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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Innovation in Higher Ed. Has Never Been More Important

By Guest Blogger — August 19, 2020 4 min read
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Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder and CEO of Braven, takes over the blog this week. Previously a 6th grade teacher, Aimee has also led Breakthrough New Orleans and held various leadership roles at Teach For America over the course of her career. Aimee’s work at Braven focuses on helping underrepresented college students develop the skills, confidence, experiences, and networks that prepare them for success after graduation. In the coronavirus economy, these things may be more important than ever. She’ll spend the week explaining why innovation in higher ed. has never been more important, sharing tips for strong virtual learning for college students, and passing the mic to a first-gen grad who will share a bit of insight regarding what it’s like to jump-start postcollege life in the midst of the pandemic.


In the early 1990s, Joshua Christie’s parents immigrated to Newark, N.J., from Trinidad and Jamaica. They hoped to break the cycle of poverty that ran in their families and to one day achieve the American Dream. It meant a better life for themselves and the children they hoped to one day have. It meant more opportunities for their future children, including a high-quality education.

Nearly 30 years later, one of their dreams came to fruition. While they did not get to watch Joshua walk across the stage due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were so proud of him for obtaining his bachelor’s degree as a first-generation college graduate. And now he, along with the 500,000 low-income and first-generation college students who graduated into this unprecedented economic environment, are trying to figure out how to navigate this challenging labor market. Despite doing everything right, this group of students is more likely to experience underemployment and initial earnings losses, both of which can have scarring effects that can last decades.

At this historic crossroad, our nation’s incredibly talented young people from humble beginnings need to be prepared to compete for strong jobs. With a bachelor’s degree, this group of college students holds some of the greatest earnings potential in their entire family units—earnings that are likely to have a multiplier effect in low-income communities to help fuel an economic recovery and rebuild our country in the short term and will bolster their lifelong earnings in the long term.

Over a lifetime, individuals with a bachelor’s degree make 84 percent more than those with only a high school diploma; on average, their degree is worth $2.8 million over their lifetime. And yet, on average, college graduates from a low-income background will only earn 66 cents on the dollar at the start of their careers compared with peers from middle- and upper-income backgrounds and even less by the end of their careers.

To help close this gap, we need to address the resource and social-capital network disparities that often exist between institutions. For example, elite private and flagship public institutions often have resources to mobilize their powerful alumni networks to provide their students with more easily accessible social capital and inroads to jobs. Additionally, these colleges and universities typically have access to more funds, whether it be from larger endowments or higher tuition, to invest in and assess innovative career pilots for students. Large public institutions that may serve tens of thousands of underrepresented minorities or Pell Grant recipients, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds in urban and rural areas, on the other hand, lack the funds to invest in or scale up innovation.

In order to close these gaps, we need to test creative solutions in public and private nonprofit universities serving students from humble beginnings. Our government has a key opportunity to seed innovation and the companion research to lead to breakthroughs. Innovation funds such as those in the proposed FINISH Act would be one part of the equation. Once it is clear what works, schools can decide to build the innovative solution into their business models.

Additionally, employers and universities need a more clear line of sight into the college to career transition and one way to achieve this is through integrated data systems with clear data-privacy safeguards in place to examine aggregate data trends. Working with employers, state and city universities can use data to determine where and how to provide support or adapt curriculum to critical skills. Higher ed. innovators like Tennessee modernizing their integrated state data systems in order to create predictive analytic tools to guide educators and economist Raj Chetty’s economic recovery tracker are examples of incredibly helpful tools to begin to understand economic mobility on a local level. Increased data transparency from all postsecondary institutions, as proposed in the College Transparency Act, would help us learn what is working within higher education through evaluation.

We need to ensure that we are delivering on our promise of opportunity for all college students nationwide, but we cannot achieve this reality without innovation and data transparency. This type of information, along with funding, will help to ensure that our next generation of leaders emerge from everywhere.


The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.