Equity-focused state policy is advancing throughout the U.S.Feb. 22, 2022
When racial equity is the goal and policymakers use sound processes and principles, then real, substantive progress is possible.
That’s the takeaway from episode 33 of the Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent.”
My guests are Scott Jenkins, Lumina’s strategy director for state policy, and Dr. Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Jenkins shares an overview of the work he and his colleagues Amanda DeLaRosa and Paola Santana are doing to monitor what is happening in higher education across the country, while Santiago gets into the specifics of what has happened and continues to happen in his state.
In 2018, Santiago and his board chair proposed the development of a 10-year plan focused on racial equity. He said that once they established that racial equity was the highest priority and needed to be reflected in their policies, they conducted an audit looking at the state’s laws and regulations and their impact on students of color. Their effort has been a 66-person, department-wide endeavor.
The result—and the audits are continuing—is the revision of the 1988 document Massachusetts Undergraduate Experience that is being rewritten for today’s student. It will be completed in June, but they’ve already implemented some changes. For example, Massachusetts has increased financial aid more in the last three years than it had in the previous 30. Also, students can now transfer community college credit in their major to any public four-year institution throughout the state. Previously, those were only transferred as general education credits.
“That was a huge obstacle for students continuing on in higher education,” he said.
Santiago said the Department of Higher Education has worked with colleges and universities to move away from the question of whether students are prepared for college and turn their attention to whether they are prepared for the changing student body.
“Higher education leaders have to be a bit fearless,” Santiago, who is retiring later this year after 30-plus years in higher education, tells me. “There’s a lot going on in the country, and higher education leaders have to stand up and explain what higher education is about.”
That will require transparency, honesty, and bringing people to a conversation that may sometimes be uncomfortable.
“It’s difficult, detailed work,” he said, “but it’s focused and makes the case that if we can improve college and retention access and success it will benefit all students.”
I asked Scott Jenkins to come back to the show to talk about what he’s seeing states do to close the completion and attainment gaps for students of color, low-income students, working-age adults, and veterans. He and his colleagues have developed a state policy agenda, and track what states are doing to fund and invest in students, and what policies states are putting in place to get students credits for what they’ve already learned.
Lumina makes sure that “we’re working with policymakers and leaders and advocacy organizations that are committed to eliminating unfair and unjust laws, regulations and practices that have held students back,” he said.
Jenkins said he and his colleagues are seeing several states moving forward on a racial equity/historical equity agenda to address disparities. He shared the examples of Texas and Alabama, which are focused on improving short-term credentials programs and making sure they’re available across their states.
Jenkins also shared examples of how far some states need to go. While many national conversations have focused on direct-to-student aid—the grants, loans, and scholarships given to students to cover or subsidize the cost of college—too little of the conversation has been about how states fund colleges that support the majority of today’s students. For example, Jenkins cites that Illinois gives 60 percent of its allocated four-year institutional funding to just two of the state’s flagships, leaving the remaining 40 percent for the other nine students that support many more first-generation students.
Ultimately, Lumina wants students to finish school and come out with the skills and credentials they need to land a real job at a living wage. To get that done, he said, policymakers need to pay attention to “the majority institutions”—the schools that the majority of students are attending—and gear higher education budgets “for the 24-year-old mother going to a community college trying to raise her family and deal with all the things life is throwing at her and not the 19-year-old who’s sitting on the quad playing hacky sack.”