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Summit hosts equity education advocates at FSU

Adrien Gobin / THE GATEPOST

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

By Dorcas Abe

Staff Writer

The Equity in Higher Education Policy Summit was hosted in the McCarthy Forum Feb. 1. This summit featured many speakers committed to furthering equity in colleges and universities across Massachusetts.

Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, facilitated the event. He said his father taught at UMass Amherst when he was growing up, and he remembers what it was like during those days when public institutions were much more accessible to students.

“That’s what I feel like we are after here - is deep, intensive investment in a high-quality and truly accessible public higher education system,” he said.

Kristen Porter-Utley, the provost and vice president of academic affairs, expressed her excitement for the event and spoke on its importance.

“Our institutions must work to improve access to college to ensure that our next generation of problem solvers - our students - are equipped to work together effectively to overcome significant societal and environmental problems,” she said.

Genesis Carela, senior policy analyst for the Education Trust in Massachusetts, spoke first. Her presentation was about research into how parents plan financially for their children’s postsecondary education.

She shared statistics from a poll conducted on parents of high school- and middle school-aged children and what costs associated with postsecondary education concern them, including tuition, room and board, books, and application costs.

Carela’s statistics demonstrated that parents of color, excluding Asian parents, generally show higher financial concern for the cost of college and university.

She said the possibility of debt-free college has become a lot closer recently in Massachusetts. “But if parents don’t know that these resources are available, they’re just not going to move the needle and students won’t benefit,” she added.

Femi Stoltz, Massachusetts policy maker at uAspire, stressed the importance of making financial aid information easily available for families. 

She spoke about the difficulty families face in learning about financial aid and said most students find out about financial aid by chance.

Stoltz advocated for the Massachusetts House Bill 4269, which proposed a requirement for high school students to fill out the FAFSA before graduating. 

She added completing the FAFSA made students much more likely to attend postsecondary education.

“College should be presented to every graduating student as an option and not because someone decided, ‘I think you’re college material,’” she said.

Persis Yu, deputy executive director & managing counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), talked about the statistics of debt for students across the nation. She said Black students are much more likely to graduate with debt, and after graduation, people of color are much less likely to pay off their loans as fast as white borrowers.

“If you look at the student loan crisis, which is a really hot topic right now, it really is a racial justice topic, and it is undermining the ability of students to achieve the actual promise of a higher education,” she said.

Bahar Akman, managing director of the Hildreth Institute, focused on the difference between equity and equality in the current diffusion of financial aid, and the focus on equality rather than equity.

She said student aid does not go to the students who have the highest financial need.

“OK, everyone has [tuition] covered, but what does it mean for those who have high unmet financial needs beyond tuition and fees?” she asked.

Akman also advocated for simplifying the financial aid process to make it easier for families to understand and use the services provided. 

Rich Levy, former professor at Salem State University and co-coordinator of the Massachusetts Anti-Privatization Project & Campus Debt Reveal, presented on the ways free tuition would contribute to an increased quality of education for students. 

He said if public institutions were able to pay professors more and eliminate the need to hire outside profit-focused firms, then faculty and staff would be able to serve student needs more adequately.

Levy focused on the ways this program would increase postsecondary education enrollment and services for students. “Not only would this provide sufficient budgets and wrap-around services,” but it would allow universities to outsource fewer services.

Jonathan Paz, policy advocate at Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, spoke about the challenges immigrants face when trying to receive higher education.

He asked the audience if any of them had heard of the Tuition Equity Act, a 2023 Massachusetts bill that allowed immigrants in Massachusetts to qualify for in-state tuition if they went to high school in Massachusetts for three years.

Paz added this bill came long after other states began to pass similar bills, and lawmakers did not initially have consensus over it.

“It’s an incredible victory, but it was 20 years too late,” he said.

He added about 3,000 people in Massachusetts are projected to benefit from the Tuition Equity Act.

“We now have the opportunity to really bring in the immigrant students to the fold,” he said. “Let’s get 3,000 immigrant kids to have access to these things so that we can actually achieve education equity.”

Vishakha Agarwal, education research and policy specialist for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, focused her presentation on “Massachusetts graduates who stay in Massachusetts.”

She said approximately 82% of students who graduate from community colleges stay in Massachusetts after five years, and 74% of students who graduate from public four-year universities stay in Massachusetts after five years.

Agarwal added states with higher numbers of college- and university-educated residents tend to have higher median earnings per person, and only 52.8% of the Massachusetts population has an associates degree or higher.

“When graduates stay here, they’re going to work and invest in the economy,” she said.

Benjamin Forman, MassINC’s research director, spoke about a less common topic in these discussions - the salaries of faculty and staff in Massachusetts. 

He pointed out that faculty at Massachusetts public institutions were paid well below the national average, and the comparison was even worse when the focus turned to community colleges. 

Forman said teachers and staff are contracted to work low-wage non-union jobs. “It undermines the parents of our students - it undermines the income of our community,” he added.

He said the portion of student tuition that goes toward paying the school’s debt, a direct result of defunding infrastructure construction on these campuses, comprises up to 30 percent of students' tuition.

Noe Ortega, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, spoke last.

He began his speech by recognizing all of the different organizations and representatives in the room with him.

“We cannot create the conditions for success without being able to collaborate with folks,” he said.

He said many changes have been made in the effort to make higher education affordable and accessible to all, including a general recognition that affordable higher education is an investment, increased financial support access for those who need it most, and decreased tuition costs for students from families making $100,000 or less.

“We still have a lot more work to do there, but it does pave the foundation for what has often been called the path to truly affordable - which is debt-free - college,” he said.

“I will end by saying that it’s not just enough to get students into our schools. It’s extremely important that they get through. That they find a way to persist and complete,” Ortega said.

After the speeches, all speakers at the summit participated in a panel discussion.

Carela said many programs exist to make higher education more accessible and affordable, but often people are unaware of these programs. She suggested educating students about their options at a younger age may help students be aware of the issues.

Page added simplifying programs may increase awareness, ease of access, and equitability.

Akman said this would also lower the need for a large-scale marketing campaign for aid programs, allowing more money to be invested into the aid itself.

One audience member asked how to advocate for not only lowered costs associated with higher education but also better investment for quality of education.

Paz said many people underestimate the impact of raising issues with state legislators, and if more people do, the legislature will listen. He added it’s important to raise these issues directly with the government and not with other citizens.

“If we’re constantly in this negotiation against ourselves as a working class, then we’re going to continue to see these patterns of institutional deficit,” he said.

Carela added legislators are much more likely to listen to people who have credible information and a diverse backing for the cause.

When asked about how students can help fight for more equitable education, the panel agreed students are necessary to advocacy groups like their own.

Stoltz said legislatures are much more likely to listen to student concerns than concerns of student advocacy groups, and students who are particularly invested can join an advocacy group or lobby with organizations at the statehouse, but even simply calling a legislator is appreciated.

Yu said students should start coalition building as soon as possible if they want to support equity in higher education.

“It’s going to take organizing and people demanding to be treated better in order to make change,” she said.


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