The higher education policy conversation has hit a wall. The major ideas dominating the space since the 2016 election—at least among advocates who want to advance educational equity and economic mobility—have lost significant momentum. President Biden’s student debt cancellation plan is all but dead; free tuition plans have stalled at the federal level; the Pell grant has not doubled nor increased enough to prevent student basic needs insecurity. Meanwhile, efforts to make higher education even more exclusionary, from the Supreme Court’s impending decisions on affirmative action and student debt relief to state efforts to ban DEI initiatives, seem poised to spread throughout the country.
Those committed to advancing educational equity need to grapple with this dichotomy: the most-discussed solutions to expanding access to higher education have neither passed nor led to the transformational change needed to build a more just America. At the same time, those who seem committed to making higher education a tool to expand inequality even further are coalescing around a set of solutions to do just that. If this continues, higher education policy will increasingly be determined by political stunts rather than by research-based solutions to building a more effective, innovative and equitable system.
The consequences of this could be severe. Despite varying opinions on whether college is worth it, the economic benefits of college degrees are at an all-time high. On average, recent college graduates earn $52,000 per year, while young workers with high school diplomas but no higher education credentials earn only $30,000 per year. This difference, known as the college wage premium, has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. College completion is also associated with lower unemployment rates. This makes sense given that nearly two-thirds of all jobs require some form of college education, yet only 48 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. However clear this data is, it has not convinced enough politicians to invest in proven strategies to expand the benefits of higher education to the entire American public. Instead, too many policymakers continue to support vanity efforts that would make it even harder to overcome the staunch racial inequities in college degree attainment.
This uncomfortable reality highlights a central limitation to the current higher education policy conversation. We have more than enough data to determine the biggest barriers to expanding access to higher education. We know what policy solutions could improve the higher education system so that more people—particularly those from marginalized backgrounds—can access the life-enhancing benefits of a college degree. What we lack is the political will to build a system that actually works to increase economic mobility and create a fairer, more-prosperous nation. Without the political coalition necessary to advance transformational change, we will be unable to increase the number of Americans with post-secondary credentials at the scale our economy requires. More importantly, we will continue to entrench the American education system in racial and economic inequalities.
Higher education leaders and advocates need to build the political will to invest in the proven strategies that can expand access to higher education. To do this effectively, higher education leaders should center the voices and experiences of their students in their advocacy. While data-driven arguments have not moved policymakers to act in accordance with the urgency of the problems we face, individual stories of how students navigate the immense pressures our systems create for them can move the needle. It’s easier for politicians to fail to act on the most pressing issues facing students—from homelessness to food insecurity—if they are presented with abstract data that obfuscates the scope of the problem than it is if policymakers hear from students and college leaders on what it means to be a student facing economic insecurity.
College leaders are uniquely situated to become effective policy advocates given that they work so closely with students whose lives could be hampered or improved by public policy. Higher education leaders need to view advocacy as a critical component of their job to serve students, and should view advocacy as an opportunity to translate their students’ stories to policymakers. In doing so, higher education leaders can more deeply immerse themselves in their campuses, which can both improve their understanding of their students’ needs, and situate them to make long-term structural change that will benefit their entire institution. While developing an advocacy agenda with these stories will take additional time for college leaders who are already stretched to their limits, given the barriers to making policy change, it is time higher education leaders employ new strategies to interject their students’ stories into the higher education policy conversation. Otherwise, the higher education policy conversation will continue to lack the narrative needed to advance positive change.