- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Oct. 1, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Congress should change law hindering higher education

The nonprofit Western Governors University is either a great experiment in higher education that has hit a bump in the road, or a flawed institution that is not providing its 83,000 enrolled students - 2,455 of whom live in Missouri - with the education they deserve. The first viewpoint comes from educators and many university alumni; the second is from the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Education.

Neither side disputes that the online university is innovative and has made higher education more affordable and accessible for low-income and nontraditional students. But the inspector general wants the university to pay back $713 million in federal loans and grants and be barred from receiving more payments.

The inspector general’s audit said WGU did not employ enough faculty to qualify as a distance education program as required for eligibility by a 1992 federal law - back when there was no such thing as an online university. The audit report said the university’s courses should have been labeled as correspondence courses, which are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Scott Pulsipher, president of WGU, says the audit took a narrow view of faculty roles, and that the school uses a nontraditional model. He says it has 2,000 faculty members involved in curriculum development, course teaching and student progress evaluation. WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

Congress clearly should update the 1992 law. Moving forward, the law could prove problematic for other online education programs as well. WGU has a competency-based education model, which allows students to master academic content at their own pace. Opinions vary on its viability.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is skeptical. “By its nature, it’s highly susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse because you’re dispensing with the one rock-solid guarantor of integrity that there is, and that is qualified faculty,” he told The Washington Post.

Pulsipher says the model works for “contemporary students” who need flexibility to pursue higher education degrees. Graduates give WGU high marks. Its student engagement scores are consistently better than the national average, and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend WGU to others. A recent Harris Poll showed graduates reporting their average income increase within four years of graduation was $19,100.

Pulsipher says most students pay $15,000 tuition to get a bachelor’s degree in 2½ years, and that 91 percent say it was worth the money. The school reports a 49 percent graduation rate. The national rate for standard four-year university programs is 59 percent.

Educators don’t expect the Trump administration to follow through on the inspector general’s recommendations, which the Education Department can reject. Congress should change the law to reflect the reality of today’s students.


Sept. 27, Springfield News-Leader

Debates can’t hide that world is dangerous for transgender people

We can’t quite grasp exactly how much danger the transgender community faces.

Historically, crime statistics haven’t considered factors like gender identity, and even today it’s not always taken into account - either because legal records don’t reflect it, or in the case of deaths, a person’s gender identity may be purposely hidden by survivors.

We do know, thanks to recent FBI crime data, that those who are LGBT are more likely than any other minority group to be the targeted because of their minority status - making up roughly 20 percent of all hate crimes.

The data is less clear on transgender victims, but it’s trending in the wrong direction. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign recorded 22 deaths of transgender people - the most ever recorded.

This year, with a quarter still to go, the organization has tracked 21, and it includes Ally Steinfeld, a 17-year-old from Houston, Missouri, who was stabbed to death this month.

Steinfeld’s case illustrates one of the reasons tracking transgender violence is difficult. Steinfeld is listed in official reports as Joseph, and finding verifiable evidence that Steinfeld identified as female is difficult. The reports of police, like the stories printed by news agencies, require a certain degree of verifiable information.

Whether or not records reflect it, there’s much evidence that Steinfeld identified as female.

What reports are clearer about is that the teen suffered a brutal death. It’s something transgender people, women in particular, fear.

A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 10 percent of respondents reported that a family member was violent towards them. In school, 24 percent said they were physically attacked and 13 percent said they were sexually assaulted.

Reports of violence in general, like those of homicides specifically, are climbing.

That may seem odd in a society that is generally more accepting of transgender people than it was in the past.

Some experts say growing acceptance leads extreme opponents to respond more drastically. The shift in culture can disturb those opponents, sometimes to violence, according to experts who study hate crimes.

While most of us will never be violent towards another person, these are facts that bear keeping in mind. This world is statistically more dangerous for transgender people.

Our community, like others across the country, has had discussions and debates about laws and rights based on gender identity. We’re likely to continue having those discussions.

Wherever you stand on past and future issues, it’s important that we take into consideration how vulnerable this particular minority community is.

Whether we’re talking about school bathrooms, housing laws or workplace protections, we should all accept that vulnerability as a given.

Official records may remember Steinfeld as Joseph. Some individuals may remember her as Ally. Everyone should remember that the world was dangerous for Steinfeld, just like it is for many others.


Oct. 1, The Kansas City Star

How to improve the life expectancy of Kansas Citians

We don’t die from what is on our death certificate.

Whatever is filled in on the form as the cause of death is merely the final symptom and not necessarily the most relevant factor, Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer says.

And it’s those other elements - unsafe neighborhoods, poverty and other toxic stresses - that take a horrible toll on people’s health, cutting life expectancy.

In fact, it is the basis of the alarming ZIP code data the Kansas City Health Department published last week.

People’s ZIP codes can be used to predict how long residents will likely live. And residents in some Kansas City ZIP codes have begun to see their life expectancies decline during the past five years.

A swath of Raytown and areas around the Missouri River have seen shifting demographics. And in four ZIP codes - 64117, 64123, 64133 and 64138 - life expectancy is trending downward.

Health department research estimates that 40 percent of Kansas City’s deaths each year can be attributed to six social factors the health department has been monitoring, overlaying the data on ZIP code maps: high school graduation rates, racial segregation, low social support, individual poverty, income inequality and community poverty.

If we want to see more Kansas Citians live well into their 80s, we shouldn’t focus only on the usual suspects, including chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

It’s not that basic medical care is unimportant. But even if all cancers were cured or prevented, the city’s life expectancies wouldn’t change much. Not without addressing these other factors that stress the body, triggering illnesses.

It’s why someone might survive a heart attack one year and then die of a stroke the next. Because, as Archer explains, an underlying cause for that person’s illness, such as poverty, might still be present.

Here’s the treatment plan. We’re one year into the Kansas City Community Health Improvement Plan for 2016-2021. The top three areas of focus are educational outcomes, violence prevention and economic mobility.

The work has been spearheaded by the city, which wisely gathered input from a wide range of organizations and leaders. Now, the city’s challenge is to remain focused on the plan’s goals and tackle these factors head-on.

An over-arching truth is that societies that have higher life expectancies have lower rates of income inequality. Archer cites a well-honed theory to illustrate.

It asks people if they would be willing to be born into any family living in any part of their community, if it would not unduly impact their opportunity to thrive. If not, you do not live in a just community. Answer honestly, Kansas City.

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