more than a mile underground making that slow creak and that sad low humming noise kind of like a sick cello. It's kind of a horror movie type sound, isn't it? I mean not like-

 

R. Brantley: That's a check valve that you hear.

 

Neena Satija: Check valve.

 

R. Brantley: Yeah.

 

Neena Satija: The money generated here goes into something called the Permanent University Fund which we'll call the oil fund. It's worth $20 billion today, and the UT System gets most of it. It's the reason UT has the biggest public university endowment in the world. The money's supposed to last for generations so you can't spend it all at once, but each year the oil fund generates $600 million for the UT System. That's about as much as all 50000 UT Austin students spend on tuition each year. So again, why is the UT System raising tuition? It turns out it's a question people are asking about colleges all over the country.

 

Speaker 1: The hearing will come to order. Welcome to the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing entitled Back to School: A Review of Tax-Exempt College and University Endowments.

 

Neena Satija: For two hours in 2016, members of Congress and experts talked about private colleges with huge endowments.

 

Speaker 2: Topping the list are schools with endowments over $20 billion: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.

 

Neena Satija: And the fact that they get to invest all this money tax-free.

 

Speaker 3: You had suggested as one of your solutions that endowments should be taxed.

 

Speaker 2: Yes, only large endowments.

 

Neena Satija: President Trump's tax reform bill aims to do just that. Some private colleges have to pay a 1.4% tax on their endowments. Trump talked about this during his campaign.

 

Donald Trump: I'm going to work with Congress to make sure that if universities want access to all of these special federal tax breaks, that they are going to make good faith efforts to reduce the cost of college and to spend their endowments on their students rather than other things that don't matter.

 

Neena Satija: Here's the thing though. College endowments are, for the most part, a black box. Private colleges don't have to tell us how they spend this money, but the University of Texas System happens to be a public institution with a huge endowment. So we can dig through public records to figure out how it spends all that money which is exactly what Matthew and I did.

 

Matthew Watkins: It turns out half the money goes to the flagship campus in Austin. A chunk of it also goes to building labs and classrooms at the other UT campuses, but a lot of it goes to things like the quantum leaps you heard about in the beginning of the show: the $36 million healthcare project, the $10 million national security initiative, and this.

 

Bill McRaven: There is one more quantum leap that we must take to elevate our status for the world's finest university system. We are completing the acquisition of over 300 acres of real estate off Buffalo Point just 3.5 miles from the Texas Medical Center.

 

Matthew Watkins: McRaven announced that the UT System would buy a piece of land bigger than Harvard's main campus in the middle of Houston for $215 million, all from the oil fund. Let me put that number in perspective for you. Those tuition hikes McRaven asked for would bring in $30 million for UT Austin. This land alone costs seven times more. That raised a lot of eyebrows.

 

Jane Nelson: Okay. Let's get started. Senate Finance Committee will come to order. Clerk, please call the roll.

 

Matthew Watkins: It's January 2017 and McRaven is at the Texas State Senate to talk about money. This is Republican State Senator Jane Nelson.

 

Jane Nelson: All right. We're going to call Chancellor McRaven. Good morning.

 

Bill McRaven: Good morning, Madame Chair. How are you?

 

Jane Nelson: I am-

 

Matthew Watkins: Almost right away Republican Senator Paul Bettencourt brings up the Houston land buy.

 

P. Bettencourt: right. Now that is a significant sum of money by any measurement that I'm aware of. I mean a quarter billion dollars is a quarter billion dollars. It's a big commitment.

 

Bill McRaven: I don't debate the fact that it's a lot of money. What I would offer to you is that the potential-

 

Matthew Watkins: At this point, it's been more than a year since McRaven announced the land buy. He's been saying for months he wants to do something big and bold except he's never said exactly what.

 

P. Bettencourt: Why did you buy this land and what are you doing with it?

 

Bill McRaven: Sir, I'm happy to answer that. What we've done of course is we've formed a task force. We have looked at some tremendous options for how we can develop this land in combination with anybody that wants to join us.

 

Matthew Watkins: This answer doesn't go down well with Republicans or Democrats. Here's Democrat John Whitmire.

 

John Whitmire: I don't think ... All due respect, I don't think you give a damn what the legislature thinks.

 

Bill McRaven: That is absolutely wrong. I spent 37 years in uniform and I'm not going to tout the military, but I swore an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. I raised my right hand to do that. I think I did that pretty well for 37 years. I think I went before an awful lot of-

 

John Whitmire: That's not the issue this morning.

 

Bill McRaven: Sir, you just said I do not respect this body.

 

John Whitmire: That is my opinion.

 

Bill McRaven: Sir, I recognize that's our opinion and I can tell you that it's not true.

 

John Whitmire: And it's based on your actions.

 

Bill McRaven: If my actions-

 

John Whitmire: You just said-

 

Matthew Watkins: Tensions get so high, Jane Nelson has to step in.

 

Jane Nelson: Senator Whitmire, we know how strongly you feel.

 

Bill McRaven: No. I'm just not going to sit here and let misinformation go out.

 

Jane Nelson: Okay. Okay. We're going to stop right here. I think you can certainly-

 

Bill McRaven: Yes, ma'am. I got the message.

 

Jane Nelson: ... understand some of the concerns that we all share-

 

Bill McRaven: Yes, ma'am.

 

Jane Nelson: ... that Senator Whitmire has expressed.

 

Matthew Watkins: The message during this grilling is clear. You can't cry poverty and raise tuition while at the same time spending $215 million dollars on a bunch of land, but McRaven tries to make one more argument. He says the oil fund is written into the Texas Constitution which sets up limits on how the state can spend the money. You can give the money to UT Austin, you can pay for capital projects like buying land, or you can spend it on UT System administration costs.

 

Neena Satija: UT leaders don't think they can just give all the money directly to students, but they've used the oil fund to pay for things like IT expenses and library software at certain UT schools to help tuition there stay low.

 

Matthew Watkins: But tuition has continued to go up even thought the value of the oil fund has gone up by a lot. The oil fund has delivered hundreds of millions of extra dollars to the UT System. Students say they could have used some of that cash.

 

Allie Runiz: My name's Allie [Runiz 00:11:18]. I'm going to be a junior at UT and I'm studying electrical engineering.

 

Neena Satija: We meet up with Allie because a few months back we put a call out on social media. We wanted to hear from students struggling to pay for college.

 

Matthew Watkins: Allie saw our message and she emailed me. She said it's been hard for her to keep up even on little things like when UT Austin raised the fee for official transcripts from $10 to $20.

 

Allie Runiz: I don't apply to internships that require a transcript because I don't have $100 budget to go apply to jobs.

 

Matthew Watkins: Allie's grandparents are helping with tuition now. She's trying to download books instead of buying them. She's moved farther away from campus to save money.

 

Allie Runiz: My dad was like "Is there anyway you can do it in three and a half semesters?" I'm trying to figure that out. Don't think it's going to happen.

 

Neena Satija: Allie's always assumed tuition is going up because state funding's going down because the university needs the money. Have you heard of the quantum leaps? That sounds like a really weird question if you haven't heard of them.

 

Allie Runiz: It rings a bell, but I couldn't tell you what it is.

 

Neena Satija: Have you heard of something called the Permanent University Fund?

 

Allie Runiz: No.

 

Neena Satija: No?

 

Allie Runiz: I have not.

 

Neena Satija: Okay. I explain what these are and it's a lot for Allie to take in because when UT Austin communicates with her, it acts like it's poor. Recently the school even asked her for help. So they actually get UT-

 

Allie Runiz: They actually ask students to donate.

 

Matthew Watkins: How did that work exactly?

 

Allie Runiz: They sent us an email and they're like "It's contribute time. Send us money." Yeah.

 

Matthew Watkins: Did you contribute?

 

Allie Runiz: I did not. I can't believe they asked us to donate money.

 

Neena Satija: The Houston land buy caused such an uproar that McRaven backed down and agreed to sell it, but another big chunk of oil money went to something that was meant to help students. It's called the Institute for Transformational Learning.

 

M B Stein: The landscape of higher education is changing as is the landscape of industry and employment.

 

Steve Leslie: It is all about experience. I think in our world, that really has a focal point.

 

Matthew Watkins: The institute started years ago back when Bill McRaven was still in the military, but since he became Chancellor, we found it's budget grew 10 times bigger from $2.5 million a year to $25 million dollars last year. Neena emailed the institute asking for an interview. They responded within two minutes. She sat down with Chief Innovation Officer Marni Baker Stein.

 

Neena Satija: Can you give me the Cliffs Notes of what this place is?

 

M B Stein: Do you want the Cliffs Notes of what it is right now or do you want the brief history or do you-

 

Neena Satija: Both would be good.

 

M B Stein: Okay. I think that a sense of what we are is a central capability to-

 

Neena Satija: I get the sense Marni and her team work on things like online classes for UT students and digital learning software, but it still feels like a lot of buzzwords. For instance, there was this product called [Texts 00:14:23]. Here's how Marni pitched it to the UT System back in 2014.

 

M B Stein: This stack and this ecosystem is a beautiful, engaging, mobile first learning environment that will power adaptive pathways that close learner gaps and encourage learner strengths, personalized state-of-the-art content and learning objects, deep integration with applications that allow for-

 

Neena Satija: When Marni made this presentation, the UT System's governing board had already agreed to spend $50 million on the Institute for Transformational Learning, and after her presentation, they agreed to spend $50 million more. All of the money would come from the oil fund. Marni promised Matthew and me a second interview plus a live demo of that Text product, but for months we didn't hear back.

 

Matthew Watkins: In the meantime, I got an anonymous tip, an email claiming that Text was practically unusable and had low educational value. The tipster said the one university trying to use Text in its classrooms had abandoned it.

 

Neena Satija: Then we learned Marni had resigned. Then we learned her boss had resigned. Finally after three months of waiting, we sat down with another person who'd been put in charge.

 

Steve Leslie: My name is Steve Leslie. I'm the Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Texas System.

 

Neena Satija: We had some tough questions for Steve, and he was surprisingly open with us. Is it fair to say that back in 2011 when this investment was first made, $50 million, there wasn't much of a business plan for sustainability?

 

Steve Leslie: I would say that would be an accurate statement, yes.

 

Neena Satija: But then another $50 million allocation was made. Do you think that second allocation was made with the understanding that there does need to be a business plan now?

 

Steve Leslie: No. The expectation was that there would be a business plan, but there was not the foundations of a business plan at the time that either pot of money was put in place. It was expensive, but it led to where we are now which has also been expensive. It is where it is right now.

 

Neena Satija: Steve did make a couple things clear. The institute was in trouble, and it definitely wasn't getting any more money from the oil fund. We tried for months to get an interview with Steve's boss, Chancellor Bill McRaven. He turned us down every time, but we did catch him at a public meeting last summer.

 

Bill McRaven: I've got only a few more minutes. I've got to go catch an airplane. I'm sorry.

 

Matthew Watkins: There's been questions raised not just in the board ... I asked McRaven if the Institute for Transformational Learning is still worth the money.

 

Bill McRaven: I think that's something we're going to have to lot at.

 

Matthew Watkins: I ask him why spend the oil fund on things like the institute and 300 acres of land in Houston. How do you kind of explain and defend kind of the choices of how that money should be spent?

 

Bill McRaven: So I don't have an hour unfortunately. The board is always looking at how do we manage access and affordability and exceptional faculty. That's that.

 

Speaker 4: We got to let him go now.

 

Bill McRaven: Yeah. Sorry, folks.

 

Speaker 4: Sorry.

 

Bill McRaven: I really got to go. I got to go talk to my staff and catch an airplane.

 

Neena Satija: We wanted to know how students feel about all this so we go back to see Allie. Hey. How you doing?

 

Allie Runiz: Nice to see y'all.

 

Neena Satija: Good to see you again.

 

Matthew Watkins: Nice to see you. Thanks for coming and meeting with us again. What is it? What are we looking at here?

 

Allie Runiz: This is the engineering, education, and research center, but it's the

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:18:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Alli: ... Education and Research Center, but it's the new home for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, so I spend all day here and it's great.

 

Matthew Watkins: We walk inside to find a quiet room and we tell Alli what we found since our first talk.

 

Neena Satija: The UT system gets $600 million a year from the endowment and they spend $38 million on financial aid from that pot.

 

Matthew Watkins: That's just 6% of the oil fund money, and UT leaders told us they don't see anything wrong with that. The way they spend the rest of the money still benefits students.

 

And the idea here is that we're going to use this money for extra things that's going to raise the profile, raise the prestige of the University of Texas.

 

Alli: Hm, yeah, it seems like one of this things like when you get your tax return you're like, "Oh, well, I'm just going to go buy a new dress." It seems like we have a voiced student concern that there is not enough funding for people who need more financial aid and so it does seem like a little bit of a, like, oh, we have all this extra money but it's not going to go to y'all.

 

Al Letson: That story was from Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins at the Texas Tribune. A lot has changed since it first came out. Just a week after it aired in December, Bill McRaven announced that he'd be stepping down as chancellor. About a month later, he shut down the Institute for Transformational Learning. And just a few weeks ago, the UT system raised in-state tuition by as much as 8 1/2%.

 

Some universities with big endowments have programs to help low-income students pay for tuition. Others are actually making it harder for poorer kids to afford school.

 

Eddie Medena: I was at the Financial Aid Office and I started to cry. Like I had never felt more hopeless than that moment, and she started to cry, too, and she was like, "I don't know what to tell you."

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

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Byard Duncan: Hey, folks, Byard Duncan here from Reveal's Engagement Team. The Texas Tribune has been looking hard at UT's endowments for more than a year. They were there when the Institution for Transformational Learning got off the ground and when it came crashing down. They were there when Bill McRaven started facing tough questions and when he announced his resignation. All that work is collected over on their website. To read it, just go to TexasTribune.org/Endowments. Again, that's TexasTribune.org/Endowments.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. I'm also the father of two college-age kids and, let me tell you, in the last segment when I heard all these people baffled about how some universities are spending their endowments while still raising tuition, it really hit home because figuring out financial aid, it can make your head spin. I mean, I'm just not that good with numbers so looking at all the paperwork, sometimes I just get overwhelmed and the stakes are especially high because tuition keeps going up and it's pushing students into two groups, those who know they'll go to college no matter what and the rising number who may be forced to set aside their dream of a college degree because the price has finally grown impossible to afford.

 

Eddie Medena: Hi, can I get the tortellini, please, with Alfredo sauce?

 

Al Letson: Eddie Medena blends in with other students at lunchtime in the crowded cafeteria at Cornell University.

 

Eddie Medena: Thank you, appreciate it.

 

Speaker 5: Thank you.

 

Eddie Medena: Thank you, have a good day.

 

Speaker 5: Thank you.

 

Al Letson: Eddie's the kind of person everyone at Cornell seems to recognize. He's involved in lots of activities, gets good grades, and always seems upbeat.

 

But Eddie is different from almost all the other students here. His family doesn't have a lot of money. His mother came to the United States from Mexico and works in a call center. His father is a U.S. Navy veteran. Neither went to college, but they pushed Eddie to study hard and set his sights high. Still, paying for Cornell is a huge stretch for them and for Eddie.

 

Eddie Medena: I might, I have maybe one big meal a day but I mostly snack to be completely honest. It's something that like I've just become accustomed to.

 

Al Letson: To try and fit in with his wealthier classmates, he wears what looks like a vintage Omega watch.

 

Eddie Medena: My father gave this to me. He found it in a pawn shop. I don't even know if it's real.

 

Al Letson: That watch is kind of like Eddie's entire life here at Cornell. He doesn't want his friends to think he's a charity case, so he keeps up appearances.

 

Eddie Medena: I made that conscious decision to have something that would make me seem presentable in that kind of fashion.

 

Al Letson: Eddie gets some financial aid both from the government and from Cornell, but it doesn't go anywhere near as far as you might think. That's because more and more of the money for financial aid in America is going to a different kind of student, one that might surprise you. Higher Education Editor Jon Marcus from our partners at the Hechinger Report brings us this story.

 

Jon Marcus: Eddie's majoring in Economics, and on the day I visit him he's in a class on immigration. They're talking about immigrant stereotypes in popular culture and the professor mentions an old Looney Tunes cartoon character she remembers from years ago.

 

Speaker 7: You might not know this, but there used to be a cartoon character called Speedy Gonzales, oh, you've heard of Speedy Gonzales. How do you even know about Speedy Gonzales?

 

Eddie Medena: Well, I mean, back in the day, like that's how I know, not any more.

 

Speaker 7: Yeah, but you're not that old. So back in the day, when would you watch Speedy Gonzales?

 

Eddie Medena: Yeah, when I was younger.

 

Jon Marcus: Eddie grew up in San Diego. He worked hard in school and got good grades, but he still never expected to get into a place like Cornell. When the acceptance letter came, he was shocked.

 

Eddie Medena: I get the envelope and it's the big one and I'm like, oh, no, that's not right. You only get the big one, you know, if you got in and so I opened it up and then I read it all. I broke down. My mom, I literally just, I started crying. I was like, "Wait, no, Mom, like it's all right. Like it's all right." My mom still didn't know what was going on and I sat her down and I explained it to her. I was like, "Mom, like I got in."

 

Jon Marcus: But getting in was only the first hurdle. Now, Eddie had to figure out how he was going to pay the more than $43,000 for tuition and fees his freshman year. It was much more than his family could afford, but there was no way he was going to turn down the chance to go to a place like Cornell, so he got a job at Sea World and studied every chance he got.

 

Eddie Medena: My co-workers used to make fun of me because I would, during my breaks, immediately open a book.

 

Jon Marcus: But the money he earned at Sea World wasn't going to come close to what Cornell expected Eddie's family to pay.

 

Eddie Medena: My family contribution was around $20- to $22,000.

 

Jon Marcus: $22,000 each year, that's after the financial aid from the government and the university, and it didn't include books, supplies, or room and board. His parents didn't have that kind of money. They're divorced and paying two separate rents and supporting other relatives.

 

Eddie Medena: And it was really difficult for me to fathom why it was anywhere near that, and so my mom's way of doing that, she's like, "Well, the only money I can get is, from what I understand, like my life insurance and like I'm going to get penalized for it, but sure, I can help you with that." And that was like, you know, $3- or $5,000 dollars and my father had sold some of his belongings as well to raise money.

 

Jon Marcus: Raiding retirement savings and selling possessions, those are things you can only do once. Each semester, Eddie and his family tried to scrape together more money. Eddie took out loan after loan, but by his junior year, even though he was doing well in school with a 3.4 grade point average, he'd fallen behind in his payments.

 

Eddie Medena: I finally got the email and I read that we're sorry to inform you that you have been withdrawn from the university, that you're no longer a student.

 

I was at the Financial Aid Office and I started to cry. I just said, I'm like, "What can I do?" I'm like, "Do I take a semester off? Do I work?" And she told me, "No, don't do that 'cause you'll make more money, it'll hurt your financial aid package." And I was like, "Okay, well, what, like," I had never felt more helpless than that moment and she started to cry, too, and she was like, "I don't know what to tell you."

 

Jon Marcus: Eddie's parents' poor credit meant he had to resort to private instead of federally subsidized loans. Those have higher interest rates and tougher repayment terms. He also got a work-study job and, after a few weeks, was back at Cornell. In the meantime, the university kept charging him late fees.

 

Eddie Medena: You get hit with the first fee, which I believe is $350. The second fee comes if you still haven't paid on top of this fee, as well. I think it's around $500.

 

Jon Marcus: For a student like Eddie, 350 or $500 fees are a big deal. That's money that would have gone to groceries or rent. While it's charging students like Eddie for missing payments, Cornell itself is doing fine. The university has nearly $7 billion in its endowment and it's been running annual budget surpluses of nearly $400 million. Eddie's situation is becoming more common as universities shift financial aid away from lower income students like him and toward wealthier kids. At Cornell since 2008 the amount the poorest students pay after discounts and financial aid has increased more than four times faster than what the richest students pay.

 

Cornell wouldn't talk about Eddie's case with us or how it makes financial aid awards or anything else, so we went to see Ron Ehrenberg. He's a Cornell professor who studies the economics of higher education. He has photos in his office of the grandkids he's planning to help put through college.

 

Ron Ehrenberg: I'm busy saving for four grandchildren so that they can go to the most expensive private college that they want to.

 

Jon Marcus: He says financial aid programs do little to help low-income families that want the same thing for their children.

 

Ron Ehrenberg: If you're a bright kid coming from a relatively low income family, your chances of enrolling and eventually completing college are much, much lower than a less talented student coming from a wealthy family. I think we're not helping the right people go to college as much as we should.

 

Jon Marcus: I asked Ehrenberg why this is happening.

 

Ron Ehrenberg: Lots of the higher ed policies basically are built in a way that would win support for middle and even upper income taxpayers

 

Jon Marcus: So it's not only universities giving more money to wealthier families, it's the government, too.

 

A lot of financial aid comes in the form of tax breaks. Families can often deduct at least part of what they pay in tuition, and they also get a tax break when they put money into 529 savings accounts. Those billions of dollars' worth of benefits go to families making as much as $180,000 a year. Then there are private scholarships. Eddie's counselor in high school didn't tell him about scholarships from Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and other groups, but counselors at wealthier schools help their students find those.

 

All of this financial aid ends up going to wealthier kids who could probably afford to go to college without it, like Alex [Stakavich 00:30:54], an Economics major at Cornell.

 

Can we ask, how do you pay for college?

 

Alex Stakavich: My parents do. I'm on some financial aid. I know I'm on like a bunch of scholarships and stuff, but my parents deal with all that, so it's really, for the students like me that have financial aid, you know, it's just like a little supplement.

 

Jon Marcus: Alex says he would have been able to go to college whether he got financial aid or not.

 

Alex Stakavich: For sure, for sure. I definitely would have, but that's the sad thing, that there's kids who like need that to go to college.

 

Jon Marcus: Since Cornell wouldn't talk to us, we head a mile away to much smaller Ithaca College. It's on a hill above the town with a view of Cornell across the valley. Ithaca's endowment is 1/20th the size of Cornell's, but it manages to enroll a larger proportion of low-income students.

 

Lisa Hoskey: How are you?

 

Speaker 6: I'm good, how are you?

 

Jon Marcus: Head Financial Aid Officer Lisa Hoskey shows us around the office. She has photos, too, of students who received aid and did well at the school.

 

Lisa Hoskey: Probably eight or nine pictures there of students, several on the wall, I'd say four or five. You can see actually one that's somebody being quite successful in the wrestling programs.

 

Jon Marcus: I ask Hoskey why colleges like Ithaca and Cornell give growing amounts of money to people who can afford to send their kids to college anyway.

 

Lisa Hoskey: Wherever you're sitting with somebody, when they're looking for financial aid, I think they feel like they need it, regardless of the income level. So there's very few people, even the more wealthy among us, that can actually afford to, say, fund the whole education here at Ithaca. So I have talked with families who have well over $200,000 of income and still find it challenging to meet the cost of school and still may appeal for additional funds.

 

Jon Marcus: She said colleges like Ithaca need those families to come and pay at least part of what it costs to keep the campus going, so they give them some financial aid to get them in the door. Say a college has $20,000 to give away. It could give it to one poor kid and it gets one student and no revenue. Or, it could divide it up among five wealthier kids, and it gets five students whose families can afford to pay the rest of the tuition.

 

Lisa Hoskey: I know people don't often think that there's a bottom line, but there is.

 

Jon Marcus: That bottom line is pushing college education even further out of reach than it already was for low income students, students like Maya Portillo. She's a friend of Eddie's at Cornell. She says she gets what colleges are doing.

 

Maya Portillo: It's like a business, right? They have to make profits some way, and so what are they going to do? Fund the one really smart low income kid or the, you know, five just as talented individuals to come? It's a hard balance.

 

Jon Marcus: Maya started life in the middle class, then her father walked out and her mother lost her job. They moved in with Maya's grandparents and Maya and her younger sister went to work to help support the family.

 

Maya Portillo: I can't even begin to describe how hard it was. I mean, it's really hard to talk about, but when you have to help put food on the table when you're in high school, it does something to you, right? It makes you very aware of the income inequality in this country. Like, I had people tell me that I should come here because, not that I wasn't smart enough, but because I couldn't handle the amount of wealth that would be in front of me.

 

Jon Marcus: Maya was one of the lucky ones. She got enough financial aid to cover her tuition, but that includes loans she'll need to pay back, and she was still short by more than $3,000 a year for health insurance and other expenses and being poor at a college where most other students don't have to worry about money has another consequence. You can miss out on important opportunities like the prestigious pre-law program Maya got accepted to in New York City.

 

Maya Portillo: And I was so excited. Hold on, they don't pay you? It's done, can't do it. Right, had to turn it down.

 

Jon Marcus: Rich students can afford to take unpaid internships. Poor students can't.

 

On my last day in Ithaca I meet up with Eddie again and he takes me to his favorite spot on campus.

 

Eddie Medena: Yeah, so we are in the Johnson Museum at Cornell University on the fifth floor, which is the Asian gallery floor.

 

Jon Marcus: From up here you can see all of Cornell's impressive campus spread out below.

 

Eddie Medena: These three buildings starting here to the second, to the third pass, they were the first buildings at Cornell. Those used to be dormitories, actually.

 

Jon Marcus: Eddie likes to come up here where it's quiet and think about how far he's come.

 

Eddie Medena: It's very humbling. It keeps you going and it also, yeah, it reminds you that this is a different place than like what you're used to, like what you know.

 

Jon Marcus: Eddie thinks that paying for college shouldn't have been so much harder for him than it was for his wealthier classmates. After all, Cornell's motto is Any Person, Any Study, but he's spent a lot of his time just trying to pay the bill.

 

Eddie Medena: It's almost like you try to make sense of it by saying to yourself that, you know, "Oh, well, ah, like this really sucks, but I guess I'm getting the degree, right? It should work out that the payoff should be just about right and not like-"

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 - 00:36:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:52:35]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Eddie: It should work out, the pay off should be just about right. I'm constantly trying to convince myself of that.

 

Speaker 8: Ladies and gentlemen, the first of the academic procession has arrived.

 

Jon Marcus: Still, Eddie did manage to graduate from a degree of Cornell. It took his very last dollar to pay his last months rent.

 

Al Letson: Our story was produced my Matt Frassica and reported by Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit that reports on education.

 

Since this story first aired, Eddie has since found a job with a social impact consulting firm and he started to repay his student loans, which add up to $68,000. There are some students like Eddie, who have gotten the grades to get into a good university, they may even be able to afford the tuition. Schools in their home state won't let them in, and lawmakers have even passed laws to keep them out.

 

That story when we come back. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we've heard about how the cost of going to college is putting higher education out of reach for some students, but that's not the only barrier.

 

Arturo Martinez lives in Georgia. Five years ago he was getting ready to graduate from high school and a lot of his friends were preparing for college.

 

Arturo Martinez: Senior year I had a lot of friends who during the finals, they would be excited to show off their acceptance letters, talking about college and where they were going to go. They would ask me, "Why are you not going to college? You're so smart, you can go to Georgia Tech or UGA."

 

Al Letson: Arturo had good grades and wanted to attend the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, but he wasn't allowed. That's because when he was eight years old, he and his family illegally crossed the border into the United States from Mexico.

 

Growing up, Arturo knew he'd be cut out of certain things. One time in middle school he hurt his knee playing baseball. The other parents thought he should go to the hospital, but Arturo was afraid that someone there might ask questions.

 

Arturo Martinez: Something may come up and my parents are arrested. Just wanted to put off, just tell them that I was fine, that I was actually scared of doctors.

 

Al Letson: Did you catch that? He pretended he was afraid of doctors rather than risk his family being discovered. In high school, Arturo's guidance counselor assumed he wanted to go to college. When he asked Arturo if he had a social security number, Arturo started to duck the meetings.

 

Arturo Martinez: I tried to avoid the college talks with my counselors because the fact that I was undocumented. I didn't want to disclose my status.

 

Al Letson: He watched his classmates go off and start their new lives, and he grew depressed. Arturo is what some people call a Dreamer; young people living in this country without proper documentation.

 

Under the Obama administration, they could get Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. It gave them temporary permission to stay in two year work permits. That made it easier to go to college, because they could work legally and pay tuition.

 

President Trump said last year he wants to end that program, but legal challenges have kept it in place for now. For students like Arturo who want to go to college, a lot depends on where they live. Some states have generous policies. In more than 20 states, they pay in-state tuition.

 

Georgia goes the opposite direction. It bars students like Arturo from enrolling in its top three colleges and charges them non-resident tuition at state schools they're allowed to attend.

 

Arturo Martinez: I can't afford, even if I had two jobs.

 

Al Letson: Defenders of Georgia's policies say immigrants living in the US illegally shouldn't take seats or resources away from people who are here legally.

 

Sasha Aslanian with our partners at APM Reports looks at how some students in Georgia are pushing back.

 

Sasha A.: Arturo's dream was to go to college and study computer science. Instead, he spent five years working construction with his dad. On most evenings you'll find him in a room off his family's kitchen, it's pretty much a broom closet.

 

Arturo Martinez: This is where I do my work.

 

Sasha A.: He's hooked together three computer monitors and blinged out the computer tower with tiny lights that change color.

 

Arturo Martinez: I built the whole computer, so every piece that you see right there was put together. Basically my routine, come in from work with my dad doing construction, this is where I free myself.

 

Sasha A.: Arturo shows me examples of the graphic designs he has been practicing.

 

Arturo Martinez: Here is some the pieces that I'm working on.

 

Sasha A.: They're portraits made from geometric shapes with crowns of light like religious figures.

 

Arturo Martinez: One of my favorites called Emiliano Zapata, he's the Mexican revolutionary leader that we learned from Freedom U.

 

Sasha A.: That's Freedom University. It's an underground school for undocumented students in Atlanta. The experience opened the door to much bigger possibilities in his life. To visit Freedom University, I had to promise not to reveal where they meet.

 

Speaker 9: Make your small groups of whatever size.

 

Sasha A.: On this Sunday night, about a dozen kids gather in donated space in a glassed in room with comfy purple and orange couches. Visiting professors from nearby colleges volunteer their time. Students don't pay, but there's also no credit.

 

Tonight an English professor from Morehouse College is teaching a poetry class.

 

Speaker 9: That's a beautiful statement, when we become hard rock and so forth, that's when we're most vulnerable. That's when we break.

 

Sasha A.: Freedom University is inspired by Southern Freedom Schools from the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s. College students from the north established temporary schools for local black children as part of the overall push for legal and social equality.

 

Freedom U has one paid employee, Emiko Soltis.

 

Emiko Soltis: Basically I'm the provost and janitor of Freedom U.

 

Sasha A.: Soltis has a PhD in Human Rights and Social Movements, and a history of being what she calls a troublemaker. She was arrested for standing up for the rights of cafeteria workers when she was a grad student at Emory University.

 

Freedom U was founded in 2011 in response to Georgia's policies that put up roadblocks for kids like Arturo. Soltis became Executive Director in 2014.

 

Emiko Soltis: This ban has now been in place for seven years. We have an entire generation of young people in Georgia who have since they were in middle school, now grade school soon, thought college was not a possibility. They gave up.

 

Sasha A.: In 2016, there were just 428 undocumented students enrolled in the university system of Georgia, that's 1/7 of 1%. Soltis tries to convince her students not to lose hope and to explore opportunities in other states.

 

She drives a van up the east coast so they can meet Freedom U alumni now going to ivy league schools. They tour campuses around the country that welcome students like them, and they even ask them to give talks sometimes.

 

Back home in Georgia, Soltis has introduced them to an earlier generation of Atlanta student leaders who faced obstacles and fought back. People like Charles Black, who's a board member at Freedom U.

 

Charles Black: There was no college in Miami that I could attend because of my race, none.

 

Sasha A.: Black grew up in Florida. In 1958, he came to Atlanta to attend Morehouse, a historically black college. He was an early leader of the Atlanta Student Movement, which challenged segregation.

 

Charles Black: It was illegal for blacks and whites to sit together in a place of public assembly. You couldn't use the same taxi cabs. The hospital, they had separate ambulances for blacks and whites. All these things were the law, just like this is the law now that we are fighting against.

 

Sasha A.: For Arturo Martinez, Charles Black and the civil rights leaders of his generation are an inspiration.

 

Arturo Martinez: They fought for what they believed was right and ended up winning.

 

Sasha A.: Black teaches them what it took to dismantle segregation from lunch counter, to dime store, to city hall. He was first arrested in 1960 while trying to desegregate the Whites Only waiting room at the train station where he'd first arrived in town.

 

Charles Black: Martin King's brother, A.D. Williams King, and I led two separate groups into the white waiting room of the general train station. It should be noted that all of these places were scoped out beforehand. We knew about how many seats there were, where the entrances were, where there was a phone booth somewhere near where we could have a spotter who could report in. Things were planned with military precision.

 

Sasha A.: So are the protests that Freedom U organizes today. Their main target is the Georgia Board of Regents and it's policies against undocumented students.

 

Speaker 10: Good morning, at this time I'd like to call the Board of Regents meeting to order.

 

Sasha A.: It's February of 2017, Valentine's Day actually. About a dozen Freedom U students and supporters have gotten dressed up. They take seats in the audience at a Board of Regents meeting. After a few minutes, the students stand up and begin handing the regents carnations and hand written valentines asking them to remove the tuition and admission restrictions for undocumented students.

 

Speaker 10: Excuse me, I would ask those who are interrupting our meeting and blocking our speaker who had prepared a presentation to please leave the room or return to your seats.

 

Sasha A.: The regents are whisked from the room, carnations scattered on the floor. An officer with the state patrol approaches the protestors.

 

Speaker 11: If you do not disperse immediately you will be arrested, your choice.

 

Sasha A.: The protestors file out. It's a month after Donald Trump's inauguration and they can't risk getting arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges. Trump's first week in office, he'd signed an order that any criminal offense was grounds for deportation.

 

Outside on the sidewalk, Freedom U student Arisbeth Sanchez is relieved the protest went smoothly.

 

Arisbeth S.: My heart was racing just because the police were ready. Obviously, police is not something that makes you feel amazing.

 

Sasha A.: Tough enforcement is exactly what some Georgians want to see. Trump supporter D.A. King opposes Freedom U's activities. He runs a group that wants to make Georgia the least hospitable state in the country for unauthorized immigrants.

 

I catch him on one of his frequent trips to the Georgia state capital to weigh in on immigration issues. King's white and a former marine who quit his insurance business to devote himself to this cause.

 

Today he walks through the metal detector carrying a letter.

 

D.A. King: I'm going to take this and deliver it to Governor Deal's office and ask for a 10 minute meeting. I'm also going to ask that I be given hair. The odds of either one of those happening are about the same.

 

Sasha A.: King is bald and he's right, he doesn't get the meeting. He's persistent and he's been on the winning side much of the time. He's at home at the capital. He visits with staff in their offices, he promises tacos to the aide of one of his senate allies.

 

D.A. King: Donna does me a lot of favors, this is like a two taco favor. When I go by Taqueria Del Sol, then I deliver tacos.

 

Donna: He does.

 

Sasha A.: He charms her into letting us use a conference room for our interview. What motivates King is a sense of moral indignation, that people are coming and taking something that's not theirs.

 

D.A. King: For the first ten years that I did this, people started coming to me instead of to our congressmen and telling me that their kid couldn't get hired at McDonald's in Gainesville, Georgia because they didn't speak Spanish. Or small business owners would come to me and say, "D.A., I lost my business because my competition is hiring black market labor."

 

We have homeless vets, but I have to hear people whining about an illegal alien not getting X. It doesn't wash with me. I think given a fair presentation, it doesn't wash with most Americans.

 

Sasha A.: King feels a certain amount of sympathy for kids brought to the US as children who now don't have legal status, but he doesn't think their situation can be compared to the African American people who faced Jim Crow laws.

 

D.A. King: When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama when I was eight years old, I saw Colored Only bathrooms and water fountains. I remember crying when I realized what was going on. For people to take the struggle of black Americans to obtain their constitutional rights and compare it to illegal aliens demanding amnesty and access to America that they do not deserve nor have they earned makes me sick to my stomach.

 

Sasha A.: Freedom U supporters say undocumented immigrants also have constitutional rights. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has filed two federal lawsuits. One challenges the ban that keeps students from going to certain universities, the other challenges the rules about paying higher tuition.

 

One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit is Arturo Martinez, the young man working construction with his dad.

 

Arturo Martinez: I wanted to find other ways to keep fighting. This lawsuit will push it even farther to put the pressure of the Board of Regents because I think the law is on our side.

 

Sasha A.: As the lawsuit began its slow crawl through the courts, Arturo kept working alongside his dad and applying for colleges and scholarships out of state. Last spring he checked his email on his home built computer and got some good news.

 

He won a scholarship from TheDream.US. It's a private scholarship for students who live in the 15 states that have barriers for undocumented students. Arturo won a full ride to Eastern Connecticut State University.

 

Arturo Martinez: I went to my dad and told him I think I'm going to college. He got up and he started jumping out of happiness and we started hugging each other. The reaction of my mom, and even the reaction of my dog, she started jumping on me and started licking me and stuff. It was a special moment for me.

 

Sasha A.: It was a victory for the Martinez family, even if Arturo had to go 1,000 miles from home. Last fall, five years after graduating from high school, Arturo moved to Connecticut. He's double majoring in math and computer science.

 

Al Letson: Sasha Aslanian is a correspondent with APM Reports, the documentary and investigative journalism group at American Public Media.

 

Arturo should graduate in 2021, but it's not clear what will happen to Dreamers like him. Last year President Trump said it was up to congress to come up with a solution. More recently he tweeted, "No more DACA deal."

 

Neena Satija was our lead Producer, today's show was edited by Taki Telonidis. Thanks to Dave Harmon from the Texas Tribune and Catherine Winter from APM Reports. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa.

 

Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mister Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help Catherine Raymondo and Cat Shugnit. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenburg. Amy Pyle's our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 - 00:52:35]