Addressing Socioeconomic Barriers and Equalizing Access to Higher Education: A Q&A with Brittani Williams

On Monday, May 13, the Pell Institute hosted a webinar unveiling our 2024 Equity Indicators Report. Following the presentation of the data, I facilitated a panel discussion exploring significant disparities in postsecondary education enrollment and attainment across different socioeconomic groups and assessing the effectiveness of financial aid like Pell Grants. Generation Hope Director of Advocacy, Policy, and Research Brittani Williams was featured on that panel. Here are her remarks. 

Terry Vaughan: What strategies can be implemented to address socioeconomic barriers to higher education, and how can policy changes at institutional and governmental levels contribute to equalizing access? 

Brittani Williams: Tackling socioeconomic barriers requires a multifaceted approach. Financial issues are a major stressor for students, as highlighted in a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed. One key strategy is financial aid reform. I recently worked with the Education Trust on state financial aid strategies to support students through degree completion. Additionally, targeted outreach and support services, like those provided by TRIO programs, are crucial. These services have proven to make a significant difference, especially when data is desegregated by socioeconomic status. 

TV: Our latest Equity Indicators report examines college enrollment and the types of institutions students attend, revealing an inverse relationship between institutional selectivity and the percentage of Pell Grant recipients. Only 28% of Pell Grant recipients attend the most competitive institutions, while 73% attend the least competitive ones. This disparity has major implications for social mobility and equity in higher education. How can Pell Grants be more effectively utilized to support students at both highly selective and less selective institutions? 

BW: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but social mobility is a key factor. Highly selective institutions often have more resources to support students through degree completion. Pell Grant recipients need similar targeted supports at less selective institutions. The Pell Grant currently covers only 25% of the average cost of college, which is insufficient. We need equity-based funding revisions to enhance the effectiveness of financial aid and make higher education more accessible and affordable for low-income students. 

TV: What equity-based funding revisions or expansions should be considered to improve the Pell Grant’s effectiveness? 

BW: The Pell Grant has not kept pace with tuition increases. We need significant increases in Pell Grant funding. State financial aid programs also play a critical role and should be reformed to remove eligibility barriers. Furthermore, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HERF) have shown that holistic support, including tuition, childcare, healthcare, and mental health services, is crucial for student success. We need to redefine financial support to encompass these broader needs. 

TV: What role does the value of credentials play in motivating state and institutional leaders to implement these changes? 

BW: Credentials are essential for upward economic mobility. State higher education governing boards recognize this, as seen in state attainment goals aimed at increasing credential attainment by 2030. The connection between higher education and the workforce is clear, and it’s important to communicate this to students and families, as well as to state leaders, to drive policy changes. 

TV: What innovative federal, state, or institutional strategies could close the educational attainment gap? 

BW: Data-driven policies and interventions are critical. At Generation Hope, we support parenting students through degree completion and building wealth. By strategically collecting and analyzing data, states can implement effective interventions. This approach can be applied to support various underrepresented groups across college campuses. 

TV: To close the educational attainment gap, we need pathways that create seamless transitions for students into and through postsecondary institutions. How do you anticipate current challenges with FAFSA completion will impact equity outcomes in higher education? 

BW: The recent issues with FAFSA processing could have long-term impacts on students’ trust and retention rates. Smaller institutions that process financial aid manually may face significant challenges. This situation could hinder efforts to increase credential attainment and economic mobility. 

TV: What impact do mandated FAFSA completions have on students’ access to higher education? 

BW: Mandated FAFSA completions, as seen in Louisiana, can open doors for broader college planning and support. Engaging parents in the process is particularly beneficial for first-generation students. This holistic support helps students understand the importance of financial aid and access to postsecondary education. It’s crucial to continue these conversations and push for systemic change across institutions and at state and federal levels. This work is essential for shaping the future of higher education and achieving meaningful reform. 

TV: How do you anticipate current challenges with FAFSA completion will impact equity outcomes in higher education? 

BW: The recent FAFSA processing issues could significantly impact both students and financial aid officers. Retention rates might be affected, and there may be long-term repercussions on efforts to increase credential attainment. 

TV: What impact will Oklahoma’s mandate for high school seniors to complete the FAFSA have on students? 

BW: Mandates like Oklahoma’s can provide valuable college planning support. They help engage families and provide a holistic support system, especially beneficial for first-generation students. My experience in Louisiana showed that such initiatives can positively impact students’ access to postsecondary education. Continuing to discuss and address these issues is vital for making higher education more equitable and accessible for all students. 

Brittani is the Director of Advocacy Policy & Research at Generation Hope, where she leads strategic planning efforts and research regarding education and equity issues. Before working at Generation Hope, Brittani served as a Senior Policy analyst in Washington, D.C. and practitioner at the state and institutional levels. With a passion for addressing systemic inequalities in higher education, Brittani is committed to driving positive change through evidence-based advocacy and policy solutions.

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