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Secretary Cardona Touts Power of Data to Lift Graduation Rates During May 2023 Raise the Bar: College Excellence and Equity Summit

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On May 1, 2023, U.S. Secretary Miguel Cardona delivered live virtual remarks during the Department of Education’s second-ever Raise the Bar: College Excellence and Equity Summit, featuring higher education leaders from across America whose institutions are using data-driven strategies to better serve students, reduce equity gaps, and lift graduation rates. The Secretary’s remarks as delivered are available below:

Good afternoon, everyone! I want to thank James Kvaal, Nasser Paydar, and Jen Engle for their leadership in pulling this off. It’s not every day that we have so many impressive college leaders and changemakers in Washington, D.C., and on College Signing Day! I’ve got a bad case of FOMO.

Thank you for joining us for this summit. You are showing the nation what it means to “Raise the Bar for College Excellence and Equity.”

In recent decades, we’ve learned that it’s not enough for education to be accessible. Education must be attainable.

Most well-paying jobs today require some education beyond high school. Yet we still face serious gaps in college completion and attainment based on race and income.

The use of data to boost completion rates and close equity gaps is game-changing.

We see you, Georgia State, demonstrating how improving outcomes for students starts with breaking down your own institutional barriers. We see you, Amarillo College, using data to meet students’ needs and “love them to success.” We see you, Morgan State, embracing innovation to boost retention and completion, and drive Black success in STEM fields.  And we see incredible statewide efforts, like in Texas, using data to align K-12 and postsecondary education with workforce goals.

You are all leaders. You’ve rejected complacency. You’ve used data to identify where you need to improve. You’ve accepted the challenge to raise the bar.

Many of you have presided over rising retention and graduation rates that a decade ago, would have been unthinkable! This is what’s possible when we turn data into actionable intelligence.  Imagine what’s possible if we empower more institutions to follow your lead.

A college degree remains one of America’s surest pathways to a better life.  A child born into the bottom 20% of incomes in this country who earns a college degree is five times as likely to reach the top 20% in their lifetime.

I connect to this data on a personal level.  My grandfather cut sugarcane in Puerto Rico. My parents didn’t go to college.  I grew up in a working-class community and honestly, didn’t think about college much – until I took a dual enrollment course in high school. I was just a 15-year-old kid, but that summer, it was like I grew three feet. College suddenly felt within reach.

I never imagined the doors that higher education would open for me. That someday, I would advise the President of the United States on how to raise the bar for students of all ages.  But stories like mine are, too often, the exception, not the rule.

At last year’s summit, I called for a culture change in higher education. I said it was time to free up the real estate that U.S. News and World Report occupies in the minds of college leaders. I won’t harp on why rankings are problematic. But it boils down to this:  The most popular resource informing student and family decisions around higher education are rankings that focus on prestige and that value the wrong things.

Case in point: I asked our data team, how many schools in the U.S. News’ “Top 50” are leaders in delivering upward mobility?

The answer? Two.

That’s right. Just TWO of the top 50 colleges identified by the Opportunity Index for leading on economic mobility rank in the U.S. News Top 50. These rankings reward selectivity, discourage diversity, and as President Wilson at Morgan State says: “xerox privilege.”

We need a system that’s inclusive and delivers real value and upward mobility to students. There’s too much untapped potential in America today.

That’s why we renewed Project Success for another three years, to continue increasing completion and reducing default rates for HBCUs and other MSIs. And that’s why we secured $45 million in funding for the first-ever federal college completion grants.

Now, President Biden is calling on Congress for $165 million for Postsecondary Student Success grants — an increase of $115 million.

The insights you share today will help inform how we can use these funds to help more schools embrace evidence-based strategies in academic advising, support services, retention, and more.  We also want to know what federal education data the Department could offer that would help you deliver on your goals. Our Chief Economist Jordan Matsudaira leads that discussion later this afternoon and I can’t wait to get a readout.

I want today to be the day we begin building a national plan for supporting data-driven, inclusive student success.  A core premise of our Department’s “Raise the Bar” initiatives, both at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, is that we have what it takes to deliver more equitable outcomes in education.  We just need the collective will to invest in scaling and systemizing your success.

Data is unleashing transformation in nearly every industry, from precision medicine to pedestrian safety and beyond. This is our moment to unleash that transformation in higher education.

This is our moment to revolutionize how we support student success. This is our moment to close the equity gaps that perpetuate poverty and injustice. This is our moment to collaborate intentionally. To scale up what works. And to harness the power of data to propel more students across the commencement stage.

This is our moment to raise the bar!

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