Denver Garcia, Staff Writer
On Dec. 4 the second annual White House College Opportunity Day of Action was held in Washington, D.C., bringing the presidents of 140 colleges across the nation together to discuss strategies to increase the accessibility of college for the public. President Obama, Vice President Biden, first lady Michelle Obama and numerous other higher-ups gave speeches to the school presidents before breaking into workshop sessions. Present at the conference was our own President Roy Heynderickx, Ph.D., and his attendance meant that Saint Martin’s University was nationally recognized for our efforts to make college available to students from demographics that historically have been underrepresented in higher education.
“I received the invitation to represent our school at the summit in November. We were very excited to have to opportunity to attend such a big event so I said yes. Not only did I have to be invited, after saying yes the institutions must submit a report with substantial evidence that they have a high number of students from low income families, students of color, first generation, female students, students with disabilities and so on, and prove that effort is made to attract and accommodate students from such demographics. The Department of Education reviewed our report and said I could come because SMU has proven to be one of the schools that are setting the example for what the summit seeks to achieve,” Heynderickx said.
One of the things the Day of Action promoted was for colleges to have increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, because STEM degrees have diverse potential for high paying careers. SMU has been expanding its STEM programs for years and has long term to plans to continue to do so, which was one of the reasons why SMU was chosen to attend the summit.
Some of the colleges whose presidents Heynderickx met with included Bellevue College, Washington State University, Seattle University, Westminster College and Barry University. Together they discussed strategies on how to reach out to children and encourage them to pursue higher education; including partnerships with K-12, high schools and junior colleges to inform students of the promise of college.
These programs analyze student data to see what areas they are successful in and what areas they are struggling in, so teachers can better motivate them and give them the tutoring necessary to make it to college. Overall, increased collaboration between schools at every level of education was a major part of the Day of Action’s agenda.
Obama announced in his speech that he wants community college to be free for students who meet a minimum GPA, especially for those who intend to transfer to a four-year institution. This idea is highly controversial, especially because of the projected multibillion tax dollar cost. The logic behind the proposal is that if getting an AA is (mostly) free, more students will earn them and be motivated to obtain at least a Bachelor’s degree, because it would be more affordable. More citizens with college degrees will mean more jobs, and therefore will invigorate the economy. While many people find this idea too drastic to support, it is similar in principle to the Running Start program in high school, with the difference that the students need not be in high school.
Other measures Obama dedicated to implementing were increasing Pell Grants to $1000 a year, creating the American Opportunity College Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years, and limiting student loans to 10 percent of student income. Not only is the goal to make college considerably cheaper and reduce the need for student loans, but these initiatives will make paying off students’ loans much easier. The more quickly students get out of debt, the faster they can profit from their degree and have a job that is beneficial to society as a whole.
Part of SMU’s commitment to increasing STEM programs includes an industrial science lab and new computer lab – both will soon begin construction; as well as hiring several more STEM faculty members, some of whom will be in fields not previously taught at SMU. Another new science building has also been proposed, but it is uncertain if and when that will be built. Humanities programs will be strengthened as well and more professors will be hired for those fields, so all SMU students will benefit from these measures.
At SMU many students are displeased with the rising costs of tuition despite professed dedication to increase accessibility; however there are a number of circumstances causing that trend.
“College tuition is increasing at most institutions; it is not unique to SMU. Operating colleges is becoming more and more expensive, and SMU is going through a phase of expansion where we are expanding existing programs, adding new ones, along with increasing important student services like the Wellness Center. All of these require degreed professionals, and we hope students will get what they pay for. The Day of Action challenged institutions to expand their operations while alleviating costs to students. Another reason I was approved to go to the summit was because SMU offers several scholarships both need and merit based to alleviate the sticker price of tuition,” Heynderickx explained.
Many significant improvements are coming to campus and these changes are hoped to be part of a larger shift in American higher education. Only time will tell how successful the Day of Action will be, but Heynderickx’s presence at the summit means SMU is one of 140 schools paving the way to the future.