More than 150 years have passed since education advocate Horace Mann wrote, “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Education, particularly post-secondary education, has long been seen as the path to social mobility, opening doorways to high-wage jobs and increased financial security, and is now a necessity more often than a luxury. We know, for example, that more than half of the jobs that provide families with a sustainable income now require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Yet, as more careers require a credential, higher education is moving further out of reach for many students and their families. Degree attainment rates and educational access vary greatly based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and there is a real danger that, without intentional, strategic investment and action, institutions of higher education could exacerbate inequality and inequity.
As a regional public university dedicated to improving lives and transforming communities, we have an obligation to address the challenges our students face. CMU is committed to setting the leadership standard among our peer institutions by improving the accessibility and affordability of higher ed, and providing the equitable tools and resources that will empower every student to achieve their dreams and goals.
Increasing access to information and admissions support
Unfortunately, students in low-income communities often attend K-12 schools with fewer resources to dedicate to college readiness — meaning inequity for higher education can begin before they ever set foot on campus. High schools nationwide offer varying degrees of opportunity to meet with a college counselor or even to learn about the college admissions process. Increasingly, schools that provide Advanced Placement courses require expensive fees to complete placement tests. Some also may not offer help preparing for standardized tests, nor support application completion. In addition, first-generation students may not have resources within their homes and communities to help them navigate enrollment and life on a college campus.
To ensure every student has the opportunity to ask questions, find support and apply for college, CMU is increasing outreach into schools in historically underserved communities and working with organizations like Michigan College Access Network and Advocates for Latino Student Advancement in Michigan Education to reach more students. Our admissions team also works with high school counselors and MCAN advisors to ensure they have the news, information and support they need to assist their students; we offer similar guidance and resources for parents, families and supporters through Family Central. Both groups play vital roles in a student’s educational journey.
In addition, pre-college access programs, such as our TRIO Detroit and Summer Academy, annually support hundreds of high school students with tutoring, goal setting, test preparation, college visits and multi-week campus experiences. With hands-on experience and one-on-one guidance, CMU teams help students come to campus prepared to succeed.
Removing barriers to entry and addressing affordability
Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT can pose additional challenges for low-income students and those who attend under-resourced schools. Many of these students do not have access to the same test preparation courses and resources; others may find the cost of testing (and sometimes retesting for a better score) prohibitive. CMU allows students to apply for admission and merit-based aid without an SAT/ACT score.
We also recognize that some prospective students do not apply to — or even consider — college because the cost seems to put a degree out of reach. We are taking aggressive steps to help students and their families understand, and manage, the cost of attendance.
Based on current data, more than 86% of CMU students receive some form of financial aid, including federal student loans. CMU’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid offers students a variety of online tools, such as the net price calculator, as well as one-on-one financial counseling sessions to help them complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, understand costs and make a plan.
Over the past several years, we have significantly increased the number and value of our scholarships, and Scholarship Universe makes it easier for students to find and apply for them. And, importantly, we have extended need-based aid to cover all four years of a student’s undergraduate journey, reducing the amount of debt they must incur to pay for their education and increasing the likelihood they will persist to graduation day and earn their CMU degree.
We also guarantee on-campus employment for any student who needs to — or wishes to — work while they attend classes. The CMU Financial Wellness Collaborative also offers workshops to help students understand their loans, develop a budget and create a plan for loan repayment.
Surrounding students with support
We are known as a community that lifts each other up, and this is true for new students from the moment they apply to CMU.
Incoming students have the chance to immediately connect with current student leaders through the CMU Mentor Collective. Through this peer mentoring program, incoming students can learn more about student life on campus and establish the first of many important, authentic and supportive relationships at CMU.
First-generation, Pell-eligible and multicultural undergraduate students also can connect with faculty and staff mentors through CMU Pathways. The Student Transition Enrichment Program, or STEP, offers similar support for first-generation and Pell-eligible students transferring to CMU from community colleges.
Next, programs such as IMPACT and Leadership Safari help new students immediately build community on campus, connect with peer mentors, and identify opportunities for engagement. Student leaders who facilitate these programs are Fired Up about CMU and committed to lifting up their peers — they exemplify our university’s core values of compassion, respect and inclusiveness.
Our Center for Student Inclusion and Diversity allows students to connect with staff and peer mentors in a supportive environment, and many students also find faculty mentors through their academic programs and registered student organizations. The McNair Scholars program also offers outstanding support for first-generation and low-income students who wish to pursue an advanced degree.
The impact of positive role models and mentors cannot be overstated: Students thrive when they have engaged, supportive cheerleaders in their corner.
An inclusive, supportive environment
CMU has a long-held reputation for warmth and friendliness — members of our university community set the leadership standard for inclusiveness, respect and compassion every day.
To maintain and build upon that reputation, we are beginning a series of listening sessions for students, faculty and staff to help us identify new goals and priorities for our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. From these sessions, we will develop a new five-year strategic plan aimed at continuing to foster an inclusive, supportive and welcoming environment for all members of our university community.
The right tools at the right time
Every student’s journey will be different, and every student will need different tools and resources to be successful, stay on the path to commencement, and take the next steps on their journey, whether it’s continuing their education or finding a great job.
At CMU, we offer every student a personalized path to degree completion, and that includes equitable access to support services such as proactive academic advising, mentoring programs, career counseling and more. It also includes assistance to address mental health concerns, with our Counseling Center and Care Team programs, and to meet basic needs through our Student Food Pantry and Student Emergency Fund.
Our role, and our responsibility, is to surround each of our hardworking students with the support and services they need to succeed.
Addressing inequity beyond CMU
While we are focused on providing rigorous, relevant, excellent and equitable educational experiences at CMU, there also are persistent inequities to address in our global society. They impact K-12 education, wages and workforce opportunities, and much more.
Many of our faculty are engaged in research to address inequities and inequality in many areas, including access to quality health care and education, equity in the workplace, equality in our justice and political systems, and more. They are leaders in their field, and they involve their students in this meaningful, important work.
Our mission is to prepare leaders who have the knowledge, skills and abilities to tackle the world’s most pressing issues, who will become visionaries and change-makers in their communities and around the globe, and who focus on improving the lives of others. When I speak with current students and graduates, I hear their commitment and feel their passion. Our future is in good hands.