Washington Watch: ED summit emphasizes completion with equity, mobility

The U.S. Education Department's higher education summit on Thursday included many community college leaders, including (from left) Anne Kress of Northern Virginia Community College, Michael Baston of Cuyahoga Community College, and Gregory Haile of Broward College. (Photo: David Baime/AACC)

The U.S. Education Department on Thursday (ED) brought together approximately 80 educators, including a clutch of community college leaders, in a day-long event to discuss strategies to highlight and enhance efforts focused on college completion. 

In that respect, the event echoed activity undertaken in the Obama administration. But ED added a new emphasis, reflected in Under Secretary James Kvaal’s comment that it is time now for colleges and universities to develop a “new narrative” emphasizing “inclusivity and upward mobility.” 

Sounding a familiar note, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that “we must stop equating exclusivity with excellence.” 

Continuation and change

The Raise the B.A.R. (Bold + Action + Results) in College Excellence and Equity Summit in Washington, D.C., had a strong community college presence. It was a reminder that public two-year colleges have been in the vanguard of the completion movement, dating back at least to 2010, when six national community college organizations — including the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) — jointly signed a commitment to boost student completion by 50%. (I represented AACC at that event.)

At Thursday’s summit, Kvaal noted that the national graduation rate has increased by 8% over the last decade, an “unheralded” development. He added that the ongoing accomplishments could be used to “leverage culture change” in the direction of greater completion. Cardona noted that it was a “cruel irony” that the colleges enrolling the most low-income students have the lowest resources.  Meanwhile, Education Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten spoke to the need for students to be considered in all aspects — a “whole-child approach” that starts at pre-K and continues from there, with students needing a strong “sense of belonging” to succeed. 

Drilling down on fostering success

Most of the day was spent on small-group presentations and discussions, where, again, community college CEOs were prominently featured. Topics included:

  • Helping students negotiate transfer
  • Addressing enrollment declines
  • Holistic needs of today’s students
  • Value-added work and career pathways
  • Networks and collaborations
  • College affordability
  • Using data to improve outcomes 

In one of the sessions, Michael Baston, president of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College and AACC board member, emphasized the essential and growing role of community colleges in providing relevant occupational credentials to post-baccalaureate students. At the same session, Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, spoke about the value paid internship opportunities available to students, including one at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art and United Airlines. Baston also mentioned the need to reach “the students who are not here,” and the critical role of other organizations in helping reach them.  

Related article: New $5M grant program for student retention, success

ED used the event to push for greater engagement in the National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS), a public-private entity that includes the current administration and a diverse coalition of organizations and networks committed to providing the academic, mental health and other supports directed toward student success. Colleges are encouraged to direct 15% of their Federal Work-Study funds to this activity.  

Martin also encouraged attendees to promote the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program on their campuses. ED has acted to make this program much more accessible than when it was initially implemented, and it may be of interest to many community college faculty and other personnel.

Homework/next steps

In the last segment of the convening, attendees were encouraged to consider taking steps to sustain and expand completion/equity efforts. ED remains interested in hearing from institutions across the country about these goals. Colleges are asked to transmit what they are doing towards fostering “greater completion, social mobility, and college to career outcomes from students” by considering things that:

  • Commit to amplifying the agenda on completion with equity and mobility.
  • Encourage and support peer and/or neighboring institutions to adopt and scale evidence-based practices that advance retention and completion.
  • At the state level, adopt and scale evidenced-based practices and dismantle inequitable policies and practices.
  • ED can be asked to do to propel the agenda.

Colleges are encouraged to send their views to undersecretary@ed.gov

Given ED’s focus on college completion efforts that positively impact all students and provide true social mobility, more can be expected in this area from the Biden administration. 

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.