dotEDU Episode 17: Access, Affordability, and the Future of Independent Colleges

Episode 17

​​​​Aired March 9, 2020

The common narrative surrounding independent colleges and universities is that they are either elite ivy institutions or small colleges on the brink of closure. Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, dispels this black and white view in a conversation with co-hosts Jon Fansmith and Lorelle Espinosa. Mistick talks about how private schools are increasingly concerned with access and affordability, and how her years as president of Wilson College informs her work as head of a national organization serving a diverse range of institutions. Afterward, our co-hosts discuss how colleges, the federal government, and the higher education association community are responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Post-interview chat

Hosts and Guests
Barbara Mistick - President, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities - Guest
Barbara Mistick
President, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education podcast from the American Council on Education. As always, not always, but usually, I'm your host, Jon Fansmith--Usually, thank you, Lorelle, I'm your host, Jon Fansmith in ACE's Government Relations Office. And as we've already heard, I'm joined by my co-host, Lorelle Espinosa.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:22] Hello. How's it going?

Jon Fansmith [00:00:23] It's going very well. And Lorelle is our vice president for research.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:00:27] That's right.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:28] And we are also joined in studio today by our guest for the day, Barbara Mistick, who is the new...Would you describe your social as new or newish?

Barbara Mistick [00:00:38] It's just been six months, so I'd say still new.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:41] Newish. Are you still on the probationary period?

Barbara Mistick [00:00:43] I'm newish.

Jon Fansmith [00:00:45] The newish president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities here in Washington, D.C. A colleague association of ACE's and an organization we work very closely with and very frequently with. So first of all, Barbara, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Barbara Mistick [00:01:00] Thank you. It's great to be with both of you.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:01:02] Yeah. Thank you for coming over.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:03] Well, it's kind of you to say it's great. We haven't even finished the interview yet. You know, might want to wait and see how it goes.

Barbara Mistick [00:01:08] Well, I just hoping you'll be kind.

Jon Fansmith [00:01:11] Kind will not be the issue. We'll definitely be kind. So, Barbara, you, as you just pointed out, relatively new to your position. You came from Wilson College in Pennsylvania. A lot of obviously interesting things, I'm sure, that you could relate about that experience there. But one of the things you did while you're at Wilson was the student loan debt buyback program. And I think some of our listeners probably would have already heard about this. But I thought maybe just ask you talk a little bit about that program and what are your thoughts and sort of how that was working when you're at Wilson?

Barbara Mistick [00:01:41] Yeah. You know, I'm a great believer in affordability. I was a first-generation college student myself so I know the challenges that students feel when they come in and are trying to make this all work and stay engaged and graduate. So we started this loan buyback program as part of our value equation. We did a tuition reset as well.

Jon Fansmith [00:02:00] And I think you held tuition flat for a number of years?

Barbara Mistick [00:02:04] We did. We did tuition flat for several years and then moved into the tuition reset and the loan buyback program. So I think throughout my eight year tenure at Wilson, we were on this value equation. Really driven to try and make sure it was affordable opportunity for students but really recognizing our market, too, I think. And I think that's one of the things that's happening in higher ed today, is you really have to have a microscopic sense of your market and do the right things. But our loan buyback program was to encourage students to finish in four years. So it's for first time, full-time students. And then it provided up to $10,000 in buyback to student loans, but only just the Stafford debt, which is for tuition. So we really wanted to encourage students to take out the minimum amount in terms of loans so that their loan repayment would be reasonable. Really looking to change behavior as well as to help students make it a more affordable experience. So you had to complete in four years because if you completed four, you don't have to pay for five.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:10] That's one easy way to limit borrowing.

Barbara Mistick [00:03:12] Very much so.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:12] Maybe not easy, but one way to limit borrowing.

Barbara Mistick [00:03:15] But it is a discipline. You know, it's easy for students to take five or six years today. We track six year graduation rates.

Jon Fansmith [00:03:21] It's the default federal standard, actually.

Barbara Mistick [00:03:22] Exactly. Exactly. So. Yeah. You know but what I found, and then I met with these students across the course of the years, is just how few of the students that we dealt with actually talked about debt and talked about money. So it was just always astounding to me to ask a group that...You would be eligible after your first semester of freshman year because it was based on your grade point average. And we did it very simply tracking to the Latin honors. Nothing complicated. I really believe  there's so much complexity in our sector, if you can do anything that's simple, it's really appreciated. So meeting with students, I'd ask them, you know, how many of them, you know, for example, would know their parents' income levels. And I would almost inevitably get no hands or one out of a big group of students. And I'd say, "Well, what about the FAFSA application? Did you file that?" And everybody raised their hands. So it's right there. But it's just the sense that we don't talk about money. And that was really the conversation I wanted to change was to be able to talk to students honestly about what it cost and how they can actually plan for and reduce the overall cost. So, you know, students over the course of several cohort groups that went through this, students would talk about, "You know, after all of this conversation, I talked to my grandparents about not giving me a gift this year, but paying for my books instead. And so all of a sudden, that was $400 I didn't have to come up with." So it is a mindset change when you start to talk about financial literacy, and that's what I was really interested and committed to is financial literacy, because I think it doesn't just serve you during college. It serves you throughout your life.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:12] Absolutely right.

Barbara Mistick [00:05:13] And if you understand student debt, then you're going to understand borrowing for a car. You're going to understand--.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:18] Mortgages.

Barbara Mistick [00:05:19] Exactly. All of that.

Jon Fansmith [00:05:21] And I know some other institutions have done similar things in that even just, the research shows, even just telling students, "This is how much you're borrowing. This is what repayment looks like," helps shift their behavior to start to borrow less if they have some flexibility to do that. So it's a really good model to follow.

Barbara Mistick [00:05:40] You have to have an awareness and you can't change behavior without an awareness. And I also believe that you can't make change without talking about it. So we were doing both of those pieces and we did do financial literacy piece in our freshman seminar program and we did a senior financial piece as well. And then we had personal financial counselors in our financial aid office. So students had the same person over the four year time period. So I think there are lots of different drivers that you can use. And one of the difficulties in higher ed, as you both now, is it's longitudinal, I'm speaking to research.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:06:17] Right. Totally get that.

Barbara Mistick [00:06:20] So it's kind of you know, it's kind of frustrating when you are president to have to deal with longitudinal data because you'd like to see results right away. But I was able to see several cohorts and we were able to start seeing our overall debt level of our students dropping. And that was really gratifying. Very gratifying.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:06:41] That's great. And this is a great segue to talk to you about your transition from being a college president to being the president of NAICU, for example, being really fluent on student loan debt. That's a big issue in American higher education. And now you've moved to this national platform where you're looking across a sector. How has that transition gone for you? When you think about your leadership and how now you're leading a community as opposed to an individual institution?

Barbara Mistick [00:07:08] Right. it is certainly a different experience to be looking across the nation. And I think that's perhaps the biggest change is not just knowing...I mean, had an intimate understanding of what was going on in Pennsylvania. You know, Pennsylvania has 92 private colleges, so it's a good microcosm for our sector generally. So, you know, NAICU's membership is, we've got about a thousand members and some of our institutions are as large as 45,000 students, but we have a lot of institutions that are smaller. I think our average institutional size is like 3,000. So, you know, my personal experience on a campus has really informed my leadership here. It's made me understand all of the financial scores, all the details, the devil's in details and all the legislation. It's really made me aware of what impact that's going to have on your campus. But it is a much bigger platform. And I think the other part that is really different is how you influence your stakeholders. That piece feels so different to me. So on a campus community, particularly as president, you know, it is a shared governance situation but you can influence your community. Here your stakeholders are so broad and diverse and they have their own missions and interests. And so bringing people along and creating that kind of collaboration and consensus is more complicated and it feels longitudinal too.

Jon Fansmith [00:08:45] I love that perspective, by the way, as someone who works in government relations. That was really nice summation of the challenges of this work.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:08:52] As ACE, of course, we represent the whole of higher ed and we have a challenge doing that. And it's nice to hear that you also have a challenge doing that even within a certain portion of higher education. It makes a lot of sense.

Barbara Mistick [00:09:04] Yeah. So our membership is...I think we have 40 percent of the institutions in our sector, in our ecosystem, the higher ed ecosystem. So, private institutions is the largest segment. But then we...Our student base is about 20 percent of the overall sector. So that makes sense if you look at institutions being smaller some being larger. So it kind of gives you a dynamic. But our success rates are really pretty terrific. I mean, 78 percent of students who come to private institutions will graduate in four years. And so that's much greater than on our our public sector cohort, our public sector peers. They're at 60 percent. So I think there is a difference and that diversity in the sector I think is very healthy.

Jon Fansmith [00:10:03] And you know, it's kind of interesting you were talking about diversity within the sector, and I think that's, from the Washington or national perspective, that plays out in a lot of ways. You see a lot different narratives about independent colleges. And, you know, I think a lot of people tend to focus on what they think of as elite private institutions, Ivies and the highly selective schools. But there's also this narrative about small private institutions that might be struggling. There was this Moody's report at the end of last year that they said 25 percent of private colleges were financially shaky or something. I forget what their indicator was or frankly, what the metrics they use for that were. But you represent both ends of that sort of spectrum. And I'm just, you know, kind of curious from your time, not just as a president of an independent college, but now heading NAICU, sort of your thoughts on that and what you've learned and sort of what you see when you look across that diversity, that spectrum of your membership?

Barbara Mistick [00:11:02] Yeah, it's a great question and it's a complicated question because there are a lot of institutions in the sector that are extremely healthy and are doing really well. And there are institutions that you would think because of their small size or because they have a very small endowment that they can't be creative. Some of those institutions are extraordinarily creative. So I was in Tennessee...I've been traveling around to our different state association partners, and I met a president there who was just telling me that a large percentage of Pell-eligible students would go home at Thanksgiving time and tend to not come back for exams. And they really were able to track that part of the completion problem for them with their students was the minute that they went home. They didn't come back that first year. So they changed their whole calendar. Now, if you've been a president, you know how darn hard it is. I tried to change our calendar at Wilson and I want you to know I think I was able to change graduation by four hours. So it's not easy. But what I see in our sector is a tremendous willingness to be creative and to come up with interesting kinds of solutions. So they adjusted their school year, started earlier and really kept students there and got them through the exam period. So that's just an example, but I think that there is a lot of stress in our sector. And, you know, we were kind of chatting before we started about the coronavirus, which is going on. So there are things that you can control on your campuses--.

Jon Fansmith [00:12:47] But not calenders, apparently.

Barbara Mistick [00:12:50] Not calendars. Absolutely not. Or others have control over it. That's when they remind you how little--.

Jon Fansmith [00:12:56] Control you have as president?

Barbara Mistick [00:12:59] Exactly. "We'll let you do this, but don't mess with that calendar!" So, you know, I think there are things that are outside of the control, too. So one of the challenges that's going on all across the country and it isn't just for private institutions, but public institutions, too, is depopulation. So we've 41 out of 50 states that are in a depopulation mode at this particular point. So that's not just about the college-age going population, but it's general population. So that's what governors are dealing with. That's a whole other side of the funding structure for both public and private institutions. So, you know, I think those demographic pieces are there. People are moving other places. Other states are growing. You know, we see a big market in degree completion. I do not know a public institution that does not have some kind of articulation arrangement with a community college and a transfer program arrangement. People are doing all sorts of interesting programs. So I think you're doing a big initiative on transfer. So, I mean, you know, people are doing lots of different things. But there are always people who are going to suggest the failure of a sector. So, yeah, just a funny side anecdote: you know, I did this book a couple of years ago and it was really about how to keep yourself current in the workplace. And so one of the, as any academic would do, I could fall down lots of different rabbit holes, researching different things. You know, who originally came up with the concept of the sell by date was Al Capone? Believe it or not.

Jon Fansmith [00:14:42] Oh, I did hear this about milk because kids were getting bad milk in school, right?

Barbara Mistick [00:14:47] It was all about the fact that Prohibition was ending and he needed another business line to get in to and saw that the margins in milk were so great. So he had all this stamping equipment and he went to the Chicago City Council and lobbied--this is a good government relations story--lobbied for sell-by dates on milk cartons and that's how it all started. That's how you got the sell-by date.

Jon Fansmith [00:15:11] I'm not sure the association with Al Capone helps the reputation of lobbying, but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit you're introducing.

Barbara Mistick [00:15:18] You know, I think we have so many institutions that are, you know, 200 years old or 150 years old, 100 years old. They've gone through cycles. And I think this is definitely a cycle that we're in. But, you know, these cycles can actually help institutions to be healthier long-term because they're talking about their challenges and they're talking about the opportunities and collectively finding good solutions.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:15:43] Helps them be nimble.

Barbara Mistick [00:15:44] I think so.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:15:45] And creative, innovative. So that is a real upside.

Barbara Mistick [00:15:49] Right. I think the institutions that I would worry about are those that are not--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:15:52] That are not doing that.

Jon Fansmith [00:15:55] That are not learning from their peers and adapting to the requirements.

Barbara Mistick [00:15:57] Right, right, right. You've really got to look at the workforce today and look at what the needs are. You know, I think the value equation for colleges is as strong today as ever, if not more so. Most of the jobs that have been created since 2010. I think, you know, 12 million of them require a college degree. So the idea that credentialing, that college credential has diminished in value, that's not true in the economic marketplace. So it's just important that people recognize that the narrative that...I do believe that you learn a living.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:16:38] Great way to put it.

Barbara Mistick [00:16:39] You earn a living, but you really learn a living. So it's about picking up those pieces that you can multiply over time.

Jon Fansmith [00:16:46] And I think that's a great point to take a pause for a second, because when we're going to come back and talk a little bit more about the value of higher education. But we're going to take a brief break right now and then we'll be back in a minute.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:16:58] So that's actually a great point to pick up on, which is the value of higher education, and we've talked a lot about that on this podcast. At ACE, that's one of our strategic commitments, which is to affirm and strengthen public trust in higher education, because there is a narrative out there that is saying that higher education is not necessarily worth it, despite the evidence, as you just noted. There's also, of course, some...I wouldn't call it grains of truth, but grains of alarm that lead people to this narrative, which is student debt, which we talked about earlier, perceptions about the value of the credential in the workplace. You know, there's a host of other things that we do need to address, inequities, things like that, that I think contribute to the narrative. What is your perspective on this? You started talking about what the evidence does say. But as a head of a national association, how are you and your members thinking about this issue?

Barbara Mistick [00:17:55] Well, it is...I think it's a concern for all of us to look at higher education being devalued because it has been, for so many generations, a way to step out of this situation you were in. I mean, my dad was part of that Greatest Generation and went straight from high school to right at that time was when Pearl Harbor happened and he enlisted in the Army and spent many years there. But I'd been thinking about it lately. And I think it was that experience stepping out of his community into that broader world or experience in the war that made him feel like education was so important. So he saved tremendously, made sure that, you know, we could each go to college. And what I'm concerned about today is that that was always seen as the way for social mobility to move up and to change your status. So I certainly wouldn't be sitting here today without having a college degree. Not just that bachelor's degree, but the two subsequent degrees, too. So, you know, I think it's dangerous to suggest that you can have that kind of success without putting in the work and getting a college degree. It does mark that you've accomplished that. So, you know, I was at Carnegie Mellon for several years and we did a lot of work when I was there with Gallup. And, you know, we would ask students about, "If you could do something else, what would you do?" And always at the top of the list was either being an athlete that just made a heck of a lot of money or a professional athlete or being an entrepreneur or a college degree. You know, sort of the three. But I think there is an interest in this generation, it's just having it be easy. And so it's part of a narrative that, you know, I think things like a college degree are worth working for. And they do set you up in a way for success across your career. I mean, that's what the four-year degree is about, foundational skills that can be transferred over time. So I think, you know, I was involved in a study with Oxford Economics and 50 percent of the people that we interviewed--it was a 27 countries study, a dual study with both employees and employers--and 50 percent of people said they didn't feel they had the skills today for the work that they were going to have to do three years from now. But what they felt like was...What those with a college degree feel like they have the foundation to be adaptive, to keep learning and re-learning different things or adapting over time. So, you know, the idea that we can do all of that without putting in the work that's required, without the internships, the externships, being able to experientially experience what you're learning and apply it. I think that's very short-sighted if that's our perspective. Plus, it really reduces our competitiveness as a nation and we have to really be concerned nationally. So if we talked a little earlier about depopulation, if you look at the governors in those states, you know, they're worried about a workforce that can keep competitive industries in their states. And most of that workforce today is requiring some college, if not a college degree.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:21:28] A four-year degree. Well, what do you think about the push towards short-term credentialing? That's a big topic, of course. You know, in this current policy environment, that's a big topic. Apprenticeships, you know, things that people talk about as ironically not being college, even though you earn these things at a college of some sort. But what is your thoughts on that?

Barbara Mistick [00:21:54] Well, you know, I think that, like everything else, there's a certain amount of complexity. At a very basic level, I worry about short term programs and particularly for students who have financial eligibility impacting their ability to go and do the four year degree. And so I think unless it's a stackable credential, I think it's short sighted to think that that's replacing that the two year or the four-year degree. I think you can't look at those things in the same vein. I spent a lot of time or a lot of years on so many workforce development committees that some of this feels to me like workforce development and some of it feels to me like customized job training. And so, you know, there are lots of different funding avenues and mechanisms for workforce development. So if it's such a short term piece, perhaps that should be in workforce development and not be in the higher education piece. I think that, you know, we are very fortunate to have the federal support that we have for higher education today. So looking at, you know, Pell grants and work study and other kinds of institutional aid for students. So to lose that in short term programing, I think that could actually, from a public policy perspective, hurt students long term. And I think we want to preserve their opportunity for social mobility to really have that four year degree and to be able to progress--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:23:30] And build on that.

Barbara Mistick [00:23:31] And build on that.

Jon Fansmith [00:23:34] And I think one of the reasons, especially in Washington, we tend to see this emphasis again on apprenticeship or short term programs or alternative pathways is, you know, members of Congress hear from their constituents. They say, "Look, college costs so much, I don't know if I can afford it. I want my kids or I want to have a good career. Maybe there's another way." You know, an easier, a quicker path. And I think that gets a little bit to some of these concerns about college affordability. I mean, this is--.

Barbara Mistick [00:24:05] They're hearing from a lot of their constituents that are businesses, too. So don't discount that piece. Businesses are saying, you know, "Our employees want professional development." But just like all of us in higher education, the business community is spending their professional development dollars in their organizations and their companies on compliance training. That's what's happened. So over time, if you look at employers over time, they used to do lots of training for their employees. Now they do compliance training. And so they are looking for other sources to help them train their workforce. And so your elected officials are sort of in between that conversation about what the business community wants and what's really best for the student community and the higher education community. So I think that's part of the dynamic.

Jon Fansmith [00:24:55] Sure. Absolutely. And we've seen a lot of support for liberal arts education, a classic liberal arts education from the employer community. Some of the points you've made before. It's those sort of natural skills about the ability to communicate, the ability to understand and relate information that regardless of the technical skills needed for your job, which you can be retrained on, are sort of fundamental to having a good employee. But coming back to the sort of the affordability aspect, obviously independent colleges, I think there might be some public perception that they cost more, they're more expensive. Obviously, in an era in which the cost of college is sort of...It's obviously front-burner issue in the presidential election right now, certainly on the Democratic side. You know, how do...I'm stumbling a little bit on the question here, but you represent a sector that is in some ways associated with a higher cost of attendance. How do you sort of approach this issue of affordability? How do you relate the thoughts of your members into this national debate over what should college cost?

Barbara Mistick [00:25:58] Right. So, you know, for the independent sector, for private institutions, only about one third of our institutions do their students leave with debt that's over $10,000. So 36 percent--.

Jon Fansmith [00:26:10] And the average across the country is about $28,000.

Barbara Mistick [00:26:12] $28,000, which has actually been trending down. I think that it's 28 percent of students actually leave with no debt at all from private independent institutions. Private independent institutions do a lot of scholarship, supports a tremendous amount of scholarship support. As we talked about earlier, our sector is so diverse. So, it's not just elite institutions, but we've a lot of regional colleges and colleges that are looking at tremendous ways to make this a more affordable experience. So, you know, there is this misnomer that all of that big debt number is about undergraduate debt so that, you know, the over a third that only have $10,000 or less in debt, they equate to about 5 percent of the overall debt level of that overall $1.5 trillion. But people with over $100,000 in debt equate to I think it's over 35 percent of the debt that's in that $1.5 trillion segment. So what you're seeing is that a lot of students are figuring out, as we started to talk about at the beginning, about affordability and how to really reduce their debt levels. So debt levels have been going down for the undergraduate experience. But that number is tied together with both graduate debt and undergraduate debt. And without the ability to parse it apart, it makes it really hard to have an equation about affordability. I think there's been a lot of progress on the undergraduate side on affordability. What we're seeing, too, is some of the public institutions have debt levels that are almost equal to the private institution. So it's not a one size fits all.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:27:59] It's complicated.

Jon Fansmith [00:28:00] There's no easy answer. Yeah.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:28:01] Yeah. And it's never easy to talk about that in the way that the public would like when things are very complicated.

Jon Fansmith [00:28:07] Well, which actually leads me to another question, which is, you know, one of the responses policymakers have put forward, which is sort of an easy solution to what is the affordability of colleges? Free college. You know, the idea that, rather than sort of relying on the system we use, which allows for students to self-finance through loans and grant funding to reduce the costs and sort of pursue the opportunity that best fits both your educational and financial circumstances, all public college would be free. And I think it's important to note: none of the proposals emphasize support for independent institutions. So heading a national association of independent colleges, you know, what are your perspectives on the free college discussion that's going on? You know, primarily in the Democratic primary, but also sort of more broadly in the halls of Congress?

Barbara Mistick [00:28:56] So our number one focus, our overall mission is about affordability. So student aid is our number one imperative at NAICU and the support for Pell Grants and for increasing Pell Grants. We really believe that aid should follow a student. So, you know, if the private independent sector is 40 percent of institutions and represents 20 percent of all the students attending college today, if you go to a free public college system, you've kind of wiped out 40 percent of your current capacity in the marketplace. I don't think that that capacity can be filled instantly or it would be at great cost over a long time in the public sector. I also really believe in the diversity. I mean, that's why I'm sitting here, that's why I took on this challenge at NAICU, is that I believe our system, our overall ecosystem of higher education is better for the diversity that's in the sector. So we would lose some of that diversity if we went to just a free public college system. Plus, you all know and I hope all your listeners know that free is not free, right. That someone does pay for it, that it does have a very associated cost. So I think we want to look at how we keep our overall ecosystem competitive. And part of the reason that that ecosystem stays competitive is because of the diversity in the ecosystem. So I think there are so many reasons that we need private independent colleges and there's so many reasons that students need to have those choices because not everybody...Everybody's got different learning styles. They learn in different ways. Their preparation for college is different. The support of different institutions can really help students who are maybe unprepared for that college experience. So, it's great from a bumper sticker perspective to have a one size fits all solution. But is a one size fits all solution really good from a public policy perspective? I don't believe that it is. I think supporting students and allowing students to have choice, which is what our current system is based on. So Pell grants right now, which are really targeted to help provide access for students, really, really allow students to be a part of any system, whether it's the private system or the public system. The frustrating part is that when, you know, in 1975, Pell Grants covered 79 percent of the cost of attending an average institution, and that included the private sector as well as the public sector. Today it's down to 29 percent. So basically where the affordability crunch has come is because of that gap. It's that, you know, public support hasn't cut kept track. So I find it kind of fascinating, if public support hasn't kept track, how do we think that we're gonna go to totally free if we haven't been able to bridge this gap over time? So, you know, what we really feel is that the important part is not to break apart the duality of our system. You know, I think about myself. I attended, you know, two private institutions, my undergraduate degrees from a private institution, my doctorate's from a private institution. But I did an MBA at a public institution. When I asked this question, when I've been around the country talking, I think 90 percent of the people I've asked...definitely not a sampling...statistically correct survey.

Jon Fansmith [00:32:36] You're clarifying for the researcher. I appreciate that.

Barbara Mistick [00:32:41] You've influenced me. Sitting next to you has influenced.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:32:44] Qualitative data is also important.

Barbara Mistick [00:32:47] Thank you so much. Well, on the qualitative side, you know, people have used both parts of the system. And so I think it's sometimes easier to be in that system or that system is more responsive to your needs. So I think we want to maintain that diversity. There are lots of other, you know, lots of other reasons that it's really important to have the duality that we currently have in our system. So I think we've got to...You know, from this current conversation about free, I understand where it's coming from. People are feeling very pushed by the affordability side, but looking for a quick one size fits all solution, I don't think is the answer.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:33:28] And then there's also the other side of it is, free for whom? And there's a whole group of individuals talking about, you know, it shouldn't be free for everyone. It should be...If they think free at all, it should be for students that really need the support, that could in no other way afford to go or it, you know, should be at least greatly reduced for those individuals. And that goes back to your point about public investment and how we haven't really kept our promise of mobility in this country with how we fund higher education.

Barbara Mistick [00:33:58] Yeah. Yeah. So I think that the frustrating part here is, to look at whether it's student debt or looking at the cost of attendance, ,what we know is that these last dollar systems and we've seen several of them come into play and New York State to mind right away the Excelsior program, what they've done is...It really hasn't been free and it hasn't been free for all. So, you know, if you're looking at a last dollar system, it really is hard for people at a lower income level. So those systems are really serving the middle segment. You know, it's more middle income and upper middle income. So I think we have to be careful. I think sometimes our policymakers are looking for the least expensive solution to something that would be free. So if we went to free two year, then it would be the least expensive of the options out there. But yet the graduation rates from community colleges are, you know, a student entering a community college and their likelihood of graduating in two years with a two year associate's degree is just 6 percent. If you go to a private institution, your likelihood of graduating with a four year degree is 78 percent. I mean, that's a big difference. So, you know, I think we have to look at, you know, are we just satisfying this cry for free or are we really making progress on a completion agenda and really helping people with a four year degree. I think if you go around and talk to governors, I've listened to a lot of governors lately, such as just with the governor of Georgia last week, you know, 40 states have an agenda around college completion and have set a target. In Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania's governor set a 60 percent target that they're working toward. And you can't work toward those targets if you're going to look at systems that aren't producing the greatest result. So I think we can't just balance out free without looking at what we're getting for that.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:36:11] Yeah. Well, thanks for your perspective on that. That's really helpful. So what's next for NAICU? So we want to talk with you about what you're working on, what your calls to action are. I know a big one, as you said, is advocating for the Pell Grant and you lead the community on that issue and we really appreciate that. What else is on your mind these days?

Barbara Mistick [00:36:30] Yes. So we thank you for your support for the Pell Grant increases too. We have the Student Aid Alliance that we co-chair together. So, you know, that--.

Jon Fansmith [00:36:39] A brief shout out to Stephanie Giesecke at NAICU who I work with on that.

Barbara Mistick [00:36:42] Stephanie is a rock star. She knows all of this so well and we spend a lot of time here. So, you know, we've got a request in this year to increase Pell Grants to $7,000. But we also had a bill that was out there, Pell Plus that would look at doubling the Pell Grants. There's been some conversation in the debates this last fall and this spring about doubling Pell Grants. You know, if we looked at the Pell Grant and looked at those percentages we were talking about, Pell Grants would be at $17,000 today. And so we're pretty well south at $7,000. So means we got just lots of work to do there. So I think that's certainly number one on our agenda. And we are looking at regulatory pieces. That's another big part of what we do. You know, certainly the Higher Ed Reauthorization Act that came out this year has so many regulatory pieces to it. And, you know, if we're going to have a focus on affordability, we can't mandate so many changes on campuses that really increase the cost of attendance. And so there's been lots of conversation on that side. I think the current Higher Ed Reauthorization Act that came out of the House would have suggested that colleges had to hire up to six additional people to comply with all of the regulations that were in it.

Jon Fansmith [00:38:08] And those are just the ones that were mandated. If you look across the impact of all of those regs it'd probably far more than that.

Barbara Mistick [00:38:15] Yes. So, you know, I think that that's a continuing challenge. And certainly we're working on the affordability side. We have another great coalition with SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Executives, looking at an expansion of the professional development dollars that are in the tax code, allowing that to be used for the pay down of debt. So, you know, I think that we're looking at really solid proposals that have some likelihood of going forward. I do think that Pell, it is a vehicle that is already had great success. It's already in place if we're able to expand that that's probably the quickest and best way to give a return to students on affordability. So, you know, we're just absolutely lots to do.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:39:04] Well, we're glad that you're there doing it.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:06] That's right. Really appreciate your leadership at NAICU and obviously, as I mentioned, all the work of the NAICU staff that we work with very regularly on these issues, again, especially Pell, but full range of student aid programs and lots of other things besides.

Barbara Mistick [00:39:20] Yeah, I have to say, you know, the one thing I've figured out across my career is that we're always better if we work together. And, you know, I really do value the fact that that I've seen that here in Washington, that we're part of...I think you said at the beginning the big six organizations that represent our ecosystem, but finding ways to work together in the service of our students, I mean, that's just a great goal for all of us so thank you.

Jon Fansmith [00:39:44] Well, and thank you so much for joining us today. I know I really enjoyed the conversation. I appreciate you taking a big block of time from your schedule when I am sure there are many demands on it. So thanks so much, Barbara. Oh, I also want to say, you mentioned your book. Do you want to plug your book so people know where to find it, the name of the book, where to find it?

Barbara Mistick [00:40:02] It's called Stretch: How to Future-proof Yourself For Tomorrow's Workplace and you can find it on Amazon.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:07] There you go. Great. Well, thanks so much for joining us.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:40:09] Thank you, Barbara.

Barbara Mistick [00:40:10] Thanks.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:11] And we're gonna be right back after a break.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:40:22] And we're back. That was a great interview.

Jon Fansmith [00:40:24] It was.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:40:24] Really timely, too. I liked the threat around higher education needing to be nimble and adaptive. And we're in this moment now where higher education is incredibly impacted by the coronavirus specifically. She mentioned it during the interview and the role that higher education plays in the crisis in terms of meeting the solutions for the crisis, but also just the impact on our sector along a number of dimensions which perhaps we can just touch on. But what's going on here in Washington around this issue?

Jon Fansmith [00:40:56] Yes. And obviously, as we're recording this, this is a pretty fluid situation. So there's a lot of things happening and a lot of things changing. And I'm sure folks who are listening have been following the developments about spread of the virus and and other impacts. As it relates to higher ed, the federal government has been doing a few things. Just as we recorded this, the Department of Education released some detailed guidance on how institutions should treat students in various situations around offering remote education options, how you deal with Title IV obligations, for instance, for students you have recalled from study abroad who may not currently have a program. Or for instance, if your student has work-study funding, but your campus closes and they can't go and perform their job. How do you treat that? So I would definitely encourage people to check that out. That's up in the Department of Education's Web site. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control has issued some guidance, a little more general at this point. They basically said that institutions should consider recalling students from study abroad. I think people are definitely seeing in the news institutions have already been pretty aggressively going and doing that looking out for the safety and well-being of their students. And then finally, the other federal responses, the government is beginning a process of funding different efforts to deal with coronavirus. There's a bill under consideration by Congress as well as we discuss now, which would provide $8.3 billion primarily for developing a vaccine and resources for state and federal health officials to help contain the impact and address it. But we fully expect there'll be additional legislation on this that will provide further resources. And, you know, some of that might actually be resources to help institutions, K-12 schools as well deal with the impact.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:42:48] This is having an enormous impact on the education sector, K-12 included with school closings and I mean clearly abroad, but also in the U.S. where there's been confirmed cases, etc. So we're actively monitoring this as everyone might imagine. We do have a working group in place with the American College Health Association and our six presidential associations, ACE being one of those six working with the CDC. So that's good for people to know to stay tuned on what comes out of that and.

Jon Fansmith [00:43:20] Just to develop some guidance and share that with institutions on how to...

Lorelle Espinosa [00:43:27] We also have on our ACE Engage platform a set of resources, COVID-19 resources and guidance there as well. So I imagine whatever we come up with out of this group, we'll be putting out on the ACE site.

Jon Fansmith [00:43:40] Right. Make it easy for people to find the information.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:43:43] --And also the Engage site too. And then our colleague Robin Helms wrote a really great blog on the platform, which was "Can Internationalization Survive Coronavirus?" So, you know, this is an area that Robin works on, has worked on for many years and continues to lead the charge at ACE and--.

Jon Fansmith [00:44:04] Does a phenominal job.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:44:05] Yeah, she's amazing. And this blog is great. I mean, I like the blog because, you know, this is certainly affecting higher education with the study abroad. But what the blog also says is, “Yes, this is a crisis for study abroad.” But I like how she takes it back to just examining what it means to internationalize and really saying that--.

Jon Fansmith [00:44:25] Internationalization isn't just--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:44:26] It's not just study abroad. So there's always that...I don't know if it's a silver lining, but these are moments to examine and, you know, in the moment that she's calling on to examine that the curriculum that institutions have around internationalization and the engagement of their faculty has actually shown to be much more impactful than going abroad. Not that that isn't impactful, but it does...there's a lot of reflections right now, an examination of things. So anyway, everyone stay tuned. This is very fluid and we hope that we get to a better place soon.

Jon Fansmith [00:45:06] Right. And hopefully as things develop, be sure to check ACE, ACE Engage and our website and we'll be helping our members and frankly anyone else who's looking for information to navigate this very difficult situation.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:45:22] Spending a lot of time on this issue.

Jon Fansmith [00:45:23] Absolutely, yeah.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:45:24] The people that I talked to in higher ed are spending...on campuses.

Jon Fansmith [00:45:28] It's dominating every conversation you have. It really is. Well, we want to thank our listeners for spending their time listening to this podcast. We do appreciate it. I want to particularly thank Malcolm and Carly and Audrey and Laurie, our producers, for making us sound as good as humanly possible. Again, thank our listeners for tuning in. As always, if you have feedback or suggestions for future episodes, please email us at You can also find our podcast as well as links to all of the resources both Barbara mentioned and that Lorelle and I've mentioned around coronavirus on our website which is And finally you can subscribe to this podcast, leave reviews, favorable feedback on my performance--.

Lorelle Espinosa [00:46:21] Only good reviews.

Jon Fansmith [00:46:21] About me at least. On Stitcher or Apple podcast or whether you get your podcast. Thanks again for listening. And we'll look forward to talking to you in the future.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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