Policy Experts: Inspiration for Higher Education

Many have made it their mission to advocate for today’s students and propose policies that will better serve their needs. These policy experts and policymakers dedicate their careers to today’s students by leading research centers, working with higher education organizations, and advocating in front of Congress on students’ behalf. Insights & Outlooks spoke with a few policy experts, including former Governors and heads of major organizations, about what drives their passion for today’s students.

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP)

“My own college experience was transformative. It was there that I realized that people had opportunities that I didn’t even know were possible. Some people had dreams that I had not yet even begun to dream. College changed the course of my life – and fueled a desire for social justice and equity in society. I wholeheartedly believe in – and now know – the power of an education. However, for many people, achieving the American dream still often depends on their zip code, family income, or skin color. I imagine a world where that is no longer the case – and am working to promote higher education to make that vision a reality.”

Gaby Gomez, Gates Foundation

“To be honest, I didn’t find higher education policy as much as it found me. I grew up in a family where we were taught that if you weren’t doing something positive every day you were wasting space, so public service was a no-brainer. Coming out of graduate school, I discovered that higher ed was an area where I could lend a hand and make a difference and I grew to love it.”

Michael Lomax, Ph.D., United Negro College Fund (UNCF)

“A quarter century ago, UNCF (United Negro College Fund) CEO William Gray, lll —formerly House Majority Whip—relocated our headquarters from New York City to Washington, DC because he recognized that federal policy profoundly affects the U.S. higher education sector, and we at UNCF must be engaged in that policy formation and implementation. Throughout my 15 years at UNCF, succeeding Bill Gray, my goal has been to meet the standard of federal policy engagement that he set. I have stayed focused on the needs of low-income and first-generation college students and ensuring strong support for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions. Those students and institutions need strong and effective advocates, and I have tried to be one.”

Former Governor Jack Markell, Delaware

“Delaware has three public institutions of higher education. As Governor, I could count on each of those campus presidents – and their leadership teams – to surface the real issues of today’s students. Their partnership was foundational to the policies we advanced and personally, they inspired me to think more holistically to ensure Delaware was positioned to address the educational needs of our students.”

Jamie Merisotis, Lumina Foundation

“My path into higher ed policy was in part driven by my own experiences as a first generation college student and financial aid recipient, and in part by a sense that my path into and through college was more fortunate than planned. I believe that higher ed policy offers the chance to help millions of people take good fortune out of the equation, creating opportunities to succeed for their own benefit and for the benefit of all Americans.”

Former Governor Jane Swift, Massachusetts

“My interest in higher education began to be formed when I arrived as an under-prepared first year college student at an elite liberal arts college. Hailing from a blue-collar industrial city with average (at best) public schools, I was dismayed to discover that my consistent As and a few Bs in high school had ill prepared me for the rigors of a competitive college education. Yet, through generous financial aid, small class sizes and more than a little grit, those four years provided me with access to enormous opportunities. When I was lucky enough to have a role in setting education policy, I was determined to remember the critical role our colleges and universities play in creating access to not just economic success and mobility but the gift of being able to pursue a career where work provided more than financial security it fulfilled my desire to engage in a life of purpose. That is a privilege my grandparents, without a college education, were not afforded and a ticket to opportunity that must continue to be relevant and available to every learner willing to work & study hard to assure a better future for themselves and their family.”