Episode 71: Is it enough to make community college free?

Ever since President Obama unveiled his proposal to make two years of community college free for every American, it seems like all we’ve heard about is the money. How much would it cost?

(Answer: about $6 billion.) How much would it bring in, once those students graduate, get better paying jobs, and contribute more in taxes?

Here’s what no one seems to be talking about: actually finishing.

Just 35 percent of students who start a two-year community college program get their degree within six years. There are a lot of reasons for that, says Krissy DeAlejandro, who started a full-tuition community college scholarship program in her home state of Tennessee.

There isn’t one big reason why students tend to drop out, says DeAlejandro, but a combination of lots of little reasons. If their parents haven't been to college, which is the case for most of the students DeAlejandro works with, all of the college jargon can sound like a foreign language.

"Oftentimes, what we've found is that they have questions you or I would take for granted like, 'What's a semester?' or 'What's a credit hour?' Those sorts of things, little barriers, will make a student throw up their hands and say, 'You know what, this is not for me.'"

In Tennessee, DeAlejandro confronts these challenges with a unique weapon: volunteer mentors. She has a cadre of thousands. They visit high schools in 83 counties and help high school seniors keep up with all of the paperwork and deadlines so they can earn the scholarship.

Once the students get on campus, DeAlejandro and her team follow up with texts, emails and regular face-to-face meetings. The state of Tennesee's fall-to-fall retention rate for community college students is about 50 percent. But among DeAlejandro's scholarship students? That retention rate is closer to 80 percent.

So far, President Obama's plan doesn't include any of the mentoring or other supports DeAlejandro believes are so critical. Even though she and a colleague visited the White House over the summer to brief members of Obama's staff, it doesn't appear, at least, like they've taken all her advice.

Still, DeAlejandro says she supports the President's program and is excited to see how it evolves.

Episode 70: Can we stop Boko Haram?

Crowds in the street chanting, “Bring back our girls!” Images of distraught parents and an outraged community. That’s how most Americans first learned about the terrorist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped 250 school girls from a state run school in Nigeria last April.

In recent weeks, several brutal attacks have brought Boko Haram back into the news, from the all out assault and destruction of a fishing village in northeastern Nigeria that may have left as many as 2,000 dead, to the use of children as young as 10 years old in recent suicide bomb attacks.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called Boko Haram “without question one of the most evil and threatening” terrorist organizations on Earth, traveled to Nigeria earlier this week to meet with the two main candidates running in next month’s presidential elections and stress the U.S.’s support for the Nigerian government in combating this terrorist organization.

But when it comes to a group committing acts that are so heinous and with seemingly no limit to what they’re willing to do, isn’t there more the United States can do?

On this week’s DecodeDC podcast, we ask, why don’t we just swoop in and help the good guys in Nigeria? Or simply eliminate these Boko Haram guys?  Why can’t the U.S. and the international community just say: Enough.

The answers we got are stunning and a more than a little eye-opening, because many close to the situation say they're not even sure the U.S. can do anything at all.

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.

Episode 69: Obama's Legacy on Race

So, here’s a question. When is it too early to assess a president’s legacy? How about two years before his term ends? 

Not for David Haskell, an editor at New York magazine, who polled 53 historians and asked them how they thought we’d remember President Obama 20 years from now.

On this week’s DecodeDC podcast, we talk with Haskell about his piece and what he learned. When asked what the president's legacy might be, the overwhelming response, according to those Haskell spoke with: Obama’s status as the first African-American president will be the defining aspect of his legacy. 

Yet they didn’t always agree on how race would affect the way we will remember Obama. Some pointed to the effect his race had on the opposition. These historians said what contemporary pundits won’t: that the rise of the Tea Party had something to do with Obama’s race. 

“Seeing a black family in the White House reminds us that this isn’t a white nation,” wrote historian Annette Gordon Reed. 

That simple fact, said the historians Haskell interviewed, riled up the opposition in a way that we wouldn’t have seen if he hadn’t been black.

In fact, when Haskell asked historians what they thought the most enduring image of Obama’s presidency would be, one recalled the moment during the 2009 State of the Union address when Republican Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!”

As for Obama’s biggest disappointment, Haskell said he mentioned it himself in Tuesday’s speech. He came into the office with a desire to unify, but even he admits he’s fallen short. 

Obama said he still believes we can overcome partisanship and gridlock -- but the historians overwhelmingly told Haskell he probably can’t -- and they don’t fault him for it.

They don’t believe Washington can be a more civil, less polarized place. In the words of historian Paul Kahn, the Obama presidency will be remembered as “...the moment at which gridlock became institutionalized.”

[Related: Will Obama be great? Wait and see.]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter

Episode 68: Is Obama Great? Wait and See

For the Obama administration, it’s the beginning of the end: the fourth quarter of his presidency. That means political junkies have moved on to 2016, while historians, scholars and, undoubtedly, the president himself have turned their attention to Obama’s legacy.

Will he be known for Obamacare? For his Wall St. reforms? Or for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

And how will people view those actions -- as accomplishments or failures?

“These things are not fixed,” says Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University.

Presidential legacies shift and change over time, so Zelizer counsels that chief executives shouldn’t work too hard to shape how they’re viewed in the future. 

“The best they can do is just build a very good and vibrant record,” says Zelizer.

Take Lyndon Johnson, the subject of Zelizer’s new book “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society”. For decades after Johnson left office, says Zelizer, “the one thing anyone could remember about his presidency is Vietnam. It totally shaped how both liberals and conservatives spoke about him: a total disaster. But gradually there’s been more interest in his domestic accomplishments.”

These days LBJ’s legacy is defined as much for his work with the Civil Rights movement as it is for his commitment to keeping US forces in Vietnam. 

Most scholars think future discussions about the Obama presidency will consider health care reform, financial sector regulations, and the economic stimulus coming out of the Great Recession.

And most certainly, says Zelizer, “we’ll be thinking about race in American politics because that’s how the story will begin, with the first African American president.”

But a big part of how a president’s legacy develops is how politics unfold in the years afterward. 

“We won’t remember a lot of what he says, we won’t really remember a lot of what he does in these final two years but we will remember what happens when he leaves office.”

Bonus Episode: Violence and Muslims

We’ve all been watching events unfold in Paris with sinking horror.

Another terrorist attack, turning police, civilians, writers and satirists into blood and meat.

Another man-hunt broadcast on TV; mugshots of terrorists with Muslim names.

And now the chattering class is once again embroiled in the divisive argument we’ve witnessed for the last couple of decades; the argument over terrorism and Islam.

To one side it seems obvious that Muslims condone violence, that Islam is the problem, or part of it anyway. To the other, it’s blasphemy to even consider the idea, wrong to even ask the question, ‘is there something about Islam that leads its followers to violent tactics?’

The two sides are deeply entrenched and totally sure of their points of view -- with mostly anecdotes to back them up.

Well today we talked to a guy who does have data, a political
science professor at U.C. Berkeley named M. Steven Fish. His research lead to a book with this title: Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence.

Here’s a passage from the introduction:

This book provides no definitive answers and addresses only a portion of the large issues. But it does take on a substantial chunk of the big questions and it examines them using hard evidence.Unbiased by prejudice and unconstrained by political correctness, this book treats the assumptions about Muslims that rattle around public debate as hypotheses, rather than as unassailable truths or as unconscionable falsehoods. The book aims to shift the grounds of the debate from hot and wispy rhetoric to fact-finding and hypothesis testing.

It occurred to us that Fish’s work is exactly what we need right now: Data. Evidence.

Someone to decode these questions, and Steve Fish has answers.

No matter what you think now about Islam and terrorism, we guarantee that this conversation between DecodeDC host Andrea Seabrook and M. Steven Fish will change your mind -- or at least add nuance to your thinking.