Hearing Student Voice: Why Telling the Story Matters in Federal Policy

One of the challenges holding back federal policy is the disconnect between the experiences of today’s students and the conventional wisdom around what college is like. Too often, myths and misconceptions take root that contradict student realities.

For example, we tend to think of students as 18-22 year-olds hanging out on the quad, studying in dorms, joining clubs, and taking in campus social life. But for the vast majority, that’s not the case. But what do these stories actually look like? They’re more common than we might think.

While data and facts about student demographics are often echoed in the halls of Congress, and critical to policymaking, hearing from students about their experiences is essential to understanding the needs and motivations of today’s students. Recently, Humans of New York, the popular photo blog, published this compelling portrait of an adult learner and veteran who went back to get his degree taken at a subway stop:


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“I’d been putting it off because I didn’t have the money or time. But a program at the VA offered to help with tuition, so I enrolled in Empire State College. I wasn’t there to play. I wasn’t there to party. My only goal was to get an education. And more than the degree, I discovered that I needed the people. I met people at college that I could bounce ideas off. People who could challenge me to go further with my interests. Two of my mentors were Dr. Fullard and Professor Whiteside. Both of them had retired from corrections so they had a passion for helping black males. They’d tell me: I notice you have a strong ability for ‘such and such,’ and I’d love to see you develop it further. So that’s what I did. Even though I majored in business, I found myself learning all about history and economics. Right now I’m reading a book about the Haitian Revolution. It has nothing to do with my major, but it’s important to me. It’s part of my personal curriculum. And that’s the most important thing that I got from college. I got a degree. But more importantly I developed a personal curriculum that I’ll be using for the rest of my life.”

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The Empire State College student found faculty mentors, developed a personal curriculum and got the job done. In his own words: “I wasn’t there to play. I wasn’t there to party. My only goal was to get an education.”

The sentiment is striking and underscores the same troubling paradox of realities and misconceptions. Where yesterday’s students were wealthier, younger and attending college directly after high school, today’s students are more diverse in age, race and income. Higher education is no longer a linear path, but a lifelong process that might require a student to go back as an adult, like the Empire State College student. Even for those students who finish on the traditional route, they’ll likely need further education and training to stay up to speed with today’s changing job market.

Recent data suggest that more than 3 in 4 college students are either working, financially independent, parenting or have some other non-traditional quality. But these voices and experiences are often lacking or absent in policy discussions.

It’s easy to conflate the “typical” student with our own lived experience or media portrayals.  That’s why we need students, the ultimate consumers of higher education, to engage in new and more meaningful ways in the policy process. A growing number of organizations are working to not only surface student stories, but to bring these vital perspectives to bear on policy discussions:

  • College to Congress is providing full-ride scholarships for students to take unpaid Congressional internships when they might ordinarily not be able to meet living expenses without paid work;
  • The Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America created a policy corps of first-generation and low-income students who are sharing their stories and advocating for federal policy change;
  • The National Campus Leadership Council is bringing together student government leaders who are advocating to elevate student voice in campus governance and national decision-making;
  • #VoicesforChange and the HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice are lifting up stories of students who are struggling with homelessness, food insecurity, and balancing work, family, and other obligations while trying to earn a degree;
  • And Young Invincibles has mobilized millennials and young adults to draw attention to challenges of affordability and the need for greater transparency and accountability.

And there are countless others – organizations and individuals – who are working to “myth-bust” what college is really like for the vast majority of today’s students. Higher Learning Advocates is contributing through Voices of Today’s Students, our project which collects and shares stories told by today’s students to raise awareness of the experiences, needs, and challenges they face today.

Do you have a student voice project you’d like us to highlight? Reach out or consider submitting a student story to Voices of Today’s Students at www.TodaysStudents.org.