The future of higher education was a prominent topic on the Auraria campus the last week in September during a national higher education conference at which Chancellor Michelle Marks led a fireside chat with Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education Nasser Paydar.
Paydar was recently appointed by President Joe Biden as the federal government’s top higher education official, following a long career at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, where Paydar served as chancellor. His conversation with Marks covered topics ranging from the importance of increasing access for underserved students to how to inspire greater public investment in higher education. Asked by Marks if he could change one thing instantly about higher education, Paydar responded, “Equity. Equity. Equity.”
Early in the conversation, Paydar recounted how his experience in Indianapolis spurred him to take on higher education equity as a personal mission. “There are two zip codes within driving distance of that campus,” he said. “The difference in life expectancy for residents between those two zip codes is 17 years.” He added that higher education can help remedy the gaps created by lack of economic and social resources and mobility.
Marks’ one-on-one dialogue with Paydar was one of the highlights of P3.EDU: Innovation and Public-Private Partnership in Higher Education, an invitation-only event held at the Student Commons building on Sept. 29 and 30, that brought leaders from more than 100 college and universities to CU Denver. The conference also drew civic and industry leaders, including Gov. Jared Polis, who welcomed event participants on the first day.
P3.EDU was founded by Chancellor Marks in 2018, when she led academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason University. Through it, educational and organizational leaders can share best practices around public-private partnerships in higher education and explore new opportunities for delivering the education that students and tomorrow’s employers need.
One such partnership Paydar touted is the Department of Education’s Teacher Quality Partnership federal grant program. Last month, this program awarded CU Denver $7 million over five years, which will enable the School of Education & Human Development to expand its NxtGEN Teacher Residency program at rural colleges in La Junta, Trinidad, and Lamar. “We were facing challenges all over the country with teacher shortages,” Marks said. “These funds are going to help prepare and recruit future teachers.”
Paydar said the potential impacts were vast. “Your program is providing opportunity, in places students typically don’t come from, to educate people and inspire them to stay in the region. That’s terrific,” Paydar said. “It’s win-win because not only do you produce teachers, you also help communities.”
Marks also broached a hot topic on the national radar: President Biden’s recent announcement of student loan debt cancellation for qualifying individuals. “Who benefits from this?” Marks asked Paydar, “And is this a sustainable solution for our society?”
Paydar’s response to the first part was simple: “Who benefits? America benefits. Twenty million borrowers’ debt is going to be wiped out.”
He described being driven to his hotel the previous evening by a single mother who had been pursuing a degree at an Auraria campus institution. She had just four or five more courses to go, but had to drop out in order to keep driving; she needed the money. But she had gotten emotional about the possibility of loan forgiveness, and that as a result she may be able to return to school. “Because now,” Paydar recounted, “she thinks someone has her back.”
However, Paydar said, for the federal government to make college more sustainably and systemically affordable, it must build on this one-time initiative and do more. When Pell Grants (for which low-income students are eligible) were established a half century ago, it nearly covered the average cost of tuition. In the years since, maximum award increases have not kept pace with inflation and increases in tuition. Student loans have filled the gap, but have dramatically increased student debt load. “We need to get Pell Grants doubled,” Paydar said “That’s what President Biden would like to do by the year 2029. That will be part of the equation.”
The conversation’s themes strongly align with the goals outlined in CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Plan, Make Education Work For All, and reflect that the challenges higher education leaders confront do not have easy solutions—unless, as the conference theme underscores, we all work together.