Raising student voices in federal discussions on education and training
Lumina Foundation is launching a new effort to elevate student voices in federal policy conversations about education beyond high school by partnering with organizations with strong national networks of students. This post features two of these partners—Leadership for a Diverse America (LEDA) and Young Invincibles—and explores how the stories of two students that they serve illustrate broader policy questions for our leaders to address.
LEDA helps outstanding public high school students from low-income backgrounds get access to and succeed in top universities and colleges by developing their leadership potential.
With Lumina’s support, LEDA’s new Policy Fellows project will train and position a cohort of LEDA Scholars to engage in and inform federal postsecondary policy. "The core of LEDA's mission is to ensure that diverse voices are at the table where decisions are made, so a new initiative that positions (LEDA Scholars) to engage in federal education policy discussions will strengthen LEDA's ability to introduce underrepresented voices into these national conversations," the group said.
Young Invincibles works through national and regional offices to amplify the voices of young adults and expand economic opportunity in several areas including higher education policy. Established in 2009, Young Invincibles has educated tens of thousands of young adults and activated a new generation of policy leaders.
With Lumina’s support, Young Invincibles is strengthening its capacity to engage with students throughout its six regions and in harder to reach places outside metro areas. It not only plans to train and connect these students with policy conversations, but also to use their perspectives to shape its own federal policy development and strategy.
Recently, I’ve gotten to meet some of the students and former students taking part in these efforts. Their experiences bring an important youth perspective to the policy recommendations and data generated by our other federal policy partners at think tanks, membership organizations, and advocacy groups.
Jimmieka Mills has juggled roles as a community college student in Houston, a campus leader, a young mother, and a student journalist who has penned two op-eds with the support of Young Invincibles. She has also persevered despite several roadblocks, including:
- Unpredictable access to financial aid. Jimmieka initially couldn’t complete the FAFSA as an independent 16-year-old student because she couldn’t collect and share her estranged parents’ tax information. Her eligibility was later restored after she became pregnant with her son. Simplifying the FAFSA has become a major policy priority for congressional leaders and student advocates alike. Jimmieka’s story, however, asks: How can we redesign the FAFSA so that it’s simpler and better able to account for students’ complex family situations?
- Lack of guidance on the pathway to timely completion. Only when she applied for graduation did Jimmieka learn that she needed four semesters of math to receive her associate degree. Those credits significantly extended her time to degree. Improving advising through predictive analytics and proactive interventions has been a major part of recent efforts at Georgia State University to improve their graduation and retention efforts. As a result, semester-to-semester retention rates have increased by 5 percent and time-to-degree has gone down by almost half a semester. How can more institutions be encouraged to implement similar efforts through federal policy, state policy, perhaps even accreditor standards?
- Financial aid that exhausts too early. As Jimmieka was registering for her final class, finally ready to get over the finish line and to her degree, she was told by her institution that her financial aid eligibility had been exhausted. Paying out of pocket for the course is a stretch for this working mom, but she is saving and not giving up on her dream. And Jimmieka is far from alone in the group of students who are very close but not quite to a degree. A National Student Clearinghouse study found that nearly 4 million students fit into the “potential completers” category and were present in all postsecondary sectors. How can institutions and policymakers help get more of these students over the finish line so they can realize the full benefits that a credential can bring?
Charlie Scott is a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island. Charlie also identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they/them/their. Charlie grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, became a LEDA Scholar, and graduated from Brown University last year, a journey that illuminates many core challenges and opportunities for postsecondary systems today.
- Equity as multi-dimensional. Charlie reminds us that every person is made up of a multitude of identities that shape experience and perspective. Though disaggregating data to understand trends across different sub-groups is essential, policymakers and advocates alike must take care to acknowledge that trends do not dictate individual stories and experiences. How can we celebrate students like Charlie and all the intricacies of their identity while also paying attention to trends for different demographics and sub-groups?
- Support in times of transition. Charlie’s mother played an essential role in helping them stay at Brown despite feeling out of place as a new freshman at a campus thousands of miles away from home. Research suggests that fostering a sense of belonging among first-generation students and students of color, in particular, can play a role in reducing achievement gaps and increasing attainment. Some studies have specifically found this to be true for Native American students. How can institutions better message and support new students? And can policy advance these efforts, e.g., by creating incentives for these efforts by collecting and reporting disaggregated data and funding research to identify effective strategies for retention?
- Focus on American Indian students. Charlie explains that, out of the 228 students who graduated from their high school, 53 would be expected to enroll in a four-year institution and only 22 would be expected to earn a four-year degree within six years. American Indian students make up a relatively small population among postsecondary students and tend to have lower than average outcomes. They also are less likely to have reminders of their own culture and heritage at school, especially if attending a predominantly white institution. How can policy help change this narrative for Native students so that Charlie’s story of ‘beating the odds’ isn’t so rare?
Listening to Jimmieka and Charlie reminded me that our students aren’t waiting for the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Their future begins now. We owe it to them as policymakers, advocates, and other leaders to seek out their perspectives, connect them to broader trends and challenges, and design policy with those interests and priorities front and center.
Terri Taylor works on building Lumina's institutional finance portfolio and uses her experience in nonprofit strategy development in the policy space to build capacity among our federal policy partners. She works closely with our federal policy team on innovative models and collaboratively with Lumina's vice president of strategic engagement on quality assurance issues.