Graduation season is here and is a cause for celebration. I got to celebrate with my family as my little cousin finished dental school (yay Bianca!), have enjoyed seeing the pictures of new alumnae on social media (yay Barnard grads!), and also see graduates walk and dine in my neighborhood which sits just at the edge of Howard University.  It’s uplifting to see graduates in their colorful caps and gowns and to see families, friends, and the graduates themselves proud of all they have accomplished. It’s also confirming of all of the work that we do at Starfish to help students persist and graduate.

But we know that there isn’t a happy celebration for so many students who also started college but don’t make it across the finish line--particularly students who enter our colleges from backgrounds that make them low-income, underrepresented, and/or underprepared.  We know that this is what the national data tell us but don’t always get to hear the personal stories of persistence--and what it takes to overcome barriers from the student’s voice. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), in their new report and at their recent policy summit: Elevating Student Voices, features students and provocative college leaders and gave space for them to tell their stories.

In the report, The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordability, authors Eleanor Eckerson Peters, Amanda Janice Robertson, and Mamie Voight make the following recommendations for how policymakers, institutional leaders, and all of us in the student success space can act to support more students.

The report offers concrete, actionable steps that institutions and policymakers can take to more equitably support students, including: 

  • Strengthening need-based aid; 
  • Targeting financial aid funding toward the students with the greatest need; and 
  • Providing greater transparency to low-income and working-class students navigating a complex higher education system.”

Debt and Financial-Aid/Affordability                                                                                                                                                              

IHEP found that 1.4M students had some college credits but no degree--often leading to debt and transcript holds which prevent (or at least make it harder) for a student to enroll again at a later point.  Students shared their stories and struggles with financing their education--ranging from the struggles of being a working adult and caregiver who could only be a part-time student and not being able to access funding available for full-time students.  We heard a story where a change in Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of even $1 shifted a student’s package such that he now owed several thousands of dollars more than the previous semester.  In response, higher ed leaders from Wayne State University, the Lumina Foundation, and IHEP shared creative ways that their organizations were trying to support students--making policies more transparent and graduated, forgiving debt so students could keep going, and recognizing the full breadth of issues where students might need emergency aid.

“If I don’t have financial aid, I can’t pay for school. That’s just a fact.”
-Casey, Student at Ivy Tech Community College

IHEP found that forgiving debt was in the best interest of students, the region and institution.


The report also talks quite a bit about the challenge to close attainment gaps. “Students of color are more likely to rely on student loans than their White peers. In 2016, 51% of Black students took out student loans, compared with 40% of White students. The disproportionate student debt burden borne to students of color is in part a function of long-standing inequities, like the racial wealth gap, which leaves Black or Latinx households with fewer resources available to pay for college expenses.” 

I continue to believe that eliminating gaps is the biggest civil rights issue of our time and am proud that so many of our partners institutions at Starfish have set out goals to close them as well.

Leadership and Change

The IHEP Summit also focused on our leadership and the importance of truly understanding the root causes of why your students may not persist--and then being both creative and intentional in how you devise solutions.  My team’s work in the Strategic Consulting Practice is about supporting leaders in these efforts.  We recognize that it takes good ideas and then deliberate plans to actualize them.

We heard from Michael Sorrell, President at Paul Quinn College -- winner in leadership for the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) of the Year, about how the college has devised innovative concepts to remake higher education to become more responsive to student and societal needs.  

Importantly, he also talked about giving staff and leaders space to fail.  He encouraged us to “create an environment where people have permission to stumble and let them know that stumbles don’t have to become falls.”  And this is key--because we can’t be audacious in the student success space and get it right on the first go around every time.

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