Interviews with Influencers: Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper
When it comes to improving our nation’s higher education system, Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper should have a permanent seat at the table. For the last 12 years, she’s been at the helm of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) – an organization that’s nationally recognized for their work championing access in higher education. But her career advocating for underserved students spans more than two decades. She’s been awarded the Aspen Institute Presidential Fellowship, the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s EXCEL Award, and received Politic365’s “Game Changer” award two years in a row. She’s truly the definition of a cheerleader for students, and we were thrilled to sit down with her for our first interview of 2020.
Q: What inspired you to work in higher education?
A: College for me was a catalyzing moment. I learned a lot and experienced a lot. And one thing I realized is that I had this internal desire for social justice. While in college, I had time to reflect on my own educational journey from elementary school and high school to college, and I realized there were a lot of inequities that left so many students in precarious situations. That was a turning point for me. Not all students were getting the same educational experience. Some people were allowed to fall further and further behind others. I saw this clearly and wanted to figure out a way I could do something to change that.
I had a choice: I could work in direct service with students or work in policy and figure out solutions that could affect change for millions at one time.
I kind of stumbled into higher education policy. I did not know that this world existed when I was in college. When I was in college I wanted to be a high school guidance counselor, but it wasn't until I went to grad school and I continued to learn more and more and more that I realized there's this whole other world out there related to policy. So I had a choice: I could work in direct service with students or work in policy and figure out solutions that could affect change for millions at one time.
Q: The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) is nationally recognized as a leading voice championing college access and success. Two of your major policy priorities are to increase accountability and transparency and to improve outcomes for critical communities. Can you talk a little bit about the College Transparency Act (CTA) and the work IHEP does to support prisoner-based education?
A: Broadly speaking, IHEP has a mission that is focused on college access, college success, and college affordability. We have been around for over 25 years, and we've always been equity centric, focusing on students first. We really think about, "What are the things that would make college feasible for the most underprivileged groups of students?" Right now, we have four policy priorities: college completion, college affordability, postsecondary data, and advancing higher education in prisons.
On the data transparency piece, it is really around making sure that our postsecondary data infrastructure works for the contemporary student. Right now our postsecondary leaders are working with a data infrastructure that was created at a different time for a different student and a different purpose; we need to retrofit a very burdensome, complicated, inefficient system that doesn't count all students and doesn't count all outcomes. It doesn't tell us everything we need to know. And we're trying to make it work, but it doesn’t work well. The College Transparency Act (CTA) offers a solution that would solve that problem for us. The CTA would make the whole system less burdensome for institutions, give students and families greater transparency, and provide policymakers the information that they want to know about what's happening in college. The CTA has a purpose that serves everybody extremely well. And looking at some of the privacy protections that are recommended, you can see that it ensures that there is student-privacy and the system is secure. I think it's a win-win all the way around.
We need to retrofit a very burdensome, complicated, inefficient system that doesn't count all students and doesn't count all outcomes. It doesn't tell us everything we need to know.
In terms of IHEP’s work on higher education in prisons, this is really about looking at a population that is underserved and often invisible. Many don't think these students are out there, but they are. And they're out there taking classes, really improving themselves as individuals and, as we’ve heard from correctional officers, improving the environment within facilities as well. And then upon release, they go back into their communities and they improve those communities by working and putting their education to good use. For all of these reasons, we want to see Pell Grants be restored for students who are incarcerated. This is a way of really helping them get access to college. We're also looking at how to identify whether or not the programs that they are taking, educational programs in the prison system, are of quality. This work on quality indicators is a natural progression from some of the other work on postsecondary metrics that we're looking at for the broader higher education community. Now we are adding to and centralizing a piece of this work for this particular population.
Q: If you had a magic wand, what's one change you'd make to federal higher education policy?
A: So, of course, there is not just one change that I would make. But if you were going to force me to make one change, I'm going to make the Pell Grants sustainable. I'm going to make sure they really have the purchasing power that they need to have to make a difference in students' ability to progress through college. You know, when the Pell Grants were first put in place, they represented about 70% or so of the purchasing power of college, and now that's down below 25%.
While I really want to restore that purchasing power of the Pell Grant, it’s important to recognize that the Pell Grant can only do so much. Colleges have to do their part in curtailing rising costs. So many students are deterred from college because of the sticker price alone. We've got to do something differently to make sure that those costs-- tuition—is more manageable than it currently is.
Q: Who are your influencers? It could be in education and beyond.
I have a lot of influencers. But my grandparents are the most significant. My grandparents were all domestic workers, and they were one or two generations removed from enslavement. They lived through one of the harshest times in American history, especially for African Americans. They shared their stories and passed them down from generation to generation. There is something deeply troubling about those stories, but there's also something deeply encouraging about those stories. My grandparents are a testament of struggle and sacrifice, believing that there was something better for the next generation that they were working towards. So that is certainly part of what has helped me to get to where I am today. But it is also the same thing I'm trying to do: I'm trying to make sure that whomever comes behind me inherits a world that's much better than the world that I currently occupy.
Colleges have to do their part in curtailing rising costs. So many students are deterred from college because of the sticker price alone. We've got to do something differently to make sure that those costs-- tuition—is more manageable than it currently is.
Q: You are native of Charleston, South Carolina, so I have to ask, what do you miss most about the South? Which I think potentially might segue very nicely into number two, what's your favorite Charleston restaurant?
A: What I miss most are the beaches. I am a beach snob. I do not believe that real beaches exist north of North Carolina, so my opportunity to visit what I perceive to be a real beach has been curtailed by my desire to live up here in the Mid-Atlantic. So I miss the Charleston beaches.
I'm trying to make sure that whomever comes behind me inherits a world that's much better than the world that I currently occupy.
And the best restaurant in Charleston is probably not one that you're going to find listed in any food and wine magazine. It's called Hannibal's Kitchen. It is where the locals eat. I think that's even their tagline. Hannibal's is a family-owned business that has been around for several years. It’s located on the historic Eastside of Charleston, and it's really a place where you can go and get great food at a great price and see people from the community. And another good thing about them is that they invest in the community that they are located in—they hire people from that community, they train people from that community in culinary arts, and they give back to that community.