dotEDU Episode 12: Giving All Learners a Chance


​​​​​​Aired on Dec. ​23, 2019​

Former Secretary of Education John B. King, now president and CEO of The Education Trust, talks about his passion for giving all learners, particularly those in poverty and prisons, access to higher education. He discusses with hosts Jon Fansmith and Lorelle Espinosa how his own personal experiences, his work in the federal government, and his work as an education advocate drive him to help students who just need a chance to succeed. He also provides practical solutions for institutions and policymakers who want to close equity gaps. 

**Programming note** 

dotEDU will take a break for the holidays and will return with new episodes in January.

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

​Conversation with John B. King


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith [00:00:05] Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the Higher Education Podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm John Farnsmirth, director of government relations here at ACE. And I'm joined, as always by my esteemed co-host, Lorelle Espinosa, ACE's vice president for research. And I got the title right this time?

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:20] You got it right.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:21] Excellent. Always...

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:21] Very good.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:22] Thank you, thank you. Only nine attempts in at this point on a live mic. That's great. It's a big time here in Washington, D.C. as we record this.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:32] Yes, yes.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:33] A lot of things happening. I think most people listening are probably familiar with all of them. But we had a vote yesterday in the House to impeach the president. We also are finalizing federal funding for the year and we're in the holiday. So, you know, those are things that naturally go together, right? The holidays, federal funding, impeachment, it's sort of Washington--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:53] Sort of layered on. Holidays are hard for some people, you know, there're stressful times. And we're really showing up in Washington with some stressful times.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:01] That's right. We're adding stress to everyone's plate no matter what you care about. Well, it is appropriate that, with such a big moment here in Washington, DC, we have a big episode to close out this year for the podcast.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:14] Yeah.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:14] We're going to be joined in just a minute by former Secretary of Education and current President and CEO of Ed Trust, John B. King. Again, you know, probably I would say the biggest, highest profile guest we've had on our podcast so far.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:29] Yes, indeed. Going out with a bang.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:29] That's right. Going out with a bang at the end of the year. So we're gonna take a brief break and we'll come right back. And welcome back. We are joined now by our guest, former Secretary of Education John B. King. And I mentioned a little bit about, you know, who you are and what your role is. I thought I'd start off just by asking you when you left the administration, at the end of the last administration. As a former secretary of education, obviously, there were a wide variety of things you could have done, places you could have gone, areas to focus your work. Maybe you could tell us why you chose to go to Ed Trust and about some of the work you're doing there.

John B. King [00:02:13] Sure, sure. Well, thanks for the opportunity to join you. So I came to the Ed Trust because of the mission. The Mission of Education Trust is to advance education equity for low-income students and students of color. We do work in both p-12 education and higher education. And that focus on education equity has really driven my whole career from when I was a teacher to principal to working in state government to working in the federal government. And so Ed Trust was the perfect place to keep working on those issues. In higher ed, we have a long history of advocating for the Pell Grant program, for advocating for access, affordability and completion for low-income students and students of color. And it's exactly the kind of work that I wanted to be engaged in.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:03] And we've worked a lot here at ACE with Ed Trust. Found you just fantastic partners and really leaders in this area in a lot of ways. Can you tell us a little bit about the approach you take at Ed Trust, you mentioned the work you do addressing equity gaps sort of the approach you've taken in sort of the key areas of focus within that?

John B. King [00:03:19] Sure. So we do a lot of work at the federal level on federal policy so we certainly have been in lots of conversations with all of you about the Higher Education Act reauthorization. And we are committed that that reauthorization has to honor the civil rights legacy of the original Higher Education Act of 1965, which from our perspective means increasing the investment in Pell Grants. We think we ought to at least double the investment in Pell Grants so that we make college more accessible and affordable for low-income students. We think that the reauthorized Higher Education Act has to make investments in HBCUs, in minority-serving institutions, those institutions that enroll large numbers of students of color and low-income students. We think the reauthorized Higher Education Act has to incentivize attention on completion. We have a lot of work to do as a country to make sure that the students who start actually finish. And we ought to structure our federal law to reward those institutions that enroll significant numbers of low-income students and get them to graduation. And we think a reauthorized Higher Education Act has to address some of our significant access gaps, making federal aid available to undocumented students, restoring access to Pell Grants for folks who are incarcerated. We also think there's work to do to make income-based repayment easier. Some progress on that in the recent FUTURE Act. But we think there's an opportunity to build on that.

Jon Fansmith [00:04:49] We talked a little bit about the FUTURE Act on previous episodes and that's obviously a nice note to end the year on the passage of that, I think in many ways, you know how quickly it moved when it finally started moving after so many delays was a real positive note to end the year on. There's obviously been a lot of issues in reauthorization with bills in the House. And, you know, I think certainly we've seen a lot of the things that Ed Trust cares about works on being addressed by some of that legislation. You've mentioned in previous interviews, discussions that focus the human-centered approach that Ed Trust puts at the center of their outreach effort. And that's some of that comes across when you're talking about Pell Grants and completion and things, that those are sort of the policy implications of that approach, but can you tell us just a little bit more about what you mean by human-centered approach and how that translates?

John B. King [00:05:36] Yeah. I mean, we really think we have to focus on students and the student experience and the student perspective, and that's the lens that we try to bring to policy questions. So, for example, in this work around restoration of access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students, in our advocacy, we've really tried to center the voices of justice-impacted students, folks who were incarcerated or are currently incarcerated and are participating in higher education and seeing the benefit for themselves, their families and their communities. Their stories are incredibly powerful. In the work around undocumented students, same thing, trying to let the students tell their stories which are so compelling. I was at the Complete College America conference last week in Pheonix and took the opportunity to go over to Arizona State University and meet with undocumented students who participate in a campus organization, Undocumented Students for Education Equity, and heard from them about the obstacles that they experienced not being able to access federal aid, not being able to access in-state tuition. The challenges they face, whether it's fear about ICE for themselves, for their families. Whether it's the difficulty in getting a driver's license or being able to find additional financial assistance and scholarships. The climate for immigrant students today. And so hearing their voices gave me a better sense of the challenges they face. And those are the voices that I think members of Congress need to hear, governors, state legislators, higher ed presidents, higher ed trustees, they need to hear from the students what's getting in the way for them so that we can remove those obstacles.

Jon Fansmith [00:07:29] We often make that point, and I think especially for DACA, Dreamers, undocumented students, we know the challenges that face, you know, "an average student" who, you know, doesn't have all those other issues that are coming into place. But then you add on everything you mentioned, concerns about family members, concerns about their status, access to funding that's available to other students that may not be available to them. I mean, it is really remarkable and sort of unfortunate we've taken this turn in the last couple of years in terms of how we extend a welcome to those students. Obviously, disappointing that Congress hasn't acted, but hopefully we'll see something soon.

John B. King [00:08:06] Yeah, one has to hope.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:08:08] Yeah, I appreciate this student voice aspect of what you're saying. I find as a former practitioner of higher ed, researcher, that we often don't bring the student voice and we talk a lot about students in this town, what we need to improve their experience, but we often don't bring the actual voices to bear. So I'm really appreciative of that. And you actually moderated a panel at ACE2019 at our annual conference last year of students. Just to that point, to get them on the stage to hear their experiences. And we really appreciated that you did that for us. You have a blog post, too, of a student from that panel titled, Higher Education Behind and Beyond Bars: A Father and Son Story. Maybe we can start to get into some of the work that you described a moment ago about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students and perhaps share a bit about what you've heard from those very students, including this one that wrote the post for you.

John B. King [00:09:07] Yeah. So the historical context here is that in the '94 crime bill, Congress made the terrible, misguided decision to ban access to Pell Grants for folks who were incarcerated. And the result was we went from over 300 programs around the country, higher ed programs in prisons, to roughly a dozen. I mean, that number of programs was just decimated. A few programs were able to continue with philanthropic support. Bard, for example, has a very longstanding college and prison program that actually was just profiled in a PBS documentary.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:09:45] Yes. That's a really powerful documentary.

John B. King [00:09:48] Exactly. College Behind Bars. But the mistake was that we locked folks out of educational opportunity. We talked with one student who described, where she was incarcerated, that the folks came and took the books from the library the day after the ban was put in place and said, "Oh, well you won't need these anymore." And so--.

Jon Fansmith [00:10:13] Really sends a message, doesn't it?

John B. King [00:10:15] Exactly. And it's so misguided. We know from really decades of research evidence that there is a 30 to 40 percent reduction in recidivism for participation in any educational program while incarcerated. We know that when you look at a program like the Bard program, their graduates are able to come home and participate in their community and are thriving. And so we ought to be doing more. In the Obama administration, we used the experimental authority in the Higher Education Act to create a pilot program called Second Chance Pell. Initially, there were 65 colleges and universities participating. Today, that's roughly 10,000 students who are benefiting from that Second Chance Pell pilot. And those institutions that participated and the partner prisons were able to use Pell Grants for incarcerated students. Now to the current administration's credit, Secretary Davos has expressed commitment to continuing the program and actually expanding it. And there's real bipartisan momentum around the potential REAL Act, which would repeal the ban on access to Pell Grants. And so we've been very involved at Ed Trustin telling the story of the students, explaining to people why this will make a difference, that we've got 700,000 folks coming home from prison every year, roughly 95 percent of people who are incarcerated will come home, and that we are all better off as a society if folks have the opportunity to pursue education while incarcerated.

Jon Fansmith [00:11:45] And you mentioned that this is an idea that has bipartisan appeal. We've been working on support for the REAL Act and other areas of lifting the ban. You know, it's traditionally, I think, thought of that this is something that maybe conservatives or Republicans would oppose the idea of additional benefits or, you know, allowing aid to go to incarcerated individuals. Is there a reason we've seen the sort of transition in a dialog about this, that it now is a bipartisan...there are strong conservative voices who are coming out in favor of this?

John B. King [00:12:15] Well, the students stories are so compelling, so that the student who was on the ACE panel with me talked about the impact of higher education in prison, not just for him, but for his son and the example that it set for his son. And when members of Congress, when governors visit these programs, speak at their graduations, talk with graduates. It's very compelling because you hear really the transformative power of education. You hear folks saying, you know, this opportunity to get higher ed in prison has changed my relationship with my whole family. I remember a student telling me, "For the first time, I had moral credibility with my family because I was a student and I was learning in this program. So I think it's that the student stories that have been so compelling and have helped move the dialogue. Of course, we also are seeing, I think, really positive national movement on criminal justice reform generally and a realization that the policies of mass incarceration of the mid '90s didn't work and were unnecessary or were actually harmful.

Jon Fansmith [00:13:30] Very counterproductive.

John B. King [00:13:30] Very counterproductive. Exactly. Not only harmful to the folks who are incarcerated, but to their families, to their children and ultimately to communities.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:13:38] Yeah. I wonder if you might go a little deeper on some of those intersections. So, you know, at ACE, we've been doing a lot of work on race and ethnicity. And this is an issue that has an intersection, a great intersection with race, with poverty. You mentioned the communities that these individuals live in. I wonder if you might unpack that a little bit for us?

John B. King [00:14:00] Yeah, I mean, and this is really at the center of a lot of our work at the Education Trust. We have a history as a country around issues of race, and that shapes a lot of our present reality. So when you talk about the the wealth gap, for example, that's grounded in our history as a country around slavery. When you read the 1619 project on The New York Times and think about the role that slavery and Jim Crow and institutionalized racism have played in our history as a country, you see that it's not surprising that we have this wealth gap. And then it translates then into African-American students disproportionately defaulting on their loans because they don't have the access to resources [crosstalk].

Jon Fansmith [00:14:52] --Accounting for every other characteristic here.

John B. King [00:14:55] Exactly. And you can't solve these deep historical issues if you won't talk openly and honestly about issues of race. And, you know, we have a paper coming out soon at Ed Trust about the continued need for race conscious policies. And you have people today arguing, "Oh, we don't need affirmative action anymore." So deeply misguided. The fact of the matter is, African-American and Latino students are underrepresented, not only in our most selective colleges and universities, but we had a recent paper that showed they're underrepresented in public higher ed generally in state after state. And so we need affirmative action to ensure that our higher ed institutions reflect our diversity as a country, to ensure that they are places where students can learn from folks who are like them and learn from folks who are different from them. And that's our educational mission. So we argue in this paper on race conscious policies that we have to talk about race and think about race as we design policies to improve higher ed access, affordability and completion.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:16:03] I'm looking forward to that paper. I got a sneak peek at that paper actually, and really looking forward to it. And we'll be promoting it in our race ethnicity project. So, you know, people listening to this, I think will be moved, if they're not already, to act. What can institutions do when we think about again, ACE membership, higher education institutions, their leadership. What can they do on this issue to be proactive and to sort of do the right thing?

John B. King [00:16:31] Well, it starts with creating programs in prisons, right? Higher ed institutions can create programs. They can potentially apply for future iterations of the Second Chance Pell program. But they can also create philanthropically supported programs or work with their states to create state funded programs in prisons. Whether that is full degree programs or opportunities for students to take courses while incarcerated. They can remove barriers to access to formerly incarcerated students on their campus. The "ban the box" movement to remove those obstacles that on many campuses prevent formerly incarcerated students from having access.

Jon Fansmith [00:17:15] And just to clarify for folks who may not know, ban the box means essentially not asking about previous criminal convictions as part of the application process.

John B. King [00:17:24] Exactly. Exactly. They can create supports on campus for formerly incarcerated students. Much as we hope that institutions will do for undocumented students, for student veterans, tailored supports to help folks who are formerly incarcerated navigate some of the challenges of reentering and adjusting to life on campus. Institutions can work to make sure that legislators and policymakers understand the compelling research evidence and the benefits of higher education for incarcerated students. They can work to create programs that help expose their students to our history of mass incarceration and the ways in which the prison system operates to really maintain a permanent caste system, when you think about Michelle Alexander's work in the new Jim Crow.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:18:22] Yeah. And I would add to document the outcomes because that will go a long way, the research on these programs and what the outcomes are and to be able to show returns on investment when it comes to investing in said tailored supports.

John B. King [00:18:39] Absolutely. And that may ultimately lead as well to looking at outcomes in employment, not just completions but how do students do in employment. And look, universities should also look at their their employment policies. Do they have artificial barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated students? Do they need to ban the box not just from the application process, but in their employment processes? Are they thinking about formerly incarcerated folks as potential faculty members at their institution? You know, there is a need to really look at every aspect of institutional behavior, ask what more could we be doing.

Jon Fansmith [00:19:19] Yeah, and that raises some interesting questions, too, because obviously the hope of lifting the ban is that more institutions will build these programs. Even absent lifting the ban, more institutions will find ways to participate in the expansion, Second Chance Pell may allow for that, too. Are there any concerns you have in your role at Ed Trust about how do we protect some of these students, too? I mean, there's a possibility, we see it every time there's an expansion of a benefit in federal aid, unfortunately, you often see attempts at fraud or abuse. Is that something you're concerned about or is that generally something that you think can be managed?

John B. King [00:19:53] Well, we think guardrails are important. We've got to make sure that we don't end up with predatory for-profit institutions trying to use these programs as a way to take advantage of students. We've got to make sure that campuses that provide programs in prison create opportunities for those students to use those credits when they come to the campus after they leave prison. So we've got to make sure there's--.

Jon Fansmith [00:20:21] A transfer pathway.

John B. King [00:20:22] Exactly. Exactly. Got to make sure the courses are high quality, that there are opportunities to really interact with the professor. I worry about some institutions saying they're just going to do this through online without the real interaction with faculty members. So, yes, I think guardrails are important and there is an opportunity for Congress to address that as the REAL Act moves forward.

Jon Fansmith [00:20:47] And one of the guardrails that sometimes is brought up in these discussions is...Actually I shouldn't say it's a guardrail, I think one of the items that's brought up in the policy discussions is saying, "Well, maybe we can restore the benefit, but let's only limit it to people who are within five years of release or let's only limit it to people who have been convicted of a certain category of crime, but not other categories of crime." I just kind see that come up a lot in the policy discussion. ACE has historically supported simply lifting the ban. I'm curious what your thoughts are.

John B. King [00:21:22] Yeah, I'm very worried about some of those proposals. We ought to make higher education available to every student who's incarcerated because we believe in education and we believe in its transformative power, because we believe in the humanity of folks who are incarcerated and their opportunity to contribute to not only their own lives, but to the lives of the folks they're incarcerated with, to the lives of their family members and friends. So even if someone has a life sentence and may not be returning home, they can still be a powerful, positive contributor to the community within the prison and the community outside of the prison. And so I'm very worried. I know we at Ed Trust are opposed to any limitations. And interestingly, when you talk to folks who run corrections systems, they also are opposed to those kinds of limitations because they know that when you have higher ed programs in prison, it shifts the culture in the prison. It creates a focus on learning. It gives people the opportunity to grow and develop. And so they often are some of the clearest and loudest voices saying we shouldn't create artificial barriers to access.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:22:44] That's interesting. Yeah, the barriers feel like just more judgment. Just, "you're still not good enough if you fall into these categories." Just ongoing judgment of individuals when it should be, as you said, open.

Jon Fansmith [00:22:58] Well, that's such a powerful point, too, about the correctional officers who support this without those limitations, because they see the environment that these programs produce and the changes they make. And that's, you talked about this, there's an individual benefit to education, obviously. But when we're talking about the societal benefit that works across, you know, the family relationships you talked about but even within the facility, that there's benefits to everyone who's there. So it really remarkable.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:23:24] Makes sense. When you think about it.

Jon Fansmith [00:23:26] Seems like common...I feel like that a lot. I say it's something seems like common sense as we're having these discussions. And it's nice to hear that and hopefully it will translate into the policy side. Before we wrap up, were there any other thoughts you wanted to add or anything you wanted to just touch on before we left?

John B. King [00:23:43] Yeah, I mean, two things that I'd reinforce: you know, we called this program Second Chance Pell. But when you talk to folks, for many of them, many of the incarcerated students, this is really about a first chance because of the experiences they had that shaped their life's path--not everyone, but many of the students have experienced extraordinary trauma before they ended up incarcerated. Many of them attended schools that were under-resourced, struggling schools. And so I've talked with students who are incarcerated who say, "You know, my relationship with my college professor is the first real relationship I've had with a teacher. It's the first time I've had a teacher who really took me seriously as a student. It's the first time I've really gotten to grapple with a powerful text and engage with peers around that text." And so there's an important realization, I think, for us that many of the folks who are incarcerated, they're there because they didn't have access to opportunity. And this can be transformative for their life's path. And for me personally, I just am such a deep believer in second chances. I always share when I'm talking with students who are incarcerated, my own experience of having been kicked out of high school. I always say I'm the first U.S. Secretary of Education who'd been kicked out of high school.

Jon Fansmith [00:25:16] An important distinction.

John B. King [00:25:17] Yes. Yes. But you know, I was struggling as a teenager because of trauma I had experienced as a kid. I lost both my parents, my mom when I was eight and my dad when I was 12. I mean, it was just me and my dad and my dad was struggling with undiagnosed Alzheimer's. So home was this place that was scary and unstable and inconsistent. And I was lucky to have really good teachers who gave me a sense of hope and strong academic preparation. But by the time I was a teenager, I was just mad. I was angry and I was hurt. And I lashed out and I broke rules and I got in trouble. And, you know, it is because some folks gave me a second chance, some family members and a school counselor, that I was able to get my life back on track. But if not for those folks who gave me a second chance, I could easily be in prison today or dead today. And so for me, I just am so passionate about this idea that prison ought to be a place of rehabilitation, a place of second chances, that when folks come home, they should have the opportunity to contribute to their families and communities. We should eliminate collateral consequences that prevent people from getting access to education, to housing, to employment because what we want is to be a society where, yes, people are going to make mistakes because they're human beings, but then we believe in their humanity and their potential and give them that second chance. And that's really the spirit behind this second chance work and more broadly has higher ed institutions, we ought to see this as central to our mission, trying to expand the circle of access. And that's why we need affirmative action. That's why we need to at least double Pell grants so that low income students can get to college. It's why we need aid for undocumented students. It's why we need to have supports for students who are housing insecure and food insecure. It is about expanding that circle of access to be truly a society of equality, of opportunity.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:24] And truly inclusive of all aspects of society, too. I think that's a great point and just I can really appreciate the passion you have for these issues. And that's really kind of amazing to hear how it ties into your own personal story in that way, so thank you for sharing that with us.

John B. King [00:27:39] Thanks.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:40] So unless either of you have anything else to say, I'm going to thank you so much for taking the time today.

John B. King [00:27:46] Thanks for the opportunity to join you. Happy holidays.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:50] Thank you, happy holidays. This really is a high note to end the year on.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:27:52] It is.

Jon Fansmith [00:27:53] So we will post links to the resources John mentioned on our podcast, the web site, which is So please go there to get more information, to find more episodes of dotEDU. And that's all for this episode of dotEDU. We're going to be taking a little break over the holidays and we'll be back with new episodes in the New Year. I want to take this opportunity to thank my co-host, Lorelle Espinosa. Lorelle, this has been a real pleasure to kick off these inaugural episodes with you.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:28:25] Yeah, it's been great. And we should also say thank you to Sarah Spreitzer and Jon Turk, who did a great job hosting a few episodes over these past few months.

Jon Fansmith [00:28:34] Frankly, a better job than we did [crosstalk].

Lorelle Espinosa [00:28:36] I mean, they're really good backups or front ups, or whatever they are. But yeah, we'll be hearing more from them in the new year as well.

Jon Fansmith [00:28:47] And I also want to thank before we go our behind the scenes team here at ACE, who really are amazing. And to the extent that this sounds good at all, it's really due to them. That would be our content producers, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, and Carly O'Connell, and especially our technical producers, Malcolm Moore and Crystal Garner. Again, be sure to subscribe to this podcast so you'll get notified when our episodes start in the new year with some really interesting topics we'll be covering and some exciting new guests and we'll be taking the podcast on the road.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:29:14] We will, yes.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:15] We're doing a road show. Yes, that's right.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:29:17] To exciting San Diego where our Annual Meeting is in March.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:21] In March and where we'll be wearing Hawaiian shirts possibly, maybe?.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:29:25] I don't know about that. I know Ted said that on the other podcast.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:28] He committed us to that. I think there's a backswell against that, a backlash happening so...

Lorelle Espinosa [00:29:33] We'll see. Show up and you'll find out.

Jon Fansmith [00:29:36] That's right. So stay tuned for all that. Thanks, everyone, for listening and have a Happy New Year. ​

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page​.

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