I was not born a college president—nor born to be one. Neither of my parents had college degrees, and most of my grandparents did not finish high school. My extended tree of aunts and uncles and cousins and in-laws got “good jobs” and made “good money” without going to college and joked about “professional students.” My parents stood apart: they were proud of my academic success and wanted me to go to college, but finances were a challenge. They understood that financial aid was out there (somewhere), but when it came time for my parents to complete the financial aid application, the process was mystifying. I was raised in a hardworking family that valued self-reliance. We did not ask for help. As an answer to our prayers, a university offered me a significant scholarship and early admission; my family jumped at it as a way out of a confusing maze they could never understand. Off I went to college.
I wish I could say this process is different for most families now, almost forty years later. I wish I could say that the financial aid system is clear, that parents and students have access to information they need to make good decisions about where to go to college and how much to pay, that the data available to the public about college costs and outcomes is transparent.
My story has a happy ending. Through a combination of brains and pure luck, I was able to attend an outstanding and affordable public research university, the University of Florida, that was (and still is) committed to student success. I earned four degrees (B.S., B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.), graduated each time with minimal debt, and have been able to link my education to a career in higher education.
I wish I could say this is the way every first-generation student’s college journey turns out. I wish I could say that brains and luck are enough to assure access to an affordable institution that is accountable for student success and transparent about costs and outcomes.
Advocating for policy at the federal and state level that will help first-generation students and their families make sense of college processes has never been more important. A 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics finds that 24 percent of traditional age college students are first-generation, and an additional 34 percent come from families in which one or more of their parents attended college but did not complete a bachelor’s degree. Add to that the growing number of nontraditional, adult learners in college who are likely to exhibit risk factors, including first-generation status. These are students for whom college is an unknown land filled will baffling rules, unintelligible communications, and indecipherable costs.
To be sure, there have been federal efforts over the years to change this picture: moves to streamline the financial aid process and provide more data to students and families, but their impact is questionable. According to FAFSA Tracker, as of May 25, 2018, 61 percent of graduating seniors in my state (New York) have completed the FAFSA; across the U.S., this rate is as low as 34 percent and as high as 75 percent. In my own community, less than 30 percent of students in some of our lowest income high schools have completed the FAFSA thus far this year. Most high schools in the U.S. are heading into exams and graduations, so the likelihood that these numbers will grow much is slim. The process of accessing essential financial aid is as opaque to these students and their families as it was to me and mine. And, the flood of college data rushing toward them is far from a useful stream of information: financial aid calculators, Student Right to Know disclosures, the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator, the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, and more. The data captured in these tools is as clear as mud to those who need it most and is too often delivered too early or too late to be of any use anyway.
This is why the work of the Forward50 and the subgroup on which I serve, Transparency, is critical as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Overall, the Forward50 is charged with creating practical solutions and recommendations for members of Congress to consider in shaping higher education policy—solutions and recommendations that should make college processes and data more transparent to students and their families. The issue today is not a shortage of processes or a dearth of data: we are drowning in both. The Forward50 is dedicated to cutting through the jargon and inside lingo, the tables and spreadsheets, the forms and paperwork. We want to put the data that decision-makers need in their hands when they need it, communicated in ways that they understand and that drive action.
The dedicated group of professionals in the Forward50 know that finding such solutions will not be easy but it is essential. Four decades after my family got lost in the maze of higher education, I am honored to be working with a group committed to cutting through the weeds and making paths to quality, affordable college educations a reality for the full diversity of students.
Catch up on any past Forward50 blog entries you may have missed.