On August 12, Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, announced a series of funding opportunities for minority-serving institutions. In launching this new grant program he noted: “It’s a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.” Amen!
He goes on to say, “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans,” said Cardona. “Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” (Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2022). Amen, again!
So, what is this new vision? For the Secretary of Education, it appears to be about investing in the public colleges and universities that serve the majority of college-going students (73% according to educationdata.org) such that those colleges and universities have the funds necessary to adequately support their students. While he is focused on minority-serving institutions right now (and given their chronic underfunding, this is appropriate), the trajectory of this initiative should reach all campuses charged with teaching the students for whom education will be the most transformative: you know, public higher education. This is anti-racist policy-making at its best. It focuses on a structural problem that disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and low income students from all backgrounds.
Having insufficient funds to support students impacts everything: retention, pace to graduation, and graduation. Insufficient funding undermines the transformative power of education, because that lack of investment generally translates into lack of completion. We know this at WCSU, and we work hard to invest what we can in supporting all of our students. But, despite the level of state support we receive (not an insignificant investment), sometimes the timing of funding and student needs are not aligned and we miss the opportunity to adapt quickly.
For example, there is ample evidence that wrap-around advising structures (a social work approach to advising) is very effective in getting students the support they need when they need it. Investing in wrap-around advising is expensive, and investing in it all at once is too big a financial challenge for most public universities. We can’t afford to make the big leap, so we tend to focus on smaller, more incremental approaches, which take longer to yield results.
Research suggests that emergency funds can make the difference between a student stopping out or completing a degree. These are generally small grants that make a big difference in students lives. At WCSU, we have done a good job of prioritizing these funds in recent years, but to really make this strategy work requires more funds for emergencies, and an advising program that helps us know when to step in.
We work with the tools that we have to solve our problems, tools that don’t require too much investment. We have the capacity to look at our own data to determine scheduling problems, pass rates in gateway courses, and the variables that predict student success, or lack thereof. Examining the data is helpful and points to next steps, but those next steps often require investment. Making those investments in a timely way is often impossible.
The need for robust student support services at a regional public is much more pronounced than it is at an elite university. We welcome students who have varied needs and we want to meet each one with the appropriate strategies for success. Yet the resources to respond to these needs are much higher at the elite university. This is an imbalance that must be addressed. I think this is part of Cardona’s point.
Cardona’s words made me feel optimistic. After years of thinking that universities like WCSU were all but invisible, someone has finally acknowledged the importance of what we do. I anticipate that we will see more such announcements as Cardona continues to look at the structural issues that are clear in the data. Things need to change and his early steps acknowledge that need.
Reflecting on the Cardona’s words have made me think about our mission.
Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.
That single sentence represents such powerful goals. We strive to change lives and we see evidence of our impact every day. We are the best path to social mobility because we are inclusive by design. We are the best path to self-advocacy because we recognize the role we play in helping our students learn to ask for the opportunities they deserve. We are the heart of a society that strives for equality because we are committed to creating opportunities for all students, not just the lucky few. We want to be that part of the higher education landscape that makes the most difference in the majority of students’ lives.
It is exhilarating to recognize the scope of our ambition. I am inspired to live up to those lofty goals because they are goals that matter. We are essential.
I’m looking forward to next steps from Secretary Cardona, but for today, I feel seen.