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Educating the majority of US students means thinking beyond the Ivy Leagues

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Students at the University of Washington are on campus for the last day of in-person classes on March 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The University will close starting Monday, March 9, as a precautionary reaction to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak for the remainder of the winter quarter. (

Based on all the attention it received in higher ed circles, Netflix’s series, “The Chair,” struck a nerve. But one serious issue it raised is barely being discussed: That it is based at a fictional elite institution (“Pembroke University”), the kind very few college students ever attend.

The entertainment industry’s obsession with the rarest of schools is highly problematic and it is not new, stretching from “Paper Chase” and “Love Story” in the early 1970s to “Good Will Hunting” in the ‘90s to the “Legally Blonde” franchise that continues today — all mainstream popular movies set at Ivies. The national news media often share this fixation, too, time and again fostering a gross national misunderstanding of higher education itself, let alone where most students and families turn to for bachelor’s degrees. 

As president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), I represent nearly 400 public comprehensive institutions — 38 percent of the nation’s public four-year institutions. But even though AASCU institutions educate 3.3 million undergraduates, including a large share of the low-income, first-generation, and/or students of color in public higher education, we do not possess anything like the resources — the huge endowments, the expansive campuses, the large administrations — that the few elites do. Yet, our universities are intrinsic to the national vitality and economic health, not only as a matter of scale and reach but also one community at a time, because typically our student populations are comprised of local students preparing for local careers — for example, teachers and nurses. 

With the latest U.S. Census showing an increasingly diverse populace, this growing constituency will increasingly rely upon schools like AASCU’s, regional comprehensive institutions, not on the schools that Hollywood and the press keep featuring. It is long past time for the media’s narrative about these schools to change and, far more importantly, for the national investment in these engines of change to finally begin to match their import.

To ensure that all our students are competitive in this rapidly changing world, including the students and communities we serve, we at AASCU urge Congress to do the following:

  • Reconsider and expand upon President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan by extending tuition-free access for the first two years of college to all public colleges and universities — not just community colleges — for all students and families. The proposal for tuition-free community college was removed from the recently passed Build Back Better Framework, but since the start of the pandemic, college applications have dropped dramatically across lower-income groups, in large part because of the financial impact of the pandemic on these families. Making the attainment of at least two years of higher education at public institutions as accessible as a high school education will have a positive, far-reaching impact on low-income students as well as historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions. Free-tuition programs now in existence have increased college enrollment, lowered dependence on student loan debt and improved retention and completion rates, especially among students of color and lower-income students who are often the first in their family to attend college. 
  • Double the maximum Pell Grant awards that are provided to our lowest-income students so that they are not saddled with a mountain of debt. According to a new report from the Gender Equity Policy Institute, doubling the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 would reduce future loan debt for Black, Hispanic and Native American students by 80 percent or more. Such a move would be especially valuable at the regional comprehensive universities that AASCU serves. Regional comprehensive universities enroll approximately 64 percent of the total percentage of Pell undergraduates at four-year public colleges and graduate a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than other public four-year institutions. The Build Back Better framework currently proposes an increase to the maximum Pell Grant of $550. 
  • Stop taxing scholarship and grant aid, including Pell Grants. Since 1986, scholarships and grant aid used on non-tuition expenses like books and room and board have been taxed as a form of unearned income. Today, approximately three million students receive aid that is subject to taxation. Repealing this tax would permit low- and middle-income students to retain more of this aid to cover expenditures related to the full costs of attendance. 

To be clear, such investments are not only important for higher education, but also for our economy, our communities and America’s overall well-being. As the data clearly show, students who graduate from college typically not only earn more but also have better health, pay more taxes and become more engaged in their communities than students who don’t.  

Yet some in our country seem nervous about the enormous change in America’s demographics and its changing complexion — literally and figuratively. At the same time, the gap between the haves and have nots is widening. 

We must fund the entire spectrum of higher education as the public good it clearly is — and keep calling out the elitist views in Hollywood and the media that portray selective and research universities as the only models of excellence. The hundreds of regional public institutions that keep American communities strong are vital to our nation’s future. The time has come to reconsider how we support all of American higher education so that everyone with the talent and work ethic to succeed has a fair shot. 

Dr. Mildred Garcia is the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Tags American Association of State Colleges and Universities Federal assistance in the United States Higher education in the United States Joe Biden Netflix Pell Grant Public university Student loan United States Department of Education

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