Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, FSA Official, AASCU President Take the Stage at NCAN’s 2018 Conference

October 5, 2018

By Kelly Mae Ross, Communications Manager

In addition to attending sessions, networking, and exploring Pittsburgh, attendees at NCAN’s 2018 national conference had the opportunity to hear from an array of plenary speakers. While the topic of each address was distinct, the speakers all discussed efforts taking place at many levels to make changes to improve student outcomes. Another common thread was a gratitude for college access and success providers and the important work they do.

Below are highlights from three of the conference plenary addresses.

Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education

To help kick off the conference, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera welcomed attendees to Pittsburgh. In sharing about his own higher education journey, Rivera said he began college as an engineering major but soon discovered a love of teaching and decided to pursue that path instead. He emphasized the difference between finding a job and finding your purpose.

"I doubt I would have been as good of an engineer as I was a teacher," he said. "I doubt I would have cared as much as an engineer as I cared as a teacher. I doubt I would have thrown as much into my vocation as an engineer as I did as a teacher."

When speaking with students today about their postsecondary path, Rivera said he asks the following four questions

  1. What do you like to do?
  2. Is there a profession aligned to what you like to do?
  3. Can you earn a sustainable income doing what you like?
  4. Does the world or your community need what it is you like to do?

Rivera also highlighted some of Pennsylvania's recent education initiatives and future plans. He noted that Pennsylvania has established a statewide postsecondary attainment goal based on projected workforce needs. He said the commonwealth’s goal is to have 60 percent of its population, aged 25-64, hold a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized credential by 2025, with a particular focus on closing attainment gaps for underrepresented populations. The secretary emphasized that equity of opportunity is at the heart of many of his agency’s major initiatives.

Dr. A. Wayne Johnson, chief strategy and transformation officer at Federal Student Aid

One of the first topics FSA's Dr. A. Wayne Johnson discussed during his address was the rollout of the new myStudentAid mobile app, commonly referred to as the FAFSA mobile app. Johnson said he is incredibly excited about future plans for the app.

"We are headed in the direction that you're going to be able to compare award letters, that you're going to be able to access College Scorecard, that you're going to be able to access other information that will help you understand not only how you get access to student aid, but how you can start putting that aid to work in terms of different opportunities," he said. Shortly after that, he added, "There’s a lot more coming, and it will be coming very quickly."

Johnson also announced the launch of a new information campaign to raise awareness about the importance of the FAFSA. The campaign's slogan is "But First, FAFSA." Johnson and his FSA colleagues offered campaign swag to conference attendees in the form of "But First, FAFSA" stick-on card holders for smartphones.

The next topic Johnson turned to was the verification process. He said he could not go into specifics, but told attendees that verification is an issue that his agency is critically focused on.

"It is absolutely ridiculous for us to have to ask poor people to prove, once again, that they're poor," Johnson said, to a roomful of applause. He then encouraged attendees to stay tuned for improvements to the verification process.

Conference attendees submitted questions for Johnson via Twitter, using the hashtag #AskAWayne, some of which he addressed during a Q&A period.

Dr. Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities

While all the conference plenary speakers were well-received, AASCU President Dr. Mildred García brought attendees both to tears and to their feet.

García shared the story of her parents, who were born in Puerto Rico and unable to attend school past the eighth grade. They came to the U.S. with the hope that their children could receive a better education. Throughout her childhood, García’s parents shared with her and her six siblings a statement that has shaped her entire life: "The only inheritance a poor family leaves its children is a good education."

After attending well-resourced public schools in Brooklyn Heights as a result of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, García became the first in her family to go to college.

"I am no smarter than my parents or older siblings," she said, "I'm simply the benefactor of opportunities they never had, opportunities that continue to be scarce for millions of low-income and underrepresented students and working professionals across this country today."

García emphasized the importance of ensuring opportunity for all students, especially those who are low-income, students of color, underrepresented, or nontraditional, by meeting them where they are. An example of this approach that she shared from her own experience was a Spanish-language college fair she helped organize for students and families during her time with the California State University system. The fair’s organizers expected about 5,000 people to attend the Saturday event, but three times that number came out.

Another example she gave was an initiative that dispatched CSU leaders to African-American churches throughout California. CSU presidents and others would attend Sunday services and speak with families about how to get their children into a CSU institution. The CSU campuses also created yearlong partnerships with churches, providing workshops, advising, and information to families.  

"Institutions need to demonstrate that they understand the communities that they are serving, and that is not a homogenous group of students, 17 to 21, coming from middle-class families, but a community of difference," she said. "We need to understand their needs and then provide them with tools to succeed."

García then noted that a college education is both a private good and a public good, something she says is often left out of higher education discussions.

"Our work of preparing educated, global citizens is a benefit to our society and the United States," she said. "We are educating the populace to, yes, have a career, but also know how to live, work, and thrive in a multicultural, global democracy."

After that, García shared the following video from California State University, Fullerton that she said helps illustrate the urgency of opportunity: 

As attendees were drying their eyes after watching the video, García said that "now more than ever, it is up to us to speak up about the value of opportunities for all in education." She invoked a powerful quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Silence is betrayal."

More 2018 NCAN national conference coverage:

Tweet: Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, FSA Official, AASCU President Take the Stage at #NCAN2018 Conference via @collegeaccess

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