President-elect Joe Biden chose Dr. Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s first Latino education commissioner, to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. While Cardona’s experience sits in the K-12 sphere, higher education experts are optimistic about what her selection might signal for higher education policy.

Announcing the appointment, Biden described Cardona as an “innovative leader” who “would eliminate long-standing inequalities and close the racial and socio-economic opportunity gaps – and expand access to community colleges, training and education. four-year public colleges and universities to improve student success and develop a stronger, more prosperous and more inclusive middle class.

Dr Miguel Cardona

Cardona began his career as an elementary school teacher in Meriden, Connecticut, the same public school system he attended. He then worked as a principal for ten years before becoming Meriden’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in 2013.

He graduated from Central Connecticut State University with his BA and attended the University of Connecticut, where he received his Masters in Bilingual / Bicultural Education and Doctorate in Education.

“For far too long we have allowed university to become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitudes or aspirations and everything to do with the burden of costs and, unfortunately, a culture. Internalized low expectations, “Cardona said in his speech accepting the nomination on Dec. 23.

Higher education policy experts hope it will focus on the needs of low-income and under-represented students, as well as the institutions that serve them.

“I’m actually encouraged by her background,” said Dr. Stella M. Flores, associate professor of higher education at New York University and director of access and equity at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education. Policy. “I think he’s someone who’s spent time trying to understand inequalities, and I hope he brings that language and sense of duty to work in a very vocal way.”

She hopes Cardona arrives with “a clear understanding of who the new traditional student is,” she said. “It’s not the 18-year-old who walks straight into a four-year-old college with a dormitory. It will be someone with low income, who may have quit for a semester – or even a few years – and then tries to re-engage. Higher education practitioners understand this, but I don’t know if our decision-makers understand it. We cannot have solutions for a student body that existed 20 years ago.

Dr Stella FloresDr Stella Flores

She believes Cardona may be in a unique position to understand the “interdependence” of primary and tertiary education systems and how inequalities between sectors impact students’ career preparation over the long term.

“It’s all intertwined,” she said. ” Everything is connected.

The time Cardona has spent in K-12 public education can also translate into increased support for public higher education, especially community colleges, said Dr.James Earl Davis, holder of the Bernard C. Watson Chair in Urban Education and Professor of Higher Education at Temple University. Even though the funding of public universities is at the state or local level, the post of secretary of education comes with a “power of leadership and vision”.

Dr Ivory A. Toldson, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, hopes Cardona – and his future Undersecretary – will prioritize increasing funds for institutions serving minorities, not just funding. rights but grants to develop their research infrastructure. Toldson is the former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities under former President Barack Obama.

“We must have a system that recognizes [minority serving institutions’] contribution to the future of this nation, ”he said.

He also wants the focus to be on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to help universities prepare under-represented students for “jobs of the future, not jobs of the past”, in particular in sectors that are not very diversified, such as technology.

From a university affordability perspective, Davis is hoping Cardona will extend the current hiatus on federal student loans in response to the pandemic – which expires Jan.31 – and at least reduce student loan debt.

“I would like to see 100% of the student loan debt canceled,” he said. ” I would like to see that. But in the political space, there are usually compromises. I think with a compromise of 50% to 75% of student loan debt cancellation, we could provide some relief and also convey the importance of shifting this burden, especially people entering the market. work. “

In general, he wants Cardona to take a ‘disparate impact’ approach to education policy, holding K-12 schools and colleges accountable for racial inequalities, such as disparities in graduation rates, disciplinary practices and results. tests.

But he expects much of the role of the new Secretary of Education to be “redirect and refocus,” undoing a “retreat from some long-standing concerns about equity and access” under l Trump administration.

For example, Davis pointed out that Cardona’s education department is likely to reshape current Title IX regulations, which offer more protections to those accused of sexual assault and harassment on campus than the federal guidelines. Obama era.

Flores is worried about the time and resources that these reversals could take, the “makeup curve” that Cardona will have to face before instituting new higher education policies.

“How do you move at high speed,” she asked, “when so many good things have been dismantled? “

Sara Weissman can be contacted at [email protected]

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