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2019 Champion of College Access and Success award acceptance speech

Thank you, Marlene. And welcome to Indianapolis everyone.

I can’t tell you how honored I am to be with all of you … and to receive this recognition. It’s especially meaningful because of what you just heard—that my life’s work has been aimed intentionally at what each of you in this room does every day.

So let me return the compliment to all of you. This is a roomful of champions. You are doing some of the most noble—and most needed—work in our country today.

All of us here know that the deep learning and experience people get from higher education—not only in specific skills, but in the capacity to critically think and develop the capacity to be a learner over the course of a lifetime. This learning is, I think, the key to improving Americans’ lives … and to ensuring America’s continued success.

And the key to achieving these goals is reaching today’s students—especially those who are too often left out or left behind.

I can relate to them—because my story isn’t all that different from theirs.

I come from an immigrant family, one very much rooted in the working-class ethos. My parents never got the chance to go to college. The fact is, my parents didn’t fully comprehend what college was. But they did know one thing: we were going. My siblings and I knew how important it was for us to build on what our parents taught us and to excel—not to exceed what they had accomplished, but to exceed what they had dreamed.

And so, 36 years ago, my parents made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home near Hartford, Connecticut, and dropped me off at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

It was a very strange and disorienting experience at the beginning. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, given my background. I didn’t know how to navigate the system of academic progress. And I didn’t know how we’d actually be able to afford college, though I was very grateful that I had received a need-based scholarship from the college, to go along with my Pell Grant, my state scholarship, my church scholarship, my local community scholarship, and my federal student loans and work-study.

But I did make it through, because of a very supportive family, because of great friends, because of caring professors and counselors, and because I went to a college that worked hard to make life for first-generation students like me easier, simpler, and better.

College was worth every moment; it has enriched my life immeasurably. In fact, it has defined my professional life. My team and I at Lumina Foundation work every day to extend the enormous benefits of college to millions more Americans.

You can relate. You know my story is not unique. And like those of us privileged to work at Lumina, you’re working every day to achieve those same goals. Lumina and NCAN are on this journey together.

So how do we reach more of those people like my younger self … who are eager to contribute but may not have the wide circle of support that I had?

Here’s something I encourage you to think about.

I know some of you are wrestling with the complex questions about the extent to which you can and should serve adults. I’d argue, with the highest degree of respect for all that you so, that without broadening your reach to serve more adult students, the task is not done. Frankly, unless we serve all Americans with the interest and ability, it will be impossible to achieve our common goal of increasing attainment, not only because they benefit, but because we all prosper when attainment rises.

Everyone here knows the facts. Gone are the days when the typical college student was 18 years old, fresh out of high school and headed straight to a four-year campus and a career in one field or industry. Today’s students are older … diverse in every way … working and raising families … learning increasingly online and through new learning strategies … and often struggling to make ends meet.

Many have been frustrated trying to navigate our well-intended but frankly outdated system of higher education.

Between now and 2025, at the current rates of people earning degrees and certificates, about 24 million Americans will earn postsecondary credentials. That’s the good news. But to reach our goal, 16 million more need to be added to that total. That’s a 40 percent increase over the current pace.

To expand the pool of talent we need, we need to redouble our efforts to reach those populations we most need to bring into the system: adults, people of color, and those struggling to afford college. Closing these stubborn equity gaps is central to NCAN’s mission.

The most underserved of all populations in the U.S. are some 64 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with no recognized postsecondary education. That’s 1 in 5 Americans. Currently, they have little or no realistic chance to earn high-quality postsecondary credentials that lead to further education and employment.

These adults are disproportionately African American, Latino, and American Indian. Many are poor. Some are incarcerated. Millions are recent immigrants with low levels of education and limited proficiency in English. Millions more are workers who have been displaced from middle-class jobs and, due to a lack of postsecondary skills, face enormous difficulty finding jobs that offer the level of income and benefits they had before.

The best opportunity for many of these individuals will be to step onto the first, but critically important, rung on the ladder of opportunity by earning postsecondary certificates and industry-recognized certifications. These are credentials that demonstrate the skills that can help them quickly obtain good jobs and, most importantly, keep learning.

Today, more than 27 million Americans also have some postsecondary education but have not yet earned a degree or a high-value postsecondary certificate. Many are Americans who are close to completing but have “stopped out” of college—meaning they’re not enrolled and making progress toward a degree. Many have every intention of finishing, but the longer they stay out of college, the harder it is to come back. Research shows that, with the right supports, many of these returning adults could be put back onto a pathway to completion.

So while many of you on the front lines have rightly focused your energies on the next generation of American leaders and workers who are traditional-age students, there’s a growing pool of adults who have not had the opportunity to participate in higher education … or who started and have not finished.

This offers a difficult choice … but an enormous opportunity. If we want to help more individuals … if we want the 21st century to be another American century … we have to move more of these people off the sidelines.

At the same time, given the increasingly diverse profiles of today’s students, we need a higher education system that is user-friendly for all of today’s students.

We need a system that is affordable, accessible, inclusive, transparent and accountable. It must offer clear, multiple pathways to learning, with fewer obstacles and off-ramps. And it must measure learning, not only by awarding credit in the traditional sense but by assessing and making visible the demonstration of proven competencies.

This is the vision of higher education, and of the entire post-high school learning ecosystem, that we must make real.

I mentioned earlier that my life path has been driven by the idea that I didn’t want to exceed what my parents accomplished, but what they dreamed. My friends, my parents couldn’t have dreamed that I might be here today, as someone who has tried to do some good by going to college.

And they couldn’t have known that my dream has been to help ensure that millions more Americans get the same opportunities to exceed their parents’ dreams. For today, as one champion in an entire room of champions, I want to thank you for everything you’re doing to make my dream, and the dreams of millions of people like me, come true.

Thank you.

Tracy Chen
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