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To: All 2,000 delegates at this weekend's annual meeting of the American Council on Education

Your assignment for this annual meeting: make history for low-income students. What proposals can you have live and moving by the time the lights go out Tuesday there at the Washington Marriott Marquis?

No, we may not rest on the restore summer Pell idea. That’s paying a fine. We should not have lost summer Pell in the first place.

To inspire you, to offer conversation starters, I’ve contacted for you as many higher ed leaders and thought leaders as I could to offer my spotlight for their best ideas, right here, in this obscure column.

Their ideas:

  • Equitable funding through state and federal litigation, as in K-12.
  • Admit once and for all the greater needs of low-income students and stop providing these students with less funding per student than elementary school students.
  • A student hope survey each semester, with help for those without.
  • Much more day care and early childhood education, essential for children and parents, especially those who are college students.
  • Free lunch and bus/subway passes for the college students who received these in K-12.
  • Expand Pell to include more job training; measure college success with job placement in the field of study.

One of ACE’s plenary speakers, Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, said that the power shift in Washington cannot sideline federal action to improve opportunity for low- and middle-income students. “To be effective, we have to think about what kinds of policy changes could really have an impact on the prospects for upward mobility. That means not just asking for more money, but ensuring that government, institutions and students use the funds equitably and efficiently.”

Baum looks back to the start for all students. She would start “by ensuring high-quality, affordable day care and early childhood education, so parents, including student parents, know their children are well cared for.”

Delegates: find Sandy Baum. Bring sharp pencils. Make a plan for better day care.

Start with the tough end of the question. Start the discussion with the people around you right now and in every hallway and by every coffeepot. The harder end of the question? Example: “To have expanded day care for all Pell students who are parents, we would have to …”

For solutions, I mean ones that take as a given the current difficult federal budget situation, with a proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending and cuts to all other agencies. Think! My teaching self believes in every one of you. Yes, you can. Remember, you are the stars of what you yourselves call the greatest higher education system in the world.

Who are these low-income students? I mean the students, grasping for a postsecondary credential, who may not today, Friday, have a full weekend’s worth of food to eat.

I mean the legal immigrant whose trip from a distant continent to my windowless basement office to edit a transfer essay included a stop in a six-foot-square underground jail cell, with more than a dozen other prisoners crammed in. (Naming even the country could put the student and his/her family at risk.)

With President Trump proposing a $54 billion increase in defense spending at the expense of other agencies, we need as many approaches for these students as we can field. I have gathered plausible ideas from thoughtful realist higher ed leaders I know. Grab and improve on these ideas with your neighbors as you wait for an ACE session to start, as you file in out and out of plenaries, as you wait for coffee or sit down for superb free meals that many low-income students will not have during this meeting.

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College and a national champion for low-income students, suggested judicial remedies, the long-haul chess game of desegregation litigation such as Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took to prepare for 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. Mellow today shares the same reasoning as Marshall did then for turning to the courts: legislative strategies are not working.

“In the U.S., justice has often been found in the courts, and it might be time to seek justice for low-income students that way,” Mellow said.

Delegates: send an Uber and invite the civil rights lawyer John Brittain at University of the District of Columbia to join you. Find Gail Mellow. Sit down and stay seated until you have a plaintiff, funding and a litigation strategy.

“Hope is important,” said Hal Plotkin, an Obama deputy under secretary of education and a community college graduate himself. “Students who have hope are more likely to move through adversity. The absence of hope is self-fulfilling. Why don’t we measure hope? We could ask students questions that are about hope but grounded in reality. If I were a college president, I would want to know if my students were mostly hopeful about their futures or mostly hopeless -- and what the trends are/were.” Plotkin is now senior open policy fellow for Creative Commons USA.

Richard Kahlenberg and the Century Foundation have created a new task force to take next steps from the foundation’s excellent 2013 “Bridging the Higher Education Divide: The Report of the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges From Becoming Separate and Unequal.” The report stated again that in U.S. higher education the students with the highest need, most of whom are in community colleges, receive the least funding. This is at odds with much of the policy and practice for K-12.

More funding for high-need students in higher education? “The idea sounds pie in the sky, but Tennessee and other states are already moving in this direction, providing an 80 percent premium in funding to colleges that graduate Pell students,” said Kahlenberg. “What if that 80 percent principle was applied nationally?” The Century Foundation has funding from the William T. Grant Foundation to think through just this question. Delegates: find Rick Kahlenberg there and sign up for the task force.

Anthony P. Carnevale, also an ACE plenary speaker and research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, wonders if higher education in this environment needs to reconsider past objectives.

“Do we go whole hog on gainful employment?” Carnevale asked. “Completion is not enough. Graduates have to get a job.” As measures, he asks if new degree/certificate holders have an increase in wages in a job in the field of their training. Delegates: find Tony. Listen. With magnificent clarity and plenty of evidence, he this week opened my mind to this new-to-me idea.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, also author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream, restated her recommendation for a federal lunch program for the college students who were eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunch in K-12. Some studies indicate that more than 50 percent of low-income college students may be both food and housing insecure. Delegates: send an Uber to the Longworth Building on Capitol Hill and invite U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to join you. Scott already wants to put such a plan into the budget. Let Scott advise you on a relentless strategy in spite of Republican gloom.

Pam Y. Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, is advocating against student hunger with Goldrick-Rab, and sees every day both the benefits of proving food and the costs of student hunger. Bunker Hill (where I work) helps students enroll for and renew food stamps, has food available, and hosts a monthly food pantry for which the Greater Boston Food Bank delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries.

“Food, housing, transportation are essential to academic completion,” Eddinger said. “They are simply necessities. There are no silver bullets.”

Paying for this? Remember, we are a nation that is funding an unbudgeted $5 trillion war. For these low-income students? We can succeed.

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