Helping Students Succeed: Event Explores Ways to Close Higher Ed Equity Gaps
June 26, 2019

​​Students, researchers, policy makers, and higher education leaders came together in Washington, DC, Tuesday to discuss what institutions can do to be better engines of upward mobility for students who are often left behind in the higher education system.

The event, “Social Mobility, Race, and Higher Education,” was co-hosted by The Education Trust and the TIAA Institute. Research continues to demonstrate that, while a college degree is critical for entering the middle class, higher education access and success remain a challenge often defined along the lines of race, ethnicity, and income.

Lorelle Espinosa, ACE vice president of research, presented findings from ACE’s Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education report released earlier this year. She focused on the barriers facing students of color, particularly Black students, who drop out of college at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group. In addition, Black students are more likely to borrow and accrue higher levels of debt than other students. Espinosa emphasized the gains students of color have made in higher education but said those gains should not overshadow the gaps that still exist.

“If we don’t talk about race and racial equity gaps, then we won’t close those gaps,” she said.

A subsequent student panel gave a personal voice to the numbers. First-generation and veteran students spoke openly about the frustrations and barriers they experienced on campus. Lack of awareness of support for veterans, FAFSA verification, imposter syndrome, under-borrowing, working to pay rent, and fear of debt were all raised as issues that complicated their college journey.

Grace Pang, a sophomore at San Jose State University, said they are more than statistics and encouraged institutions to engage more with their students.

“Include students in policymaking, at the institutional and federal level. Students already have voices. We just need to be empowered to use them,” she advised.

Many institutions were held up as examples of how to drive social mobility for these students. Mark P. Becker, president of Georgia State University, ACE Board chair, and the 2019 TIAA Institute Hesburgh Award winner, was a featured speaker at the event, as well as the presidents of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Lehman College and Pace University in New York, and Southwest Tennessee Community College.

The event concluded with a keynote conversation with John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust, and Anthony Jack, assistant professor of education at Harvard University and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Jack called on institutions and the higher education community to focus more on the process of graduating students and not solely on outcomes. “How can we graduate students whole, healthy, and ready for the next adventure?” he asked.

King and other leaders suggested a couple of ways policy makers and institutions could take action now, such as offering free and reduced price lunch programs for college students and working to scale up programs that are proven to increase student success, such as the City University of New York ASAP Program and Georgia State’s Perimeter Academy.

Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, also encouraged attendees to engage with policy makers and ask them to protect and increase the Pell Grant and to invest in programs that are enhancing social mobility.

“Relevant congressional committee leadership are currently having bipartisan talks and hearings in both the House and Senate about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. It is essential that everyone’s voice in this room be heard as that process goes forward,” she said.

​Related Content

Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education
American Council on Education

The Education Trust

TIAA Institute

ASAP Program
CIty University of New York

Perimeter Academy
Georgia State University