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Secretary Cardona Delivers Keynote on Reimagining College Admissions at Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education

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Thank you, Merhawi, for the introduction and for the passion you have for your fellow students. You embody the American dream.

And thank you to Neera Tanden for championing President Biden’s commitment to equal opportunity in education. Glad you are where you are—our education system is better because of it. And I’m thrilled you’ll be hearing from President Biden’s Senior advisor, Mayor Stephen Benjamin later today.

I also want to recognize my team here at Ed, led by Under Secretary James Kvaal and Assistant Secretary Nasser Paydar. Not only did they organize this impressive summit in less than 30 days but they are building a higher education system that’s more affordable and accessible to more students.

We come together today at a turning point in higher education. Perhaps in all of education.

We did not ask for this moment, but as leaders, we must answer it.

It’s just like I said during the pandemic. No one signed up to lead during a once-in-a-century global health crisis. But leaders don’t get to pick and choose the challenges that come their way. We can only control how we respond.

I had been Education Commissioner in Connecticut for just a few months before COVID turned the world upside down. There were no vaccines. People were dying. Schools were closing. Students were falling behind. Everything was a mess.

I remember when I felt my absolute lowest. It was July 2020. I was working to reopen our schools. The stakes were high. So were the tensions. At my lowest, I questioned whether I even belonged in the role. Was I the right person for this job?

Thank God my wife had my back. She said, “You’ve got this. Trust in your faith. Follow your passion.” And that’s what I did.

Fast forward to a year or so later. I’m now Secretary of Education. We’re nine months into the Biden-Harris administration. We’ve gone from 46 percent of schools fully open for in-person learning to nearly every school in America welcoming students back into classrooms.

There were daunting challenges ahead of us. There still are. But the return to in-person learning was a high point.

I tell you this story because for many of us, the Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action feels like a new low point. This decision, and the many other attacks on higher education these days, may have you wondering if you want to lead now.

Well, the answer is yes. We need your leadership now!

It is going to take the same kind of bold leadership and collaboration at every level of education we saw during the pandemic to address the fallout of this deeply disappointing ruling. Many of you innovated and persevered during the height of the pandemic. We are asking you to do the same here.

And we need the same relentless commitment to equal opportunity and justice courageously displayed by leaders at the height of the civil rights movement—an effort to create a more perfect union.

Our country has long struggled to live up to the promise of equality and opportunity for all. And every generation is called upon to renew that promise. Now, it is our turn.

For decades, the court upheld the consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. But this Supreme Court has repeatedly shown a willingness to throw precedent out the window.

And now, we’re faced with a decision that threatens to take us backwards.

Our colleges have lost the most effective tool they ever had for building diverse campus communities. Many Black and Brown students have been left wondering if they should even bother setting their goals that high at a time when we need them most. Our K12 schools, which are the pipeline for higher ed, continue to wrestle with longstanding inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

As someone who taught in and led public schools, I cannot help but also view this dilemma with a K12 lens. It’s been nearly seven decades since the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools inherently unequal and unconstitutional. And over 50 years since discriminatory policies like redlining were outlawed.

But let’s be honest. Anyone who tells you that the discrimination of the past doesn’t impact educational opportunity today is either lying to you or living under a rock. Our country still hasn’t realized the promise of equal opportunity for all our students.

Look at the neighborhoods that were subject to redlining. The racial and socioeconomic segregation it created in our communities – and therefore our schools – persists to this day.

The resulting inequities are tangible. Inadequate funding. Fewer extracurricular options for black and brown students, and fewer AP course offerings. Outdated books and labs. Larger class sizes. Less experienced teachers. Unacceptable student-to-counselor ratios.

These inequities add up. They undermine college readiness, access, and even degree completion for historically undeserved students.

Imagine the price we’ve paid for normalizing these disparities. This is why building diversity in higher education matters. This is why affirmative action mattered so much. Not all kids take off from the same starting block!

In this recent ruling, the Supreme Court majority recognized the value of diversity, but seriously limited our ability to achieve it. This is a significant departure. As Justice Sotomayor and Justice Jackson explained in their dissents, Congress and the Court long recognized that to achieve diversity, we would need to act affirmatively. In other words, we would have to act intentionally!

Diversity matters. It strengthens equal opportunity and improves student outcomes. It enhances the college experience for everyone. Decades of research have shown this. Our future is brighter when we prepare students of all backgrounds to live, learn, work, and lead our multiracial democracy together.

We know that in the past, states that have barred the use of race-conscious admissions have seen a disturbing drop-off in the admission and enrollment of students from racially diverse backgrounds.

Even the number of applications drop!

We cannot allow that kind of backsliding on a national scale. That’s why we’re holding this summit. We have in this room some of the brightest minds and boldest leaders in education here today.

Where do we go from here? What strategies can move us past this low point, and toward a higher one? How can we harness our collective will to improve college admissions to ensure our students reflect the beautiful diversity of our country?

That is the leadership challenge we are tasked with solving. How blessed are we that we are called to lead during this time of need in our country!

I believe one of the strategies for solving this shared challenge starts with a total reimagining of how our colleges and universities recruit students and connect with our K12 system. We must blur the lines between K12 and higher education to give our Black and Brown students earlier access to the opportunities that await them in college.

It’s time for all institutions of higher education – our community and technical colleges, public colleges and universities, MSIs, HBCUs, and TCCUs to increase your presence at the K12 level and scale up promising recruitment and retention programs.

Students cannot be what they cannot see. You can help show them.

I’ll never forget this one time I had a Dominican student and his father in my office. He was a sixth grader; I had been his principal. He was one of the smartest kids in the whole school. He could do anything, he had a bright future. But during the conversation his father made known that he wouldn’t be going to college. “It’s too expensive, there’s just no way,” he said. And the student just accepted that.

That conversation has stuck with me. We need to expand need-based aid, because cost should never force a student to give up on the dream of a college degree.

The Biden-Harris administration is doing our part. We’re making student loan repayment more affordable than ever. Yes, you can applaud that! Our new SAVE plan will slash undergraduate payments in half! We are creating an opportunity for that Dominican student I just spoke of, being of affordable payments.

We need higher education to show the same level of commitment to affordbility and value.

You can also collaborate with a broader array of K-12 schools to develop pipeline programs and increase applications from underrepresented communities. You can shape career and technical education and dual enrollment programs, so high schoolers get a head start on postsecondary degrees and credentials before they graduate.

I’ll never forget taking my first college class as a junior in high school. It was a summer course, and that summer, I felt like I grew three feet. That was the confidence it gave me. Suddenly, college was within my reach!

In the coming weeks, we will host summits across the country to support state and local efforts to raise the bar for career-connected learning and bridge the divide between K12 and postsecondary education.

You can also solve the nightmare that is transfer in this country. This is the only audience that would applaud a mention of transfer; I love it, I’m here for it! The transfer problem disproportionately affects underserved students and students of color.

Students should be able move seamlessly from a community college to a four-year institution. My friends, this is a fixable problem. The time has come to fix it! Admit more transfer students and you will support greater socioeconomic diversity on your campuses!

And, you can continue building a culture of belonging and inclusion on your campuses.

This moment is ripe for your leadership. We have an opportunity here.

Once enrolled, too many students of color wind up deep in debt with no degree. We have to raise the bar.

Today, I’m pleased to announce the start of our $45 million Postsecondary Student Success Grant competition. This is new funding to help colleges implement evidence-based strategies that propel students to graduation day, especially those from underserved backgrounds.

I also want to see more of our elite institutions with incredibly high graduation rates step up their enrollment of Pell Grant recipients. College rankings be damned!

There are moments in history where you must ask yourself what you stand for—why you signed up to serve. This is one of those moments! Do admissions practices that benefit the wealthy and well-connected reflect your values?

Look, I have nothing against the legacy student who did really well at an elite private school. But I am in awe of the straight-A student from a Title I school who spent hours on a bus every week to take an AP class that weren’t offered at her school and still found time to contribute to her community—all while having to take care of siblings.

Let’s find ways to recognize excellence in all its forms! Including the adversity students overcome in their educational journeys. And we can also invite students to share the ways that their diverse backgrounds have informed and inspired them.

Already we see some state and local leaders overreacting to this decision.

Now is not the time to ignore the reality of ongoing racial inequality. Now is not the time to abandon our support for students of color. We cannot compete in the 21st century without them!

We are, together, in a race to find the most effective, lawful strategies for building campus communities that reflect the beautiful diversity of this country.

Thank you to all the leading experts and researchers here today to share ideas worth embracing. And we must continue working to create diversity at the K12 level. We must renew the promise of Brown v. Board. Let’s never forget that separate is not equal.

I know that today’s political climate makes our jobs that much harder. We have politicians trying to turn diversity, equity, and inclusion into bad words, as if the alternatives – racial inequity and exclusion – were the good ones!

The power of diversity is alive in this room today. We have K12 leaders, college presidents, researchers, civil rights leaders, and other experts. Each took a different path to get where they are now. They are community college and tribal college graduates; they attended HBCUs as well as Ivy Leagues; some are the first in their families to go to college and some came to the United States for college and have stayed and made our country stronger with their leadership.

You are the higher education leaders this country needs to transform this moment from a low point in our history to a turning point in our history.

A turning point that propelled leaders at every level to reimagine the pursuit of diversity and equity in education.

A turning point that woke us up and compelled us to raise the bar for equal opportunity and inclusion.

Every generation is called upon to renew the promise of America. This is our moment. To be innovative. To act with urgency. And to lead with courage.

We did not ask for this crisis, but we will answer it!

And as we face headwinds in this important work, we must remember the words of the late great Congressman John Lewis. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Thank you for your presence, in person and online, for your contribution, and most importantly, for your strong leadership in Higher Education!

We will stand up for our students. We will build campus communities that reflect the beautiful diversity of our country. And we will do it together!

Thank you!


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