Is the state's new college finance video too white?

Joe Nathan

Late yesterday afternoon I attended a screening of “Paying for College: How Minnesota Families Make It Happen,” which I previewed here.

About 100 or so higher-ed and K-12 officials saw the 26-minute video, which is a co-production of TPT’s Minnesota Productions & Partnerships, and is co-sponsored by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the Minnesota Private College Fund.

By the end of it, Center for School Change Director Joe Nathan, who’d been in the audience, was looking quite agitated.

He ended up having a pretty heated exchange with a Minnesota Private College Council official in the side room, and during the Q&A session that followed, he took the mic and told the audience — much more calmly this time — that he had a big issue with it:

“I’m puzzled by what appears to be a lack of (inclusion) of communities of color.”

Although the video featured an African American student, he said, all of the authority figures in it — financial aid officials, admissions representatives, high school counselors — were white.

Nathan told me later that Minnesota has outstanding ethnic high-school-counselors and experts from nonprofit organizations that deal with higher education. Any of those could have appeared in the video.

Nathan also said it wasn’t just about race. The video failed to discuss the obstacles faced by students, often ethnic, who are the first in their families to go to college.

In any case, he wasn’t alone. Several people in the audience said the video didn’t show enough diversity, and though a solid piece of work overall, did need some tweaking. They said the lack of Minnesota college officials of color — such admissions reps and financial aid officials — was a long-term concern.

Amanda Ziebell-Finley, director of the Minnesota College Access Network at the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, told the room that the film has to be an “authentic” portrayal of the higher-ed community if it’s be accepted by local communities.

St. Paul Public Schools counselor Amber Remackel said of the video:

“It seemed really white to me, and it may be tough to show this across St. Paul.”

Roxanne Payton of Girl Scouts said the film could also have been more accessible. The language level was a bit technical for families who have no college experience. She told the audience that one expert in the film advised parents not to dip into one’s 401(k) to pay for a child’s college education.

Payton said parents of many first-generation students work multiple jobs.

“They may not even have a 401(k).”

Yesterday’s screening included at least one of several unfinished 10-minute segments filmed in other languages — such as Hmong and Spanish — and geared to specific issues in those ethnic communities. They weren’t part of the main video or slated to be broadcast with them.

But spokeswoman Sandy Connolly of the state Office of Higher Education said they were meant to be packaged with the main video on a DVD that would go to various ethnic communities. The state office was also planning local screenings and discussions of those shorts.

In light of yesterday’s exchange, officials behind the film — slated to be shown on Twin Cities Public Television on Sunday — said they’d pulled it for editing.

Connolly said the film makers might, among other things, reshoot some of the ethnic short segments, or add subtitles and add them into the main video. (It sounded too soon to tell.)

Nathan told me today that he’d met with state office officials, and they were quite receptive to his concerns. He praised their openness, and said the situation looked “encouraging.”

It’s not yet clear whether the video will undergo a second screening before it’s release, but I’d be interested in seeing it.