I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed. This week I reflect on the pros and cons of a new public-service scholarship program and share insights from my colleague Maura Mahoney into how institutions can support faculty members to better serve students. I also pass along ideas on fixing the student-debt crisis and better serving students who are also mothers.

A generous new public-service scholarship (maybe too generous).

You know I’m a sucker for higher-ed programs that promote public service, and this week, with the new Voyager Scholarship, the Obama Foundation and Brian Chesky, co-founder and chief executive of Airbnb, announced a doozy.

The program will provide scholarships of up to $50,000, stipends of $10,000 for students to “design their own summer voyage” between their junior and senior years of college (plus credits to stay at Airbnbs), and $2,000 travel stipends with Airbnb credits for 10 additional summers so students can “continue to broaden their horizons and forge new connections throughout their public-service careers.”

Chesky, whose parents were both social workers, said in a Twitter thread this week that the project is personal for him, because he would not have made it through college without financial help. Since then, he said, he has been “lucky enough to travel the world and learn from people different from me.” He defined public service broadly, including education, community organizing, health care, and the arts.

All great. And what an amazing opportunity, especially with the program’s emphasis on networking. I couldn’t agree more with the expansive definition of public service, and I believe in the educational value of experiencing how other people live. The catch? Even with Chesky’s personal donation of $100 million to establish the program, only 100 college juniors will be chosen to take part, at least at the outset. That makes me wonder: Wouldn’t this program have a lot more impact if it gave a little less money to a lot more people?

I suspect Chesky and the Obamas see merit in the exclusivity, which could convey an air of prestige to the winners and their interest in public service. The Rhodes Trust, for example, awards just 32 Rhodes scholarships a year.

But as valuable as it will probably be for a small group of students to get this level of financial support, my reporting tells me that less munificent programs can also go a long way toward creating opportunities and raising aspirations. Ten years on, I still vividly remember Christopher Prado at Cal State-East Bay, the first of his 30 siblings and cousins to graduate from college, telling me how much a 10-week congressional internship through the university’s Panetta Institute for Public Policy widened his view of the world. (A quick Google search shows that Prado is still working in public service, back in his hometown of Stockton, Calif.)

Another provision I question is that preference for the scholarships will go to undergraduates who aren’t already participating in leadership programs, which seems a bit punitive to those who’ve already shown some public-service initiative on their own.

Yeah, yeah, I get that until I’m the one giving away $100 million, I don’t get to make the rules. Maybe in time, this program will attract additional donors so more students can take part, on this scale or even with a less-lavish version. However it plays out, it’s an experiment worth watching.

“Equity” must include digital accessibility for disabled students.

My newsletter last week describing a major new project to develop online gen-ed courses aimed at reducing equity gaps, prompted this question from a reader, Raymond Rose: “Who’s included (or excluded) in the discussion about equity in this digital courseware?”

Rose, a self-described online-learning evangelist and advocate for making digital materials accessible to students with disabilities, asked whether the courses being developed as part of the $65-million project would uphold the principles of the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, meet at least the mid-level bar of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and/or satisfy the accessibility requirements established by Quality Matters, if, he wrote, the backers “are brave enough.”

For the record, the answers are yes, yes, and pretty much. On that third count, Alison Pendergast, the grants officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation overseeing the project, said the courses align with Quality Matters principles for instructional materials and course technology, but on accessibility specifically, course developers aren’t focused solely on the QM standards.

Those assurances don’t surprise me, but I appreciate the reminder not to assume, but to ask about access for students with disabilities. As much as it should be, it’s not always a given.

Supporting the faculty to better serve students.

We hear all the time that today’s students need more than their predecessors did. After the last two years, how are colleges taking into account the impact of students’ daily realities on their academic progress — and supporting the faculty members on the front lines?

Those questions informed a recent forum — moderated by Alexander C. Kafka, a senior editor, and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County — in The Chronicle’s yearlong series on student success, produced with support from the Ascendium Education Group.

Here is some of what we heard:

Faculty members need training to recognize and respond to students’ mental-health concerns. “When they see something, they need to know quickly who to get that student to,” said Jay T. Akridge, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University. Technology helps. “We’ve embedded tools in the information systems that the faculty uses,” he said, “that make it very easy for them to share the name of the student they believe is struggling in some way.”

Workshops and webinars can be useful as well, and at Miami Dade College, a task force on student wellness and mental health is faculty-led, said Malou C. Harrison, executive vice president and provost there.

A diverse faculty makes a difference. Professional development and “nurturing from within” have increased diversity on the faculty and staff at Middlesex Community College, in Massachusetts, said Arlene Rodriguez, its interim provost and vice president for academic and student affairs.

The University of San Diego has made cluster hires around such themes as social justice and diversity. “We’re trying to infuse, throughout the process, that this is a value that is aligned with the university,” said Gail F. Baker, the vice president and provost. “If you come, we will support you as faculty.” —Maura Mahoney

Check these out.

Here are some education-related items from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • The “unmanageable” levels of student debt now burdening millions of borrowers and their families are “a symptom of the shortcomings of our current student-loan system rather than the cause,” says the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in a new report. The report, “Protecting Borrowers & Advancing Equity,” offers more than 30 recommendations to simplify repayment, lower incidences of default, and improve loan servicing.
  • Twenty major broadband providers are now offering internet access for $30 a month to low-income families, and millions of Pell-eligible students (among others) can qualify for free access under the new federal Affordable Connectivity Program, Bloomberg reports. Nearly 12 million households are participating in the $14.2 billion program already, the news service notes, but about 48 million are eligible, according to the White House.
  • Mothers who return to college generally benefit, but the experience also carries financial risks, according to a brief — “What if Mom Went Back to School?” — published by the Urban Institute. On average, it took mothers in the study four years after enrollment to recover lost earnings and nine years for earnings gains to become “consistently significantly positive.” Mental and physical health effects were significant, too, but supports can help. As the author, Theresa Anderson, writes: “Telling parents to ‘just get through it’ is not sufficient.”
  • Campus counseling centers used to function more like life and career coaches than like therapists. “No longer,” The Hechinger Report describes in this feature story, told from inside the counseling center at the University of Iowa. “These days, counselors are as likely to see a student with a severe eating disorder or crippling panic attacks as one who is homesick or worried about schoolwork. A growing number of students — 13 percent, in one survey — have reported having suicidal thoughts.”

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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