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On April 7, 2021, Dr. Gary K. Michelson, Founder and Co-Chair of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, joined Dr. Keith Curry, President and CEO of Compton College, and Dr. Pamela Luster, President of San Diego Mesa College, for their weekly #EquityChat on Twitter. Below are the highlights from their discussion.

Dr. Luster: Our education, background, and experiences make us who we are. Please tell us about the non-resume you? We want to know what’s not on your resume.

Dr. Michelson: When I was a very young boy growing up in Philadelphia, I was at my grandmother’s home for lunch and suddenly smelled something terrible. I looked up to see that her hand was on fire and the flames were going up her arm. My grandmother had a spinal disease that caused insensitivity to pain and temperature–she simply did not feel the fire licking her fingers; it was terrifying. Something that she said in that moment shaped my life path: “One day, you’ll become a doctor, and you will fix me.” So I left home when I was seventeen and worked two jobs at a time to put myself through college and medical school. 

Dr. Curry: Tell us about the Michelson 20MM Foundation.

Dr. Michelson: Michelson 20MM was launched a decade ago when I read a news article about local community college students dropping out due to the cost of textbooks. We were able to immediately help those students but needed to address the issue at scale by providing a catalytic grant to Open Stax to create the world’s first commercial-grade, openly licensed textbook publisher. We also invested in mission-aligned, for-profit startups that improve student retention, career training, etc. 

I am proud to share we now also have dedicated programs in intellectual property education, opportunities for students impacted by the criminal justice system, student basic needs, and bridging the digital divide. At Michelson 20MM, we listen with an open heart and strive to create more inclusive and equitable communities. 

Dr. Luster: What is your definition of equity? How is equity-minded practice embedded in your work?

Dr. Michelson: To me, equity means that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their goals regardless of their zip code. Today, your zip code–especially if you are a person of color–determines your socioeconomic well-being, health, and educational attainment. That shouldn’t be the case. 

Michelson 20MM seeks to help people live up to their potential, regardless of circumstances. Take our IP work–there are huge opportunity gaps in the space, which are reflected in the percentage of patents issued to women and people of color. According to The Innovation Alliance, people of color and low-income individuals apply for and hold far fewer patents than white males, which is contributing to an imbalance in entrepreneurial and startup success rates. 

With this in mind, increasing IP education among underrepresented groups is critical to facilitate their participation in the system. That’s a priority area for us, and we’re working with several partners and collaborators on this issue. 

Dr. Curry: Can you share with us your policy priorities and why they are all so important?

Dr. Michelson: I believe government is the greatest lever of change to catalyze sustainable, scalable, and replicable solutions, which is what the Michelson Center for Public Policy, a 501(c)(4) organization, seeks to do. With that in mind, I think there are several opportunities for policy to improve educational equity. For example, the government should invest more in open educational resources (OER). We provided the initial seed funding to prove that OER can make a difference for students–to date, OpenStax has saved students $1.2B in just a few years. I hope the state of California will fund faculty produced OER content for all Associate of Arts degrees in community colleges for the first two years of a four-year Bachelor of Arts program. Then, all 2.8M students in California’s higher education programs will spend $0 textbooks for two years. 

Another policy concern is the rise of automatic textbook billing programs in higher education. From the 70s until the mid-2010s, textbook prices increased at three times the rate of inflation and have only just leveled off. The recent leveling off in costs is due to the diversified ways of buying textbooks including more online sellers, rentals, OER, and used textbooks. Publishers shifted their model from physical books to focusing on digital rentals. 

The new digital products are also known as access codes. Access codes cannot be shared between students, found in the campus library, bought used, or kept for future classes. They are used for one or two terms and then expire. Over the past few years, publishers and booksellers have begun to market access codes through bulk purchasing deals called inclusive, equitable, or first-day access, where students are automatically billed for a “discounted” price. 

Automatic billing deals are hailed by publishers as the solution for the affordability crisis they created. These deals, however, have troubling trends including uncapped price increases, as outlined by a United States Public Interest Group (US PIRG) report we funded. The reality is, when colleges and universities lock themselves into restrictive deals with outside corporations, strong consumer protections are needed to protect institutions, faculty, and especially students. Policy protections are needed. 

Regarding our criminal justice system, policymakers should make  it easier for people with criminal records to find housing. Over 95% of those incarcerated will return home, we should not deter their successful reentry.  

The final policy priority I’ll mention is ensuring that students who are incarcerated are guaranteed access to face-to-face college instruction post-COVID. While technology can benefit students in prison, we need to ensure that it enhances in-person education rather than replacing it. 

Research indicates that incarcerated students benefit tremendously from face-to-face instruction. Face-to-face learning develops critical thinking skills and builds prosocial relationships that foster success post-incarceration. Policymakers should do everything they can to ensure these students have access to this. 

Dr. Luster: In higher education, we have many conversations about student affordability. How does Online Educational Resources for students address student affordability?

Dr. Michelson: US PIRG recently released a report on the impact of textbook prices on students. They found 65% of students skipped buying a textbook due to cost. 82% of students who reported missing a meal due to the pandemic also didn’t buy textbooks. OER can solve this aspect of the college affordability crisis! Openly licensed and free textbooks help students succeed in the classroom with one less financial burden in their educational journey. 

OER is an equity gamechanger–it creates a more equitable educational system by lowering the financial barrier of instructional materials. A University of Georgia study saw a more than 12% increase in grades for Pell Grant-eligible students thanks to OER. Beyond affordability, since faculty can easily modify OER content they are able to create a more culturally responsive learning environment for students. 

Dr. Curry: Michelson 20MM made an impact investment to enhance equity in emergency student aid management and distribution. Can you tell us why this is important for students?

Dr. Michelson: There are millions of federal aid dollars coming to California Community Colleges. Half of those dollars must be given directly to students, but we haven’t had an efficient way of doing so. Our portfolio company, Edquity, solves that problem. 

Edquity helped Compton College students request funds in under eight minutes, obtain a decision in sixteen hours, and receive funds within eighteen hours. Students who received funds graduated at twice the rate as those who didn’t. Edquity represents progress from antiquated processes that are slow to respond to student needs, require students to perform their poverty, and perpetuate biases that impede students’ ability to graduate. 

Dr. Luster: Can you share more about Michelson 20MM’s Smart Justice Initiative (SJI) and its link to equity?

Dr. Michelson: The negative effects of mass incarceration in communities of color are well documented. Our SJI approach looks to right the wrongs of the “tough on crime” era and invests in the power of higher education. Through SJI, we seek to transform the lives of individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by our country’s punitive legal system to forge brighter, more prosperous futures. As Romarilyn Ralston from Project Rebound shared during our last smart justice event, “There’s no other reentry model that can produce what higher education does.” 

Knowing this, we leverage post-secondary education as a catalytic force to transform the lives of justice-involved individuals while also working to reform the system itself, which is long overdue. In a recent Michelson 20MM funded report, The Campaign for College Opportunity noted, “ensuring college opportunity for these students is part of our state’s obligation to racial justice,” which I could not agree with more.  

Dr. Curry: What gives you hope?

Dr. Michelson: Daunting but doable, is still doable. We have already touched on a number of our areas of involvement. Michelson 20MM is making education more affordable, accessible, and effective. We are focused on criminal justice reform and we are making an understanding of Intellectual Property available to a far broader and more diverse audience. For each of these, we are now moving forward with the wind at our backs and on a rising tide.                                            

Dr. Luster: What are you reading? And what book(s) would you recommend we consider reading?

Dr. Michelson: The last two best reads have been Desmond Tutu’s Book of Forgiving and Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. 

Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. The Michelson 20MM Foundation is dedicated to supporting and investing in leading organizations, technologies, and initiatives that seek to transform learning and improve access to educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful career. Learn more at www.20mm.org.