American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Dr. Mildred García sits down with EAB’s David Attis to talk about what institutions can do to address equity gaps.
Dr. García shares some of the challenges she faced as the first in her family to attend college. She also shares stories about educators within the campus community who set high standards for her then taught her how to work to meet those standards. Dr. García and Dr. Attis also discuss their biggest concerns for the fall and their frustration with the rise of the media narrative that higher ed is not worth the price.
00:14 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, the weekly podcast helping you keep pace with all of the challenges in education. The COVID-19 pandemic, it brought with it a lot of challenges, and for higher education, some of those were new. Like, how do we move all of our classes online in 36 hours? At the same time, it took some pre-existing challenges and just made them worse. On today’s episode, my friend David Attis is back with us to talk with the President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Dr. Mildred García, about one such challenge, equity gaps in higher education and how they’ve been made worse by this pandemic. Dr. García also shares her own experience as a first-generation college student, as well as both her and David’s concerns for the fall. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.
01:08 David Attis: Hello, this is David Attis from EAB, and I am here with Dr. Mildred García, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, or AASCU. Dr. García has had an incredible career already. She was president of Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Dominguez Hills, CEO of Berkeley College in the New York City area, and she’s held both academic and senior level positions at Arizona State University, Montclair State University, Penn State University, Teachers College Columbia and the City University of New York. So Dr. Garcia has had incredible experience in public and private, East Coast and West Coast. Dr. García, welcome to the podcast today.
01:47 Mildred García: Thank you, David, thank you so very much. And please, call me Milly.
01:51 DA: Thank you, Milly. It’s great to have you here today. Well, Milly, it is Monday, June 1st, and we’ve just come out of a weekend of widespread protests, both violent and non-violent, across the United States, even in cities around the world, as a result of the death of George Floyd. Obviously, this highlights some of the long-standing problems we’ve had with our law enforcement system, but also I think is a sign of some of the devastating impacts that the coronavirus has had particularly on low-income and communities of color. Today, I wanted to get your thoughts around the specific impacts you see on education. We’ve already seen in some of our early data at EAB that the existing disparities we saw in education are being exacerbated by this. So whether that’s college going rates or student retention, we’re very concerned that much of the progress we’ve made over the last decade might be threatened by some of these challenges. How are you seeing these trends play out now, and what are your concerns for the future?
02:52 MG: Well, obviously, David, this whole last couple of weeks has been horrific when it comes to issues of race and class. We saw all of those happening just this weekend. It’s been heart-wrenching. I was frustrated and angry. Just last night, I wrote a message to my own staff at AASCU reminding them that yes, Martin Luther King had said to us that really a riot is really a manifestation of the rage that is happening in those communities. And he asked us, “What is America not hearing?” And we are not hearing what is going on in race and class and the inequities. And then I thought about the bright spots. There are so many people that have fought this battle before us, and so many shoulders we stand on, and we know that institutions of higher ed, in asking institutions in particular that’s so diverse, are actually educating students to understand difference, to be communities of difference, to open up hearts and minds, to learn how to live in a civil, just society. And so our institutions are so important because it is not only a private good, but it’s a public good, and helping understand that America has tried to form a more perfect union. And so that is so important for us to continue to educate the new majority, the low-income, the first-gen, the students of color, everybody that walks into our doors in higher education.
04:21 DA: Yeah, Milly, you’re speaking to that fundamental role that public education in particular has played in US History. I think my concern is it’s gonna be so much more challenging in the coming years, given not only the health crisis, but the economic crisis that we’re going through now as well.
04:37 MG: It’s no question about that. When you hear that unemployment, one out of every four adults are unemployed, well, who is that hurting the most, and who are the individuals who are dealing with horrific this coronavirus pandemic is the front-liners, and who are the from-liners? It’s the most vulnerable in our population. So we are all extremely worried of what we need to do in education, but also in this nation, to ensure that the most vulnerable, who I keep saying is the new majority of this country, can continue to be productive citizens in our communities and lift our nation. And so for higher ed, it continues to be… We have to double down; we have to double down on educating this population.
05:21 DA: So at an institutional level, what does that look like? What do you think particularly our public institutions can and should be doing to help support those populations?
05:30 MG: Well, first of all is to understand the communities that surround you. Who are you not serving? Second of all is to talk to your individual communities in their language and in their space. For first generation and low-income and many, many individuals who are rural, in rural areas, they see higher ed as not for them still today. And how do we reach out to them in their space? That’s number one. Number two is to show, demonstrate in multiple ways that that institution is there for them, that it is a place that’s welcoming to not only reach out to them, but then bring them on to your campus and show that in different ways. May that be with the diverse faculty and staff, with performances and plays that are diverse, with colors all around the campus, with pictures. And then have classrooms talk about their experiences, and use those as learning experiences the way they now use hip-hop music to talk about classical music. So those are things that institutions can do very easily in order for people to feel that, yes, college is for them. And then we have to think about role models. Who are the first-generation individuals that are out there? Who are those anchors who are of color that are the first to say, “I was a first generation college and this institution did this for me, and here is where I am today.”
07:03 DA: Yeah. And you yourself were a first-generation college student. Tell me a bit about what made the biggest difference in your experience.
07:09 MG: Well, I think as a first-generation college student, I came from very humble and proud parents and poor. They said to us that the only inheritance a poor family could leave you is a good education. And that was important, so they were my first role models. But then I started at the community college as well, and those faculty members and staff members embraced me and saw in me something that I didn’t see myself. In my neighborhood, I grew up in a housing project, college was for rich people, and that certainly wasn’t. But in that institution, I had faculty and staff who showed me the way, who really had set high standards but helped me to learn how to reach those hardstands. They didn’t give me a break, but they pushed me and showed me how to get there. And so that is what we need to do. And the other thing is they showed that they cared. They showed… And we don’t use it a lot in higher ed. They loved their students. You could tell that they absolutely cared. I still have a thesaurus that a faculty member gave me when I graduated from my community college that said, “To a smart girl that will move on and do great things.” And that thesaurus sits on my… Those are inspirations when you’re a kid and you’re the first one graduating from community college.
08:31 DA: Yeah. Yeah, those are inspiring stories. And I think as we looked at the past spring where we had to shift to remote instruction, I think there was a concern that it was both more difficult for faculty to form those relationships, and more difficult for students who didn’t have access to internet or to technologies or didn’t have a safe place to stay and to study. What were some of the things that you saw institutions doing to help those students get through what was a difficult spring and might be a difficult fall as well?
09:03 MG: And summer, a difficult summer.
09:03 DA: And summer, yeah, absolutely.
09:03 MG: David, I think you put your finger on something that has been illuminated and highlighted, is the haves and have-nots in higher education. There are so many students that don’t have laptops, that don’t have Wi-Fi at home. It’s expensive for them. So how do we do… So many of our institutions went out and used dollars and connected with community leaders and businesses to buy laptops to be able to give to those students who didn’t have it. They even went and got hotspots to put… To give to students. I heard of in a rural area a bus being put in the rural community as a hotspot for students to have that.
09:46 DA: That’s great.
09:50 MG: In addition to that, we have to think about these students have no quiet place to study sometimes because they’re living in small places, their family, they’re sharing rooms. So we have to think about all of that. And so, many of our institutions have gone out, they opened up on Sundays, some kept libraries open because of that very reason that there was no technology available to these students. So especially asking institutions, I speak to two to three presidents a day, I still am, to find out how they’re dealing with the situation, how the institution is moving forward in order to help the most vulnerable.
10:28 DA: As the AASCU presidents are thinking about the fall, what are some of their biggest concerns about what the fall will look like?
10:33 MG: Oh my God, there’s so much. I mean, first of all, it’s the social distancing. Second of all, it’s the classrooms, how are they gonna have the social distancing in the classroom? The Plexiglas for student centers. The way that they set up places, the lunchroom, the cafeteria, housing. How do they do housing when sometimes housing was two to four people? Do they have to move housing to one person? How does that look like? How do they think about that? Do they have enough health services on campus? For our AASCU institutions, we don’t have medical centers, so how do we go… They have health centers, but not medical centers. Some institutions and some of those that have many, many resources are opening up saying, “We’re gonna test and we’re gonna make sure.” Our AASCU institutions who really educate the most vulnerable don’t have that, and so they’re thinking through different ways. Some are starting earlier to finish before Thanksgiving, so in order to get them out before the flu season begins. Some are looking at multiple hybrid ways of methods of doing this, saying, Okay, maybe we’ll do some classes online and have some on campus so that those who want to come. So all of those things are still being thought about. There are some systems that have already said they’re not opening in the fall, but others are waiting to see what will happen.
12:02 DA: Yeah, and I noticed in a lot of the announcements that have gotten a lot of press, so UC San Diego talking about this amazing testing regime they’re planning, or Purdue University, very few institutions have the capacity or the resources to do that level of testing. What do you think the role of the state or the federal government should be in supporting testing at these public institutions?
12:23 MG: You know, I think that is something that should be definitely thought about federally and state-wise. The problem with the state is that they are losing so much income right now, and the disinvestment in public higher education has been horrific. When I think about when I was president at Fullerton, how my budget transitioned from mostly state support to then tuition support because of the recession, ’cause that was a place that we could cut. But it was the wrong thing for our students, the most vulnerable, because even though your tuition and fees are paid, they still have cost of living, they still have to get books, they still have to do transportation, and they have to work to support their families. Students today, the majority of them are working. So how does a state and federal map get together to think about testing for our state colleges and universities that are educating the majority of the students in this country?
13:24 DA: Yeah. And certainly we’ve seen some surveys indicating that there could be enrollment drops going into the fall, particularly if institutions stay online. I’m, frankly, then more concerned about the state budget cuts. Some state governors have already announced cuts for the last budget year, some are anticipating major cuts for the next. And we look back at the data from the last recession, the Great Recession, and saw even after a decade most states still hadn’t made up what they had taken away in those cuts. So it’s not hard to imagine that the next five or ten years could see even greater erosion in public funding. Are there any solutions out there you’ve seen either at a state level or at a federal level to help support those students who need it the most?
14:04 MG: Well, first of all, I think that AASCU has a plan out that we’ve been talking about for years, even before I became president, of state and federal matching, so that this way we look at it holistically and say the state goes here and the feds go there. So that’s number one. Number two, and our institutions at AASCU have already done this, but to continue to look at where are the programs that are not being successful, and be honest about that and try to eliminate those and if possible, move that really important budget to that area that is the most important. How do we share resources, for example? We started to do that when I was a president, where we would share a risk manager among institutions. How do we share technology? How do we buy things in bulk among a lot of institutions? All of those efficiencies that can go ahead and be sure that we are doing the best we can and being efficient. And then we have to ensure that we educate those we elect the importance of higher ed to this country, and we have to be vocal about it, and we have to use our bully pulpits to speak about that.
15:20 MG: It is still undeniable that if you graduate with a degree, you do better in this life than without one. That is very clear, the last recession showed us that. And so we have to continue to talk about this with data and stories, have students speak about this, show the success an institution has done, and couple yourselves with business leaders and community leaders and the media to ensure that that voice is out strong and with passion and with data.
15:57 DA: Yeah, I think that one of the greatest frustrations I hear from higher education leaders over the last decade has been the rise of a certain media narrative that higher education is not worth the price or that it is wasteful. And as you said, there are programs that might not be effective that could be cut and could be reallocated. I worry and particularly when I look at some of the numbers, partly about the level of student debt, but also about students who refuse to take out small amounts of debt and end up not completing their college degree. That we haven’t even made the case to some students, particularly first-generation, low-income students, that they should be investing in their education. And I think now about this financial crisis that we’re in right now and health crisis, if a young student came to you and said, “My parents have lost their job, I’m having trouble finding a job, should I really take out a small amount of debt to go to college?” what kind of advice would you give to her? How would you help her think through the value of an education, the trade-offs that someone might have to make?
16:57 MG: Well, first of all, I would tell them my story. That’s the first thing I would do because I think we have to be vulnerable in order for students to understand and be authentic and real. Many students, they see me and they think I’ve been in this position all my life. So that’s number one. But number two, we have to do a better job in higher ed in educating families and educating students. And what I mean by that is, is to talk about the resources that is out there. There are so many billions of dollars that are left on the table when it comes to financial aid. I wrote an op-ed with Ramon Torrecilha of Westfield State that talked about that we should require the FAFSA to be filled out in either in your junior year or senior year in high school so that they start to think of how to do this.
17:52 MG: Second of all, talk about scholarships, and talk about how the money is there for scholarships. Educate parents to talk, and speak to them in Spanish. We had a wonderful education fair at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and it was the importance of higher ed, we used role models throughout the nation, we used anchors from Univision, and they spoke about how important that was. But we ended that educational fair that started from pre-K all the way through college, with booths speaking to parents and families, we had 50,000 people by the time this was over, at one Saturday, and it ended with a financial aid FAFSA workshop in Spanish in order to go through the steps, giving them that. We need to do a better job in educating that the money is there if you just put in a little effort and help them to do that.
18:52 MG: And second of all is show them the stories and data of students their ages. We brought in, for example, men of color at our Men’s Success Initiative from different backgrounds to speak about where they came from, how they graduated and where they are today, and go through the difficulties, the good, the bad and the ugly, and how you can get through that and mentor them. So there are multiple ways of doing that in order to help them to understand that college is attainable, that college is a necessity, and how to get through it knowing the resources that are out there.
19:30 DA: Yeah. What I love about your examples is they seem so practical and relatively inexpensive. Why do you think we haven’t made more progress, given some other straightforward ways to communicate and support these students?
19:43 MG: You know, I think as AASCU institutions, I believe that they have been doing the best they can and going out into our… But I think the entire higher ed system needs to work in partnership with the high schools and our community-based organizations. So many adults don’t have their degree that need it. And figure out ways that are relative to them. What we did in California, what we’ve done in New York, New Jersey, everywhere I’ve worked, may not be exactly right for you, but learning the promising practices of how to do this. And that’s what we do at AASCU in all our annual meetings with presidents, and we do that with senior leaders, is how others are doing it and sharing that among each other. And so higher ed today now more than ever with what I consider the new majority, is that we need to double down and do more in order to go into the community.
20:41 MG: In California, for example, we have Super Sundays, which during the African-American month, Black History month, we go out and speak at churches, and then we connect with that church the entire year to let people know that our institution is for them because we’re in their communities. So things like that. Now, that’s okay for California, may not be, but what of the Vietnamese community, the Samoan communities, the different communities, the low-income communities that you were not reaching out to, and how do you reach out to them?
21:15 DA: Yeah. And I worry that as the financial pressure builds, what we saw in part in the last recession were institutions then focusing on high-paying students, out-of-state students, international students, in part because they wanted representation across the country, but in part because they needed to generate that revenue. When you talked about being at Cal State Fullerton and seeing that tuition become a much, much bigger part of the budget, I think a lot of us miss those days that certainly for me, I read about in the ’60s and ’70s when tuition was close to free in California and other states, and it doesn’t seem like we have the political will to go back in that direction, but I’m excited to see institutions who are able to find a balance, to be able to leverage those higher paying students, to be able to subsidize students who can’t afford the same amount, and to see the educational benefit in bringing those different groups and different income groups together and creating an inclusive environment.
22:09 MG: No, no question. And I do see… I mean, the recession was very difficult. I was president during that last recession, it was very difficult. But we’ve got to go back to the core, what is your mission? What are you saying in your mission? And ensure that people understand that that is your mission. And it’s gonna be difficult, you’re absolutely right, David. International students are gonna be extremely small in the fall, and so what is it that we must do in order to be able to provide quality higher ed to our institutions? And I would say number one, we’ve gotta go out and we’ve gotta connect not only with higher ed, but all our stakeholders within our communities to find resources to work with donors. I always told a donor, “Giving dollars to X will probably… X institution who has such a huge endowment is great, but if you give that money to an AASCU institution, it will multiply the amount of student scholarships tremendously for low-income, first-gen, adults, students of color, rural students, etcetera.” And so we have to show that and we have to… I think we in higher ed, especially public higher ed, have to be more assertive in telling our story and showing our success.
23:39 DA: Yeah, and that’s part of our mission at EAB, is trying to help institutions learn those best practices when maybe they don’t have the same level of staff or resources. We can share with them, “Here’s how those elite institutions go out and raise money, here are tactics that will work for your institution as well.” I think even community colleges now are getting more dependent on that kind of fundraising for scholarships, thinking more about recruiting and enrollment management. It’s become much more technically complicated to manage an institution and to engage those different stakeholder groups.
24:11 MG: Yeah, it’s looking at your business model and saying, “Okay, what can we do better? What can we do differently? What is the way that we could think differently?” I mean, institutions are talking about freezing tuition, lowering intuition. I think states, in my opinion, should be looking at when they’re looking… When states are giving out budgets, who are the institutions who have the most vulnerable, those Pell-eligible? Why isn’t… Why aren’t those institutions getting more dollars? Because quite frankly, it’s harder to educate and give the support services that are needed in order for those students to succeed, than those that have all the resources from the very beginning at home.
24:54 DA: Yeah, it’s interesting when you point that out, at the institutions with the most resources and the best resources, students tend to get the most funding per student, whereas those with the students who have the most need often tend to get less.
25:08 MG: Exactly.
25:09 DA: You mentioned that the importance of communicating and educating our political leaders. What are some of the best practices there? Either some of the coalitions that you’ve been able to build or the specific messages that you find resonate, particularly with those politicians who might be more skeptical about funding for public higher education.
25:25 MG: You know, what I see is, and I’ve been talking to our AASCU presidents about this, is to demonstrate to them that we graduate them and they move on to be successful and have the data and the story. They do like that. They wanna see the return on investment. And so it’s important for them to see, hey, they’ve graduated X percentage of students, and these students are going into these fields, and we need to do a better job in tracking where they’re going. It’s okay if they go on to get a Master’s degree, or some students go and take a year off, those who could afford it. But we need to know that data, and we need to share those stories and not be just a one-off or a two-off, but have a comprehensive data plan and comprehensive message platform on what we’re doing. I was completely blown away my first year as the President of AASCU when I would go on the Hill and some would say to me, “Oh, yeah, college isn’t necessary because they end up working at Walmart or they end up working in Starbucks for an hourly wage.” That’s not true, and so we need to have better data.
26:42 MG: The other thing is that we have to educate our elected officials that it’s much more than getting a job and money, that when you graduate from college, the data is very clear, you have better health, you vote more, you become engaged in your community, you become educational leaders within your state and region. We’ve got to be able to continue to hammer that story. I’ve learned that we in higher ed, especially administrators, we are chief reminder officers. We have to continue telling the story and so that they hear it and that they see the data.
27:24 DA: Tell me a bit about the role of AASCU. You mentioned being on the Hill, talking to presidents. What are some of the other programs that AASCU has that are supporting these kinds of efforts?
27:33 MG: Well, first of all, we have wonderful programs for our presidents where they get together and they… Our presidents say the most important thing about them is they love getting together, being able to let their hair down and learn those promising practices from each other. And we demonstrate that, and we show that, and we bring in the latest speakers, experts, etcetera, to speak to our presidents. Second of all, we have leadership development programs to prepare administrators to learn how to be administrators, administrators in a diverse community, our Millennial Leadership Institute, our Emerging Leaders Program. All of those… The New President’s Academy. What is the role of the new President of Student Success? And I always say that if you don’t have your president totally committed, setting the charge, setting the mission and the vision, it’s not gonna happen. And so all of that happens at AASCU.
28:28 MG: We are on the Hill, we have been involved deeply with the stimulus packages that are being prepared right now, where our governmental relations person is with the other AASCU-type institutions representing the rest of higher ed, working together is what is required, and speaking about the importance of Pell and hoping that Pell someday will go up again, so that it stays with the increased expenses as students go forward. So we do that as well. We have webinars, and so we represent AASCU institutions, and I would say we are the institutions that serve the new majority, we are the institutions that bring in the most transfer students from community college. We know that that’s where our first-gen, low-income start, that’s where I started, Latinos start there still over 50% at community colleges, and so we are the ones that are educating them and moving them on to be the best that they can be.
29:30 DA: Yeah. Well, that’s incredibly important work.
29:32 MG: The other work we do is the, as you spoke about, Scholarships Grants Resource Center. We have a grants resource center that helps… The big institutions have lots of individuals figuring out where the grants are. Some of our campuses have maybe one person doing that. So how do we assist our campuses to be able to look at that? And then we put together institutions that are like-minded. Rural institutions have very different experiences than our urban or Metropolitan. And what is it that they can share?
30:05 DA: And you mentioned earlier on the opportunities for collaboration. I think that has been relatively untapped in higher education. Each institution tends to wanna provide all of its own services, and sometimes even compete with others for students. I think we’re gonna see more opportunities for sharing, as you mentioned, positions, maybe even sharing programs, sharing information, working collaboratively in a way that perhaps wasn’t as much incentivized in the past, but now is gonna be absolutely essential.
30:33 MG: No question. And I could see people absolutely taking a program and a particular topic and using faculty from different campuses and doing the hybrid model. I am a little worried about completely online, because the research has shown that for the most vulnerable, it is not as successful as it is for others.
30:54 DA: That’s true.
30:55 MG: So how do we do a hybrid? How do we do the touch points? How do we do good support services? Because it’s not only the content, but the support services that the students need, the advising the students need. A really quick story, when I was in college, I didn’t have people of color or advisors that looked like me. And so I thought I would go into Psychology. I go home into the housing projects and said… Everybody was telling me, “You don’t wanna go into psychology. You’ll be working with crazy people all the time.” When you have support services to kind of open up the possibilities of what you can aspire to be regardless of where you come from, ’cause all of us heard teacher, doctor, lawyer, but there’s so much more in life. And so that is so important to have those support services for our most vulnerable populations.
31:50 DA: We’ve talked about all the challenges that we anticipate in the coming year in terms of the health impact, the economic impact on students and families, but also on institutions, some of the challenges of remote instruction, but it sounds like you’re still fundamentally optimistic. What are the things you’re most optimistic about over the coming year?
32:14 MG: You know, I continue to be optimistic because I truly believe that people understand, especially those who don’t have it, how important higher ed is for their family members. And I go back to those educational fairs we did in Spanish at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and how people waited in line in the heat to go in and learn how their family members, their children, could go through college. That continues today. Parents and families still want their children to do better than they do. And so this is for me, as I speak to families and I speak to people in communities, that is still a high point. I still see AASCU institutions, the presidents and really care and be committed and passionate about the students that are the most vulnerable. As a president, I would speak to small groups of faculty members and I would say, “Well, why are you here? You have a great resume. Where else can you work?” And they would look at me and say either something like, “I am a first-generation college student that made it and I wanna give back, and I could do that here.” Or I would hear, “I wanna work in a diverse community and help those who are least successful in life, but I want them to be successful.”
33:38 MG: So you have this passion with faculty and staff on campuses. I still see graduations where you see families so joyful because you will have 20 people or 25 people from families wanna go there to celebrate that one individual that is the first in the family, and you know that that one individual is changing the trajectory not only of their life, but the life of the generations of that family forever. Those are the things that are passionate and I am committed to ’cause this is what happened in my life and it is my way of giving back. My nieces and nephews don’t ask, “Am I going to college?” They’re asking, “Which one am I going to?” And they’ll talk to me about, “Hey, what do you think about this? And what college… Is this a good college?” What a different story, because one person was the first to graduate.
34:33 DA: Yeah. Well, Milly, this has been inspiring and informative. Thank you for all your hard work both at AASCU and before there. It’s really been a pleasure.
34:41 MG: Thank you so much, David. It’s been great.
34:43 DA: My pleasure.
34:50 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week when we’ll feature a conversation with EAB’s Sally Amoruso and Dr. Fayneese Miller, who’s the President of Hamline University in downtown Minneapolis, one of the epicenters of all the protests we’ve been seeing against police brutality against black Americans. Dr. Miller is gonna share with us what she has been seeing firsthand and talk about how she has been communicating with students and other stakeholders about the civil unrest in their own community. Thanks for listening. I’m Matt Pellish.