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Our commitment to student success is more important than ever

Introduction and Welcome

Welcome to all of you. It’s exciting to be part of a gathering that has expanded from being focused solely on Michigan-based practitioners and institutions to embracing all of you who are working on postsecondary success in the Great Lakes region. Thanks to Oakland University and to the conference planning committee for making it happen.

This conference is just one of the remarkable steps that Oakland has taken to support student success. Just a couple of quick examples:

  • Oakland is home to a first-of-its-kind student-managed investment fund that gives business and finance students the chance to invest $2 million of Kresge’s endowment as a hands-on learning experience. Our investment team at Kresge could not be more pleased with the results – the excellent monetary return, to be sure, but also the thoughtfulness and diligence in the way the fund is being managed by a cracker-jack group of students.
  • Oakland is also a member of the Michigan Gateways to Completion cohort, a Kresge-funded project of the John Gardner Institute that is helping colleges and universities retool gateway courses to ensure that they are more student-centered, rather than black holes stalling academic careers.

So thanks again to the university for hosting us.

The Value Proposition of Higher Education

This conference is, above all else, about activating a shared value – that education is a transformative right for all people in our country. Simply stated: A quality education is the most powerful, surest path to a good life. That’s not to say that there won’t be obstacles or detours along the way. But it is incontrovertible that obtaining a degree provides a clear onramp for low-income families to enter the economic mainstream – and to catapult someone from one socio-economic stratum to another. Educated people are, moreover, healthier, they live longer, they participate in the arts and civil society more, and they are much more likely to vote.

So educational attainment is an economic necessity, a democratic imperative, and a precondition of an equitable, inclusive society. Whether culminating in a postsecondary degree or credential, educational success is a litmus test of our society’s commitment to elevating our shared destiny and equipping every member of our society to participate fully in the pursuit of shared purpose and the common good.

That’s the aspiration. Unfortunately, the reality continues to fall short. Too many low-income students are being pushed off the path and are not graduating. They’re leaving school for myriad reasons – financial, academic, social and personal, often with large amounts of student debt and nothing to show for it. Across the country, only one in 10 students from low-income families graduates with a bachelor’s degree by age 25.

That is unacceptable. It’s not a partisan proposition, not an urban-versus-rural proposition, not a fiscal prudence proposition. It’s a proposition of securing our future through fairness and justice. That was true before the election. It is true after the election.

Kresge has taken direct aim at postsecondary educational opportunity in three ways:

  • First, we invest in strengthening the pathway to college and graduation for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.
  • Second, we seek to strengthen the capacity of institutions such as community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions and public regional universities that disproportionally serve those students.
  • Third, we attempt to find ways to crosswalk between a student’s on-campus experience and the broader urban ecosystem of supports and surrounds that contribute to that student’s success.

We, together with so many people in this room, took a collective deep breath at the prospect of saying good-bye to one of the most enlightened and committed presidential administrations the higher education community has had the privilege to have as a partner. What comes next is fully within the realm of what the Defense Department calls a VUCA environment: volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. But it raises the stake for all of us: philanthropy, higher education institutions, policymakers, researchers and everyone else in this room. Our collective commitment to improving student outcomes and graduating more low-income students is more important than ever.

Higher Education in a New World

Let me suggests three reasons that is true.

  • First, the dizzying changes in our workforce are driving ever-higher the need for workers with the kind of specialized skills, knowledge and abilities that can only be honed through higher education.
  • Second, the reason higher education has always, and will increasingly be, a bulwark against assaults on intellectual integrity, scientific rigor and the search for truth.

Whether your point of reference is a Secretary of Education with no grounding in public higher education or a tweet-storm that threatens to defund a public university or the sword of Damocles that hangs over DACA students, or the seemingly endless conversations about who is the true purveyor of alternative facts and fake news, it is clear that we are being pulled by a powerful riptide into ever-deeper and more turbulent waters of uncertainty and doubt.

Uncertainty about the underlying motives and the ultimate end-games. Doubt about the stability – indeed the viability – of reasoned, civil discourse in the face of bombastic certitude and hyperbolic simplicity.

The power of higher education to champion the counter-factual to this emerging narrative is impossible to overstate: the posing of hypotheses, with its invitation to objective and balanced assessment and proof; the resorting to the perspectives of history and pattern analysis; the freedom to challenge the stale and conventional in search of the fresh and catalytic – this constitutes the bedrock of American higher education. These are the products you have to sell, and it’s through their acquisition that lives change.

  • The third reason higher education is so terribly important in the here and now is its ability to reset the landscape of opportunity for those will be most vulnerable in the new world order.

We witness daily the disproportionate hardships borne by those who stand on the far margins of political power, who feel the consequences of structural inequality and who are denied full participation in the economic mainstream. They start with fewer resources, operate with fewer resources, accumulate fewer resources and must swim against the tide of public understanding and appreciation.

We see these challenges with crystalline clarity in the faces of the nation’s postsecondary students. In many cases, they are not the fresh-faced 18-year-olds of past generations, but adults returning to finish degrees or starting a degree program for the first time. More and more, they are parents. Many are holding down one or two jobs while attending school. Many rely on public transportation and social services like food-stamps and Medicaid.

Part of higher education’s job – part of philanthropy’s job – is to build a new infrastructure of support – to help dismantle the persistent and pervasive racial, economic and political barriers that so shamefully impede pathways to equality and justice for low-income people and people of color, and substitute for them opportunity structures that equip them to work and finish their degree, get the childcare they need, travel on efficient public transportation and gain access to the food, housing and health supports they need.

Implications on Your Campuses

The very good news indeed is that this is exactly what so many of you are already doing. In so many different ways, you are already working beyond the campus, enlisting a broader ecology of supports to make sure that students succeed. Seen from that perspective, the future looks a lot like the present, but with perhaps even greater doses of resolve and heightened clarity of intention.

Let me quickly cite three examples of exactly this kind of activity, each taken from Kresge’s portfolio:

  • First, when working to get more students into college, the Detroit College Access Network zeroed in on FAFSA completion, a leading indicator for students applying to college. The network reached into the community, holding FAFSA completion events around town and working hand-in-glove with high schools and other organizations including the city’s Chamber of Commerce. The result was a 16 percentage point increase in FAFSA completion rates in just one year.
  • Second, Fostering Success Michigan coordinates and aligns human service and higher education opportunities for young people aging out of foster care. The obstacles that foster youth have to navigate in order to succeed in school are mind-numbingly complex –  indeed, of the 415,000 young in foster care nationally, only 46 percent will earn a high school diploma and less than 3 percent will obtain a bachelor’s degree. Fostering Success Michigan works with high school counselors to provide appropriate guidance to foster youth applying to college and mobilizes colleges to provide scholarships, housing and campus support programs, and information on overcoming daily life hurdles such as buying a car.
  • Third, the University Innovation Alliance has brought together 11 universities to learn from one another’s successes in improving graduation rates. From predictive analytics to intensive advising, the institutions are testing which approaches can be migrated from one campus to another, adapted and translated into greater scale. You’ll have the chance during the conference to hear from three UIA campuses: Michigan State University, Purdue University and Ohio State University. Very exciting stuff.


Let me close by saying how inspired Kresge is by what you do and how you do it. Your work has always been tough – and it’s not going to get any easier. But that’s why having this kind of talent, commitment and passion in the room is so vital – not just to the institutions represented, but to our country. We need you to continue changing lives, promoting creativity, honoring civil and principled public discourse and valorizing the pursuit of truth.

So my thanks to all of you for being here. Good luck. I hope the conference is as productive as it promises to be.