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Raise the B.A.R. Bold + Action + Results in College Excellence and Equity

Good afternoon, everyone! To all the college presidents and leaders here today: thank you for coming. It's even worse when you lose your luggage or have cancellations, which I know many of you did.  

Traveling to Washington in the final weeks of summer is a big ask. Some of you even canceled vacations to be here. If you need an apology note for your spouse, let me know. 

I strongly felt this summit – on raising the bar for equity and inclusive student success – deserved more than a Zoom call.  

You are the leaders reimagining and redefining what excellence in higher education means. The strides you're making belong in the national spotlight! And there's no greater proof than the incredible students here today. 

I know the past two-and-a-half years have been tough. You serve the communities the pandemic hit hardest: our communities of color and low-income urban and rural communities.  

Yet, with the help of the American Rescue Plan, you stepped up like never before. You found new ways to keep students afloat financially, on track academically, and supported socially and emotionally.  

Let's be honest. The pandemic may have turned higher education upside down – but the system was never completely right-side-up.  

Our community colleges, HBCUs, HSIs, state and tribal colleges, and other inclusive institutions serve more than three-quarters of undergrads nationwide.  

Yet years of underinvestment, state budget cuts, and lagging federal support for Pell Grants have shifted costs to students … and left you chronically underfunded. We see you!  

It's a cruel irony: the institutions that serve the most students, with the most to gain from a college degree, have the fewest resources to invest in student success. 

You already know this, and it's heartbreaking: Sixty percent of Black undergrads and nearly half of Latino undergrads never make it to graduation day. Imagine the potential that is lost in this country due to the fact that this has become normalized in America. 

Every year, millions of students wind up in what I call "postsecondary purgatory."  

They earn some credits, but no degree. Then they have student debt they cannot afford and a limited path to higher-paying jobs.  

Meanwhile, many institutions spend enormous time and money chasing rankings they feel carry prestige, but in truth, "do little more than 'xerox privilege,'" as one HBCU president says. 

There's a whole science behind climbing the rankings. It goes like this: compete for the most affluent students by luring them with generous aid, because the most well-prepared students have the best SAT scores and graduate on time; seek favor with your peers from other elite schools with expensive dinners and lavish events, because their opinions carry clout in surveys; and invest in the most amazing campus experiences that money can buy, because the more graduates who become donors, the more points you score! 

Too often, our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps in access to opportunity for ALL Americans. That system of ranking is a joke! 

In case I have not been clear yet, allow me to restate it.  

We need a culture change in higher education, NOW! 

We must stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence. And you, in this room, are bringing that into focus.  

You're building welcoming, inclusive cultures. You're using data to help students get support before they drop out. You're creating accessible pathways for underrepresented students, adult learners, rural students, and first-generation college students, like me. You know what it takes to deliver inclusive student success. 

The Biden-Harris administration believes that bold investments in college completion can level up our entire system of higher education. We need more data on what works to make the case – and an effort I'm pleased to announce starts today.  

Earlier this year, we secured $5 million from Congress for a new college completion fund. These grants will help more underserved institutions invest in retention, completion, and inclusive student success.  

I'm also pleased to announce the renewal of Project Success for another three years. This program helps HBCUs, tribal colleges, and other minority-serving institutions invest in evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes. 

And I'm thrilled we're gaining a champion for these efforts at the Department. Dr. Nasser Paydar is our new assistant secretary for postsecondary education!  

As the former Chancellor of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, he has a profound understanding of the urgency we must bring to this work and the challenges you face daily in the field. 

I also want to recognize Under Secretary James Kvaal. James has crisscrossed this country listening to higher education leaders and students in order to shape a higher education agenda that truly serves students and delivers equity. Thank you, James! 

Thank you also to Dr. Michelle Cooper for her remarkable service as acting assistant secretary. Her leadership made today's summit possible! Michelle has been a voice for equity and access in higher education and the country is better for it.   

In this divided nation, there is no force more unifying than education. Yet education cannot heal our communities or unify our country if more and more students are left behind.  

When people cannot get ahead, it not only perpetuates inequities and hurts our economic competitiveness … it also undermines faith in the system and sows distrust and division. It's unAmerican. 

Together, let's build a higher education system that serves a higher purpose, one that levels the playing field in a country that can best be described by the word, "possibilities," as President Biden always says.   

Let's confer prestige on the colleges breaking cycles of poverty. 

Let's raise the profiles of institutions delivering real upward mobility, like you all. 

Let's turn the universities that walk the walk on equity into household names. 

With your help, we won't just raise the bar. We will redefine excellence.  

We will write a new playbook for inclusive student success.  

And we will empower more institutions to follow your bold, courageous, and student-centered lead. 

Today, as we celebrate you … we have a message for the higher education community: Together, LET'S RAISE THE BAR! 

Thank you!