Kyle at the American Educational Research Association Conference

Kyle-SouthernLast weekend, I attended the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago. As a first time AERA participant, I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed—as I expected—by the number of people who descended on the River North area of town to share and learn from the latest educational research. It was hard to tell whether it was more difficult to navigate criss-crossing the Chicago River or the crowd of 14,000 people.

My National Forum colleague, Esmeralda Hernandez, joined me for an early morning presentation on our work examining the influence of guidance counselors on the college-going aspirations of Latin@ students. Based on data from the High School Longitudinal Survey, we found that given the many job responsibilities of counselors, ranging from course and standardized test scheduling to behavioral health issues faced by students, college advising can often get pushed too far down the priority list. This finding holds especially true in schools where counselors manage case loads of 400 or even hundreds more students. Based on the analyses Esmeralda and I conducted, Latin@ high school students had odds 22% higher than those of their White peers of expecting to attend a four-year postsecondary institution. Further, talking with a counselor about college and making educational plans to pursue a college preparatory curriculum in high school significantly increased the odds Latin@ students expected to attend a four-year institution, compared to not expecting to pursue any college. Unfortunately, lack of access to effective counseling and lack of social capital in navigating the admissions and financial aid processes impedes many aspiring Latin@ students.

Guidance counselors are well positioned to serve as what Ricardo Stanton-Salazar has termed institutional empowerment agents. Rather than act as gatekeepers who determine who is and who is not meant for college, counselors who seek to empower students act against the self-perpetuating cycle of socioeconomic inequality in the United States. Schools that charge even one counselor with an exclusive focus on college advising may be better positioned to empower students to aspire to a college degree and prepare for success in and through college.

Apart from the chance to share research, I appreciated the opportunity to learn from some of the most respected higher education scholars. During a “fireside chat” on pursuing social justice through higher education research, a group of scholars at varying stages of their careers offered thoughts to a room largely filled with graduate students. Assistant Professor Michelle Espino of the University of Maryland spoke of the importance of making oneself vulnerable to teach, research, write, and advocate for change.

Walter Allen, Distinguished Professor at UCLA, spoke of ways his scholarship on the connections between race, identity, and access to essential resources—including education—has evolved over the trajectory of his career. In Dr. Allen’s words, “Educational access is the essential glue of our society.”

Professor Mitch Chang, also of UCLA, turned attention on the classroom by making the case for pedagogy that both disrupts long-held norms and imagines more inclusive learning environments and modes of learning.

Following Dr. Chang, Associate Professor Noah D. Drezner of Teachers College, Columbia University made the case that “we have to live the values we talk about in class in our admissions processes.” To make matters of access to higher education only theoretical neglects the real impact of exclusionary and marginalizing admissions practices that perpetuate cycles of privilege and disadvantage too long far too familiar in the field and society more broadly.

Despite the overwhelming nature of AERA, I came away with some new relationships and some stronger relationships previously forged. For the year ahead, however, I will continue to consider how to be more vulnerable in my work, how to bring greater imagination to my thoughts about teaching and learning, and how to push for practices that reflect the public good mission higher education must serve.

Note: To track the events and conversations around AERA, look to the #AERA15 feed on Twitter.