Sameer Gadkaree, President & CEO of The Institute for College Access and Success: Creating Paths To Debt-Free College
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host, Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
The cost of college in the US has doubled in the past decade, fueling a troubling rise in student debt load and limiting access to higher education. Collectively, students owe $1.75 trillion in debt with the average borrower on the hook for $30,000. We’re going to dive into the causes and solutions to this major challenge today with a national leader on advancing college affordability, Sameer Gadkaree. He is currently president and CEO of The Institute for College Access and Success, also known as TICAS, and previously led the Joyce Foundation’s efforts on higher education with a focus on addressing racial and economic disparities in college access.
In addition to his policy expertise, Sameer also brings a real-world perspective to these issues which he gained while working in the trenches in higher ed as an associate vice chancellor at the City Colleges of Chicago, where he led the adult education division.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Sameer.
Sameer Gadkaree: Thanks so much for having me, Van.
Van: Absolutely. Sameer, why don’t we start by having you overview TICAS and what it does today to advance affordability and equity?
Sameer: Sure. So TICAS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We advocate for increased college affordability. We advocate to protect students from fraud, waste, and abuse in the higher education system and to restore higher education as a source of economic and racial equity. More specifically, we work on advancing state and federal policies that would do those things. We work deeply in California including, Van, with some of your former colleagues, to increase the value of and efficacy of the Cal Grants. We work in Michigan on financial aid. We work on increasing the value and restoring the purchasing power of the Pell Grant. And we think about how to have basic safety nets for student loan borrowers, as well as implementing and supporting federal policies like gainful employment and borrower defense that really are there to protect students and borrowers.
Van: Sameer, I assume that you just didn’t wake up one day and say, “Well, my goodness, I’m gonna think about gainful employment and a basic safety net.” Tell us how you came to be interested in this domain.
Sameer: Yeah, so hopefully this will resonate with your experience as well, Van. There are millions and millions of students who are just trying to get to a better life for themselves through higher education and I got to see that firsthand, as you mentioned, at the City Colleges of Chicago and through my own family’s background. I know that there are many students who are trying to do everything they can to get to that better economic future for themselves, who are trying to unlock the potential of learning, who are eager to have an enriching educational experience across the country.
In doing that work in the trenches, you start to come up against the policy barriers that we see — the barriers created by inequitable resources, inequitable systems, the ways that we transfer risk onto individuals — and you think there has to be a better way of doing all of this. The system needs to be changed. So, I got to see that when I was at the City Colleges, and I got to see that when I was at the Joyce Foundation. At TICAS, we have the good fortune to be in a position where we can help foster those conversations with state and federal policy makers and try to produce that change. So, that’s how I ended up here.
Van: You mentioned transferring risk onto individuals. I know this is in your DNA and in your day job, but explain that to our listeners who may be less familiar with this concept.
Sameer: Sure. Well, I think that one of the pernicious ways that student debt affects how we think about college going — whether it’s for an occupational program or even a degree program, a graduate program — one of the pernicious things that happens is that we’re asking students effectively to take a bet on themselves. And that takes a couple of forms.
First of all, we have seen in recent years the growing problem of debt that doesn’t pay off for students. That can happen for a number of reasons, but one that’s really high on the list is that a student starts college, gets a couple of semesters or a year or two in and doesn’t get a degree. According to recent estimates by the administration, that’s about a third of the people who have student debt. For those people, they’ve taken on all the risk of attending college, but they haven’t gotten an economic benefit from it.
There are other ways that student debt can be risky for students. But overall, I think the big thing that I’d highlight is that this is a generational change. If you look a couple of decades ago, if you look more than that ago, it was certainly the case that students would have to pay for college, but tuition was sufficiently lower and grants were sufficiently more generous that we weren’t asking students and families to take on such a significant amount of debt. So, that’s the risk that I’m thinking a lot about…the risk that’s been transferred onto students and families in the form of student loan debt.
Van: So, you’re coming up at around the two-year tenure mark at TICAS. What are you seeing as the biggest challenges and opportunities to achieving your mission? It’s such an important mission, but it’s a big mission as well.
Sameer: Well, Van, on the challenge side, I’d say that we are facing this overarching generational challenge. Student debt affects 44 million Americans. On the one side, it feels like a really daunting problem. It feels like a giant problem. At TICAS, we aspire to point the way towards a better future, and I think for some people, it’s harder to imagine how we’re gonna solve this giant problem. And then on the other side of the ledger, we also need to celebrate progress and changes that we are able to get now towards that broader vision.
I think for some people, it’s harder to celebrate the changes if they’re thinking about the big picture, and I think it’s really important for us to be able to do both. So, I think in some ways, our core challenge is knitting together short-term progress and long-term progress into one coherent stream. I think that’s what we need to do in the midst of a very polarized and challenged political conversation.
One other thing that I’ll mention as a sub-challenge of that is that there’s a temptation, I think, to say, “Well, that problem is really big. I’m not gonna worry about college affordability. I’m not gonna worry about student debt. I’m just gonna figure out how do I help with this one slice of the higher education or workforce continuum.” There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that we need people making progress across the state level, the local level, the college level, at the federal level. We need people making change, making progress at all of those points. But at the same time, I think that it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which all of our challenges around debt, around affordability, around fraud, waste, and abuse are interconnected for the students and families who are going through the system. So I think that that’s what I put on the challenges side of the ledger.
On the opportunity side of the ledger — and maybe this is a little bit of a Pollyanna way of putting it — but I think there’s a growing awareness of the harms of student debt, the challenges that it creates for our economy, for borrowers and for students, and indeed, even the ways that colleges and workforce programs are navigating a system that’s very challenging and set up to create a precarity, a risk, and inequity in resources that we really need to change if we’re gonna achieve greater racial equity and economic mobility.
Van: Sameer, could you give us some examples of what would be some changes if you were in the seat with the pen?
Sameer: Actually, let me start by — in the spirit of one of my earlier answers — talking about some of the good progress that we are seeing. I’m excited that we have an administration that has proposed a reimposition of the gainful employment rule, which protects students from career higher education programs that leave them with a lot of debt and meager earnings, or very low earnings in this newest version of the rule. I’m excited to see the progress that we’ve made on the Pell Grant, as well as on the construction of and promulgation of many safety nets for student loan borrowers. And most famously, of course, there’s the conversation that’s happening around the debt cancellation, but there’s also initiatives like Fresh Start that would help students and borrowers in default. So, I’m glad that we have some of those early changes.
I think that we need to build a path to debt-free college, such that students with significant economic need and with a reasonable work expectation do not need to borrow to get a two- or four-year degree or occupational credential. Ultimately, I think that that’s what we need to be anchoring our work towards…meeting that total cost of attendance for those students and families who need the help to be able to attend college.
I’ll maybe say two more things about that, if I could take a minute. The first is that it’s simply the case that for families earning less than, say, $30,000 a year, college is unaffordable. Our estimates are that for a four-year public cost of attendance, a family at that income level would need to borrow about 93% of the cost of attendance in order to be able to attend. In a public two year, it’s still about two thirds. That’s just a pretty big gap for them to make up. That’s a level of debt relative to income that’s pretty daunting.
So, for those students and families, we need to provide a pathway towards a debt-free future. Ultimately I believe that needs to happen at the federal level and it needs to knit together the state aid programs, the federal aid programs, as well as a federal affordability guarantee. It also needs to be paired, I think, with strong measures to ensure that we root out fraud and abuse in the higher education system, too.
Van: You came from the adult education system. The dilemma of adults is slightly different from those who are young and going into higher education the first time. What about this issue of not only just getting into that first job, but the continuous skilling and upskilling? Who do you think should pay, or how should we think about financing all of those expenses?
Sameer: Well, let’s start with a population that I think is part of this conversation, which is the 40 million Americans who have some college and no degree. I think it’s certainly often part of the conversation that we need to think about how to help these adults ultimately complete a credential or degree that they may have some college credits towards. But that’s a daunting prospect. It means that we need to think about the debt that they may have taken on that they may be having a tough time paying back from the federal government. It means thinking about the institutional debts that they may have as well. It means thinking about how to structure college programs around their lives. Many of them may have kids. They may have a job. It’s certainly the case that there’s still work ahead of us to serve that working adult population well in the higher education ecosystem.
You mentioned earlier that TICAS does work around basic needs, access and policy as well. One of the things that we think is important from a standpoint of economic mobility in our nation is ensuring that if we think about a program like SNAP, that people who are on SNAP are able to get to and through a college program and get to a better life, but also that it’s easier for college students to access SNAP benefits they may be entitled to. I think both sides of that equation are important when we think about working adults.
I’ll also add that undergirding your question is the sound point that many students don’t complete college, and one of the other threads that I hope we can pick up over the course of this interview is that there are programs across the country that have shown that they can as much as double graduation rates, particularly in community colleges, but also in four-year settings. I’m thinking of programs like CUNY ASAP, One Million Degrees, Stay the Course, Project Quest, and there are others. TICAS advocates for dedicated funds to scale up evidence-based practices. I think that it’s important from a policy perspective for us to support the resources needed to help more people get across the finish line.
Van: Sameer, would you mind making a sentence that explains SNAP?
Sameer: It’s food assistance, is maybe the best way of putting it.
Van: And that’s a federal program under the USDA?
Sameer: Yes, exactly.
Van: Okay, wonderful. Were there any more points that you wanted to make in terms of investment and basic needs?
Sameer: You know, I think the main thing that maybe I would say there is that it’s part and parcel of our broader need to address the widening disparities in college attainment by race and by family income. Ultimately, if we are going to address those, we need to make sure that we are marshaling the different resources and supports that students and families need in pursuit of that goal. We need to be thinking about higher education as workforce development, as a way that people can get the degrees in particular, and certificates as well, that will help them get to a better job.
Van: Well, speaking about workforce development, I know you make the case that there’s a very tight relationship between higher education and workforce development, and government policies should be shaped accordingly. Can you elaborate on that and give us some examples of policy changes that you’re advocating?
Sameer: Absolutely. Let me start by saying that I think all too often there’s a false dichotomy created in the conversation between higher education and workforce development. I really see them as a part and parcel of the same thing. The community colleges that you and I worked at and the community colleges across the country are the way that we get many of our early childhood educators, our x-ray technicians, our workers in allied health fields and our network engineers in IT. There’s tons of occupational certificates and degrees that are happening in the higher education college system. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that that’s where the majority of people are getting their workforce development.
I think that when it comes to getting people to and through those occupationally oriented college programs, we need to address affordability because that’s how people are gonna pay for those programs and it’s one of the big barriers that they face. We need to offer the resources and supports for people to be able to complete. The programs that I mentioned earlier offer targeted advising support. They offer incremental financial support. They offer data-driven supports. They make sure they check in with students and help them across the finish line. We need to provide an underlying basic definition of, or baseline of, what it is to be in a college program and make sure that students aren’t taken advantage of.
That’s where regulations like gainful employment that protect students from very low earning but high debt programs become important in terms of not saddling people with unaffordable debts. We need to make sure that students have the information that they need to make good choices through things like the college scorecard, but also through clear financial aid award letters. I think that student transparency is another important element. So, those are all pieces of the overall puzzle, I think, that relate to workforce and career programs and relate to higher education as well.
Van: We’ve spoken to several podcast guests and it’s been brought up that there’s a growing perception among parents and students that higher education is not worth the cost, and you alluded to the fact that there’s been so much debt or rise in debt that it’s calling into question the value of higher education. What are your thoughts on how to turn that around, or should we turn it around?
Sameer: Well, I think that it’s a natural conversation at a moment when we see this growing affordability and debt crisis. I’ll offer a couple of related thoughts on this. The first is, as we think about the return and the investment sides of the equation and the ROI on higher education, what we actually see — and there’s a study by Doug Weber from the Philadelphia Fed from last year that looks at the ROI — on average, we still see a robust and even growing ROI for higher education.
I think that what we need to be attentive to is that’s on average, and that there are many people who don’t see a return from higher education. I think it’s particularly important for us to be attentive to differences in post-secondary value for student populations from different backgrounds by race, by geography, by family, economic background. And I think ultimately, both the conversation about differential value for different student populations, as well as that conversation about ROI, partly hinge on the investment that we’re asking of people.
So, it comes back to some extent to that conversation about this transfer of risk onto students and families, the debt investment we’re asking students to make. I would say that it’s simultaneously important for us to look at programs that have very, very low ROI because they’re oftentimes part of this fraud and abuse set of issues that we unfortunately have in the higher education arena. We’ve seen particularly very low payoff programs in the for-profit college sector. That’s something that we’re always attentive to. But at the same time, we also need to invest in college affordability at both the state and federal level and make that return more clear for students and families, because ultimately that’s the way we’re gonna have the nurses, teachers, doctors, x-ray technicians, and MRI operators of the future.
Van: You inspire me with this idea of having a debt-free education journey. As you know, in the healthcare field, nurses are in high demand but short supply. But it’s quite a journey to get to that RN degree, for example, and there’s also work experience requirements that enable the individual to be competitive. So, we’ve been wrestling with the concepts of how to bring people into the field, have them gain work experience, but also continue their education. Have you seen good models or good financing instruments that our listeners should think about?
Sameer: I am delighted that you’re doing that work and I do think that it’s very valuable to be able to pair those real-world clinical-type experiences with the degree. Nursing, of course, is a great example in that that’s required, and it makes sense that it’s required. You undoubtedly know far more than I about the best ways to finance clinical opportunities. I would just note that in the affordability that we need to create for programs, including nursing, it’s important that an element of that certainly can and should be some reasonable work expectation.
When it comes to federal work-study, unfortunately, that program has not necessarily gone to the students who need it the most. It’s based on an outdated formula that appears to, in some ways, maybe hinge on the colleges that many decades ago might have been more at the forefront of policy conversations. And so we tend to see community colleges shortchanged in federal work-study programs and funding. So, maybe I’ll say that, and I’ll say that when it comes to financing the clinicals, I’m curious to hear more about your work and what you’re doing there, because I think that that’s really crucial and important work.
Van: We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to move over 5,000 adults with 90% ethnic diversity, as well as 52% linguistic diversity, into healthcare credentials and we’ve been able to do it because we’ve had employers who have provided scholarships to underwrite their journeys.
So, that brings me to a question, Sameer. Employers have a role. They can do tuition supports, for example, and a best practice in tuition support is not to pay out on the backend, but actually make sure that the individuals have the cashflow. So, really not reimbursement, but actually support. But most employers want to tie it to some kind of retention schema, which is not so different from the ROTC, for example. What are your thoughts on these types of programs that finance a worker’s education, but also has expectations of putting some time into the company?
Sameer: I certainly am excited for a student and for an employer when they find a way to do that. I’m thinking particularly for context here, of the work that Aon has been doing — starting in Chicago, but also across the country — to offer pathways into insurance and claims underwriting. They pay for students’ education, they have finance supports, and then they’ve hired those students on the backend. I think that’s great.
I’m really excited about some of the apprenticeship models that we see across the country that integrate a college degree, offer a job, offer that real-world experience, but pair it with the education that would help a student get ahead. So, I think that those types of models are very compelling. I think that we need to pair our excitement and enthusiasm for those models with the awareness that they are expensive for employers and so I appreciate the commitment that we’ve seen employers make around apprenticeship-type models. I think that it’s great that they’re growing and I think that we need to figure out some of the big systemic solutions around affordability that may address some of the students who simply don’t have that opportunity. That may be millions and millions of students, I fear, in the near term.
Van: Well, you mentioned Aon and their program and the best practice in apprenticeship programs where there’s the work and the study embedded. Are there any other best practices that you’re seeing around affordability and equity that haven’t yet been mentioned?
Sameer: You know, I just want to highlight again some of these intensive college support programs. We call them CAS programs, and in those models, we’ve seen RCTs showing that these programs have efficacy in increasing graduation rates in community college settings. The CUNY ASAP Accelerate, Complete and Engage (ACE) program has now demonstrated they can do that in four-year public settings. Some of these models have been replicated in new sites and shown to be efficacious. I really appreciate and want to build on — and I think policymakers need to build on — the work that we’re seeing from programs like that and from researchers like MDRC in showing us what can work in increasing graduation. I think that’s an essential support for students that helps us build more equitable outcomes.
Van: We all know that for some of the populations of students that you and I are talking about — and some of the communities that need to effectively land in the world of work– that the level of support required and needed to be paired with their education is front and center, right? I mean, that’s especially part of the secret sauce of getting adults through.
Van: Why don’t we close on a positive note? What else would you like listeners to hear about affordability or student debt? What’s giving you hope about the future or the future work?
Sameer: Well, I think that on the one hand, we have a moment of great tumult, right? We’re going to see a Supreme Court ruling next month on affirmative action. We’re going to see a Supreme Court ruling next month on the student debt cancellation action by the administration. We’re going to see the resumption of student loan payments. So, it’s certainly a tumultuous moment in the higher education and workforce space.
But what I’m excited about is what I think is a growing awareness that we need to systemically address issues around access, affordability and higher education in order to have the workforce of the future, in order to have a vibrant economy, in order to have people in all of these professions and occupations that we all depend on every single day. I think there’s growing momentum for us to build those systemic changes. We see growing interest in states and we see growing interest at the federal level in making those changes. So, I take some heart from that.
I also think that we’re going to have an opportunity in the years ahead to help address these systemic issues that unfortunately so many millions of students and borrowers have been facing in a system that has not, unfortunately, served them as well as it should.
Van: Well said. Thank you so much, Sameer, for your leadership and thank you for being with us today.
Sameer: Thank you so much for having me, Van.
Van: Absolutely. I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.