Higher ed faces racial equity, affordability challenges this year—but there’s reason for optimism, too
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Higher ed faces racial equity, affordability challenges this year—but there’s reason for optimism, too

“I think it’s fantastic that we are seeing equity creep into conversations about what higher education policy should look like. But, I’m really concerned that I’m already seeing it creep on out,” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Jesse O’Connell, and Amanda DeLaRosa offer their optimism and concerns about higher education in 2021.

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Episode 25

Time for change in this critical moment for higher ed racial equity, cost of college

After a difficult year for education, there’s reason for optimism in 2021, depending on how a new administration and other policymakers deal with COVID-19, student debt, student services, financial aid, and other issues.

Our guests on the 25th installment of the Lumina Foundation podcast “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent” looked at both the challenges of the past year and the opportunity in the months ahead. Washington Post higher education reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Jesse O’Connell, Lumina Foundation strategy director for federal policy, joined Dr. Katherine Wheatle, Lumina strategy officer for federal policy and equity, and me for a discussion of federal policy. Amanda DeLaRosa, Lumina strategy officer for state policy, was our guest to talk about her area of expertise.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Jesse O’Connell, and Amanda DeLaRosa offer their optimism and concerns about higher education in 2021.

Douglas-Gabriel said she was disheartened by the relative lack of communication she saw on many college campuses with regard to COVID. A bright spot was at community colleges, where leaders “did a particularly good job … in being able to pivot in a way that was respectful to the education and health needs of the population that they serve as well as the people who work there.”

And while both she and O’Connell were encouraged by the discussions that took place this year surrounding student debt, Douglas-Gabriel said she is concerned that racial equity in policymaking—once a central topic—is falling away as a priority. Black and Hispanic students are shouldering larger portions of student debt, she said, but “we’re not thinking about racial equity in any way when we’re having these conversations” about how to manage the situation.

O’Connell and Douglas-Gabriel told us that three potential plans are being discussed for reducing student loans—one that would forgive as much as $50,000 in debt per borrower and two that would cancel $10,000 for each borrower. Canceling $10,000 would wipe out the debt for many people who are struggling to make their loan payments, Douglas-Gabriel said. And it’s possible that at least one of the $10,000 plans could be accomplished by executive order.

In addition to dealing with the debt issue, schools will need to do more to retain students, Douglas-Gabriel said. Wrap-around services such as food, housing and mental-health support have to be “woven into the fabric” of what colleges do. “It’s going to be the future of your college population. To retain and graduate and provide for them, you have to be consistent in your interest in their well-being throughout their education.”

At the state level, DeLaRosa said higher education leaders found themselves serving as crisis managers in 2020. They dealt not only with COVID and budget issues but—depending on their location—wildfires, hurricanes, and mass protests.

State higher-education budgets were mostly flat in 2020, but funding could be especially hard-hit in the next few years. DeLaRosa said Lumina and others are asking leaders to avoid across-the-board cuts. Instead, they should safeguard funding that goes to marginalized students for services and financial aid. She noted that more states are putting out public statements acknowledging that there is systemic racism in state policy. They’re now looking at the policies through an equity lens, which will benefit the most vulnerable students.

Though education at all levels faces significant challenges going forward, the message from our guests was clear: We need to maintain our collective focus on racial equity and continue working to increase opportunities for people to get the education and training they need. And most importantly, we need to keep finding ways to work together to improve the human condition.