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In our first discussion, panelists addressed what it would take to achieve inclusive excellence–a model of higher education in which students for whom higher education in the United States was never designed could achieve their educational goals and thrive along the way. Katalina Garcia, a graduate of YI’s Youth Advocates program in Colorado, shared about the challenges she faced completing her spring semester at Denver Community College. Unfortunately, her comments were cut short because of connectivity problems. Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance noted that Katalina’s experience reflected that of many students across the country who were on the wrong side of the digital divide. 

The full discussion is posted to YI’s YouTube page, but some of the most important takeaways from our panelists include:

The damage to the economy means states will likely spend even less on public higher education, shifting more of the cost on students and families. Just as state expenditures for higher education were coming close to returning to their levels from before the Great Recession more than a decade ago, huge budget shortfalls run the risk of repeating the cycle of driving tuition costs up.


Higher ed can change when it has to. Professor Uma Jayakumar (University of California, Riverside) noted that while conventional wisdom holds that higher education, on the whole, is highly resistant to change, a complete shift in how it is done was accomplished in a matter of weeks. Of course, the online-only model led to many problems and challenges. But students were still able to attend classes and make progress toward their degrees, all on the quickest turn in history.

The challenges students face are nothing new. Professor Antonio Duran (Auburn University) reflected on his first year of full-time teaching, during which he observed many students experiencing the kinds of basic needs and mental health challenges affected students nationally prior to the pandemic. These challenges can be especially common among students from marginalized populations, including LGBTQ+ students, undocumented students, first-generation students, and students who are Black, Indigenous, or from other populations of color. 

Student debt cancellation is a racial justice issue. As the population of students enrolled by public colleges and universities has become more racially and ethnically diverse over recent decades, states have met that diversity with steadily declining levels of investment in those same institutions. Before the pandemic, education appropriations nationally remained 9% below funding per full-time student prior to the Great Recession. By passing a growing share of the cost of higher education onto students and families, this disinvestment has disproportionately affected Black and Latino borrowers, leaving far too many in difficult financial circumstances. As both an immediate financial relief intervention and long-term strategy to expand the economy in a more equitable way, Congress should enact a measure of broad student debt relief. 

Lawmakers need to hear from young people. From expanding student loan repayment suspension to include all borrowers to providing emergency financial assistance to students and investing in broadband connectivity, Congress has a lot of work to do to better support young people. That’s why Jessica Mulligan, Senior Legislative Assistant to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), encouraged young people to amplify their voices, contact their elected representatives, and put their needs at the center of policy debates going forward.

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