COVID has brought higher ed’s inequities into glaring view, but it has also provided a can’t-miss opportunity to solve the ongoing problem, says the new head of the student advocacy organization the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The college system is still in need of key reforms to assure all Americans have access to—and the resources to complete—a post-secondary education that leads to a higher quality of life, says Mamie Voight, president & CEO of the non-profit research institute that develops policies to provide historically marginalized students with an accessible and affordable college system.
“That would be a system that is ameliorating rather than exacerbating the wealth gap, that would be a system that is designed for opportunity rather than exclusion,” says Voight, who was formerly a research and policy analyst and assistant director for research and policy at The Education Trust. “We are at a point where we can make real change.”
A highly troubling sign of ongoing inequities is that enrollment has declined by about one million students since 2019. That’s one million Americans who aren’t getting a shot at economic mobility, Voight says. But there are also sign of hope and potential.
“Higher ed changed on a dime in 2020—it immediately switched to online leanring and made other substantial shifts all at once, such as moving away from the SAT and ACT and finding other ways to manage admissions,” she says. “What has to happen now is a continuation of these reforms.”
This transformation requires the higher ed leaders, elected officials and other decision-makers have a clearer understanding of who today’s college applicants are so policy can be designed around older students, Black and Latinx students, parents, veterans, and first-generation students.
“We have to shift away from the idea that prestige is about who an institution excludes or doesn’t exclude and move toward value as an indicator of prestige for institutions that provide economic mobility to students from low-income backgrounds,” Voight says.
This is not only going to require extensive data but also administrators who can act on that information. That is why one of the institute’s overarching priorities is promoting the passage of the College Transparency Act, which would provide students with extensive details on cost, completion, and outcomes such as earnings potential.
The act would overturn the current ban on student-level data collection—an outdated provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act that has generated a patchwork set of data systems. The measure, which has bipartisan support, creates a privacy-protected Student-Level Data Network within the National Center for Education Statistics to collect data on key metrics, including enrollment, completion and post-college outcomes. “The College Transparency Act would produce better data to answer students’ questions about where to go to college, how to pay for it, what to study and the value of different colleges and programs,” Voight says. “It would give administrators higher quality data to make policy decisions on their campuses.”
The institute is advocating for the Build Back Better plan because it would double Pell Grants, increase funding for minority-serving institutions and create a $500 million college completion fund. It is also producing a number of resources to help higher ed leaders leverage data to work toward equity on their campuses.
It just released a playbook as part of its Degrees When Due initiative to remove barriers that can prevent adults who have stopped out from completing their degrees. The playbook focuses on two key degree completion strategies: adult reengagement and reverse transfer. The later policy ensures students are awarded the associate’s degrees even after transferring from a two-year institution to a four-year institution by applying credits from the four-year back to the two-year.
“We should be recovering in a way that is equity-centric,” Voight says. “This year presents a great opportunity for making change because of the way inequities have been brought to the forefront.”