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Inside the most-scrutinized office on campus

Rice University is continuing efforts to make students and staff of all backgrounds feel included, despite political headwinds. And, changes are coming to federal financial aid.

A day in the life of a DEI office

Alan Russell, Rice University’s executive director of the Disability Resource Center, speaks with Alexander Byrd, the vice provost for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. (Photo: Callaghan O’Hare / The Texas Tribune)

Kate McGee, one of our two reporters at The Texas Tribune, went inside Rice University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion office for a day to peel back the curtain on the work of its staff. It’s a story that takes down the temperature of what’s become a hot-button issue in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere.

The work of DEI offices will be banned at Texas’s public universities next year, but Rice is carrying on. Kate spent time with Alexander X. Byrd, who leads the office, as he held a weekly staff meeting; met with a new team member; and chatted with first-generation students.

Byrd, a history professor who studies Black America and the Jim Crow South, said that he sees much of the national conversation about DEI as stemming from a fear of hard conversations and a lack of trust in students and teachers to navigate them.

Texas lawmakers have argued that attempts to foster inclusivity are indoctrination. Catherine Clack, an associate vice provost of DEI and the director of Rice’s multicultural center said that’s part of an effort to disenfranchise underrepresented groups.

“The actions in Texas are rooted — soundly rooted, deeply ingrained — in white supremacy,” she said.

++ A proposal in Florida building on the state’s effort to curb DEI activity would restrict talk of “social issues” at universities.

Changes loom for FAFSA

The Department of Education is readying to release a new version of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that officials hope will be faster to complete and easier to verify. The new form is 36 questions instead of more than 100, and pulls financial data directly from IRS records, for example.

The streamlining is vital: Members of the class of 2021 who didn’t complete the FAFSA missed out on $3.75 billion in Pell Grants, need-based awards that don’t need to be repaid, according to the National College Attainment Network.

The so-called “Better FAFSA” will be released in December for the 2024-25 school year (rather than Oct. 1, as is typical.) Here’s a roundup of some of our coverage of the changes:

  • Ian Hodgson at our partner the Tampa Bay Times reports that Florida students leave $300 million on the table every year by not completing the FAFSA. In his story this week, he also walks through what’s changing in the new form.

  • Nick Fouriezos, our staff reporter covering rural issues, and Jason Gonzales at our partner Chalkbeat Colorado have both previously reported on how the changes could hurt family farms. (The value of those operations will be counted as financial assets, making it appear like families have more money available to send their kids to college.)

“There certainly will be losers. But we shouldn’t lose sight that most students stand to gain from these changes.”

Billie Jo Hamilton, VP of enrollment planning, University of South Florida

Elsewhere on Open Campus

A mural on Shaw University’s campus in Raleigh. (Photo: Courtesy Shaw University)

From the HBCU Student Journalism Network: Dejah Miles, one of our six HBCU fellows, interviewed the VP of real estate and strategic development at Shaw University.

The Raleigh HBCU is rezoning sections of its campus and opening them to developers — a gambit that aims to maximize on the city’s booming real estate market. We co-published this piece with Capital B.

++ Our application is open for the spring HBCU cohort! Applications are due Nov. 27. Please help spread the word!

From Cleveland: Cuyahoga Community College students have released a series of short, witty videos to spark conversations about the importance of being civically engaged in advance of the city’s November elections.

“When we’re having these conversations, we’re empowering people in our community to be better, to make their own choices and feel empowered in those choices,” Sylvia Snow-Rackley, a second-year student at Tri-C, told Amy Morona.

++ Amy also has an update on the latest enrollment numbers for Cleveland’s colleges.

From El Paso: Danny Perez talked to two Texas Tech doctors who analyze player injuries on a fantasy football podcast.

From Texas: Next month, Texas voters will decide whether or not to back a new $3.9 billion endowment meant to help “emerging” research universities across the state expand their capacity.

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