‘This Is an All-Hands-on-Deck Situation’ – ED Hosts National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

The Department of Education (ED) on Wednesday hosted a day-long summit exploring the ways in which higher education can promote diversity, ensure equal opportunity, and reduce barriers for students entering postsecondary education.

The event comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) ruling on race conscious admissions practices, which leaders from the administration have said “rolled back decades of progress” and will make college diversity efforts more challenging.

Prior to Wednesday’s conversation, ED said it will work with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on new guidance detailing how colleges can consider race in admissions and provide a path forward to creating a more inclusive higher education system. That guidance is expected to be released in mid-August.

Under Secretary James Kvaal opened the summit and said the department was committed to ensuring that the court’s decision would not be the last word, and that Wednesday’s discussion was intended to provide participants with specific steps they could take back to their institutions.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Kvaal said.

Administration officials called upon institutions of higher education to reassess their admission practices, especially if their student bodies are not representative of the broader college-age population.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that he looked at these challenges through a K-12 lens and how the legacy of segregation and past racist financial policies like redlining have continued to create systemic inequities.

“Anyone who tells you discrimination of the past doesn't impact educational opportunities of today is either lying to you or living under a rock,” Cardona said. “Our country still has not realized the promise of equal opportunity for all of our students.”

In response to the challenges created by the court, Cardona urged higher education leaders to expand need-based financial aid, work with ED to reduce student loan debt, and commit to evidence-based practices that promote program and degree completion.

In addition to these actions, Cardona also called on leaders to “blur the lines” between K-12 and higher education, by increasing the presence of postsecondary programs across all student levels.

“Students can't be what they can't see,” Cardona said. “Let's find ways to recognize excellence in all of its forms.”

In the coming weeks, Cardona said that ED will host summits across the country to provide more practices on how leaders can bridge the divide between K-12 and higher education.

ED’s Office for Civil Rights also provided an overview of SCOTUS’ ruling striking down 40 years of precedent, and detailed their commitment to ensuring equal access to educational opportunities.

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary at ED’s Office for Civil Rights, said that the department will continue to carry out its mission to ensure equal access to education in the wake of the court’s ruling and outlined how schools can comply with the ruling, while still prioritizing paths that promote equal access.

“Colleges and universities that see their own past admissions practices in what the court described, the Students for Fair Admissions, should discontinue those practices, because the court has told us they were unlawful,” Lhamon said. “I'll say it again though. The court did not realize that working to achieve diversity is unlawful.”

Kristen Clarke, DOJ’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, confirmed that guidance detailing how colleges can consider race in admissions policies will be unveiled in August and added that the administration was prepared for this moment.

Clarke added that now is the time to work to ensure that any existing metrics or criteria do not increase inequity or disparities in accessing higher education.

“As we know for much of our nation's history, people of color were excluded from most institutions of higher education,” Clarke said. “We applaud the steps that colleges and universities have taken to open their doors and seek out qualified and capable applicants of all races.”

DOJ underscored that it was encouraging schools to navigate this new landscape and reminded institutions that they must carefully examine the decision and not issue blanket policies, which would serve as an overreaction to the court’s ruling.

“Although this decision has changed the landscape for admissions and higher education institutions, it should not be an excuse to turn our backs on diversity,” Clarke said.

During a panel discussion, Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, stressed that the decision could impact whether students and families feel welcome to attend college, and urged institutions to think critically about how they communicate with students and their families — a sentiment he echoed during a NASFAA webinar last week.

“All counselors, community-based organizations, who counsel students in the pipeline to higher education are really facing a lot of anxiety right now,” Pérez said. “They're not exactly sure what is the message they are going to send to students. Does their advising have to change over time? And so communication, I would say, between higher education and high school counselors is going to be critical.”

The summit was also an opportunity for experts to speak on how to increase diversity at institutions through financial aid programs and college affordability initiatives. Dennis Olson, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, pointed to the state’s North Star Promise Scholarship Program as an initiative to help make college affordable for low-income students.

The program, which will begin in fall 2024, will cover the full cost of tuition and fees to higher education institutions for eligible Minnesota residents at eligible institutions. The program is a “last-dollar” scholarship program, meaning that the program will cover the cost of tuition and fees after other scholarships, grants, stipends, and tuition waivers have been applied.

He also highlighted Minnesota’s American Indian Scholars Program, which provides a full tuition and fee waiver for American Indian students to pursue an undergraduate education at Minnesota’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, on a different panel about rebuilding affordable higher education pipelines, shared how her institution became a minority-serving institution, a predominantly Black institution (PBI), and a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). A large part of that development was providing funds for students of color to attend Trinity, which McGuire said was a hard and expensive process. Currently, Trinity gives more in institutional discounts to students than the university gets in federal student loans.

“This work is very expensive and we have to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to promote [it]. We hear the word ‘diversity’ all through this meeting. I'm going to use the word ‘justice’ — educational justice for the students who have been on the margins and who need to be at the center,” McGuire said. “It is expensive. We need to find ways to fund it.”

Steve Benjamin, director at the White House Office of Public Engagement, in closing said that Wednesday’s summit served as a key step for the administration's efforts to promote equal educational opportunity and diversity in postsecondary education.

“​​We know exactly what the human potential is when you invest in humans, where everyone is given a fair shot and no one is left behind,” Benjamin said. “Our colleges are stronger when they are racially diverse, our nation is stronger because we're tapping into our full range of talent.”


Publication Date: 7/27/2023

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