Interviews with Influencers: Eric Waldo

Interview Eric Waldo V2

Eric Waldo has had a truly enviable start to his career. He was one of the first attorneys hired on the 2007-2008 presidential campaign of his former law professor, President Barack Obama. He then served as the attorney on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team before joining the Department of Education as Special Assistant to then Secretary Arne Duncan, and later Deputy Chief of Staff. He now runs former first lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, which launched during her time in the White House – and recently joined forces with The Common Application. When Waldo isn’t advocating for quality higher ed from behind the scenes at Reach Higher, you’re likely to find him promoting the organization’s work at speaking engagements across the country or hosting the swampED podcast (subscribe here!). So when the Third Way team learned our paths were likely to cross at this year’s SXSW EDU conference, we jumped at the chance to interview him!

Q: Why higher education? Tell me a little about your journey into working in higher ed. And if you weren’t spending your time fighting for more equitable, affordable, and quality higher ed, what would you be doing?

A: I was fortunate to have had great educational experiences growing up. I had great teachers, and parents who really valued education. One of my first experiences after college was actually being a teacher. I was a middle school teacher with the AmeriCorps Breakthrough program, so I always knew education was something that mattered to me. When I became a political appointee in the Obama administration, I was exposed to a little bit of everything. My first five and a half years were at the Department of Education with then Secretary Arne Duncan, and I was working on everything from cradle to career to state standards and “Race to the Top.” Higher education became my focus when I was extended the opportunity to work on Reach Higher with Mrs. Obama, and in many ways, I feel like I got the chance because President Obama had announced the 2020 goal of improving college completion. So we had this moonshot, and I had the chance to shape something, to build something from the ground up. Ever since then I’ve thrown myself into higher ed and I really, really love it.

And to the second part of the question… I’m very lucky again in that I’ve had different dreams and different experiences, and I’ve been lucky enough to be good at a few things. But when I was in college, I was a pre-med and comparative literature major, so I took the MCAT and did all the relevant prep work. My senior year when I was supposed to turn in all of my materials to the dean to help you apply to medical school, I started to feel uncertain and felt like I needed to take a break. I didn’t have that lightning moment, and that suddenly freed up my life. My senior year of college I did a lot of theater. Later that let me to the in the Berkshire Theatre Festival, I did plays at Boston Center for the Arts, and I was in a musical called Hot Star, Nebraska. So I’ve done a lot of different things.

If someone told me tomorrow I wasn’t allowed to do higher ed anymore, I’d miss it. When I was interviewing with law firms as a law student, they’d ask “What would you do if you couldn’t be a lawyer?” That’s obviously a silly question. And I’d answer that my dream job was to be the host of The Daily Show, to be Jon Stewart.

Q: We know as a nation we’re doing a better job than ever getting students enrolled in higher ed. But getting students to college isn’t enough; we must get them through. Why is college completion so important? And what strategies is Reach Higher employing to get students across the finish line?

A: I was talking about this yesterday in my panel on “Low Income and First-Gen Aren’t the Same Thing!” (listen here!).  I think we are living in a time where again the pendulum is swinging and a lot of folks are questioning the value of college and asking “Is college worth it?” And what I always say is that this is not a question, this is not a debate. It’s 100% worth it, we know it’s worth it. The data is 100% clear that getting an education past high school has to be the goal for every young person to be competitive in today’s global knowledge-based economy. Unfortunately, right now the opportunity to pursue higher ed is not distributed equitably. Only 9% of the bottom income quartile of students get a college degree within six years, and that’s compared to about 77% of upper income quartile peers. We also know that 99% of the jobs created after the Great Recession went to people with a college degree or more. So again it’s not a question of whether or not people need college. If you want to be employed, if you want to have the jobs of the future, if you want to get the opportunity that the future workforce is going to provide, you’re going to need a postsecondary education – and again we define that as a 2 year degree, a 4 year degree, a community college certificate, or credential.

“And what I always say is that this is not a question, this is not a debate. It’s 100% worth it, we know it’s worth it. The data is 100% clear that getting an education past high school has to be the goal for every young person to be competitive in today’s global knowledge-based economy.” —@ewwaldo

So # 1, higher ed really matters. 

A generation ago the United States led the world in terms of postsecondary completion and today we’re about 13th among industrialized nations. President Obama said if we want to lead the world again in terms of opportunity, equity, and success, we’ve got to lead the world in terms of postsecondary completion. So that was the goal the President announced ten years ago. It’s 2019 and we’ve not yet hit that goal. We still have a lot of work to do. We’ve made some progress. We have a historically high, high school graduation rate. There are some great trend lines around Hispanic students and students of color entry into postsecondary, but we’re still lagging on completion.

“So again it’s not a question of whether or not people need college. If you want to be employed, if you want to have the jobs of the future, if you want to get the opportunity that the future workforce is going to provide, you’re going to need a postsecondary education.”—@ewwaldo

So what we try to do at Reach Higher is build a college-going culture. This May 1st we will celebrate our 5th anniversary of College Signing Day, which was launched in an effort to create a national movement around celebrating students who are making a decision to attend a postsecondary institution, not just students who are going to go be athletes – the way college signing day first originated as a way to celebrate folks coming into sports. We work on college affordability, work to ensure students are ready for college-level material the first day they arrive on campus by being academically prepared and having the social and emotional supports as well, and then lastly we think a lot about how to support the school counseling community as truly the folks that are force multipliers on the ground.

In each of those areas we are trying to build coalitions around the country that are doing this work – scaling success, lifting up what makes sense.

“A generation ago the United States led the world in terms of postsecondary completion and today we’re about 13th among industrialized nations. President Obama said if we want to lead the world again in terms of opportunity, equity, and success, we’ve got to lead the world in terms of postsecondary completion.” —@ewwaldo

I’ll give an example of that. Folks like Ben Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at The University of Virginia, have actually studied what’s described as “The Michelle Obama Effect.” When Mrs. Obama visits a high school, that school sees an increase in overall FAFSA completion.  Not just for the school, but for the entire district. And not only for the week she’s there, but for a very long time thereafter, and that’s extraordinary. We’d love to bring her to every school across the country and have her talk about FAFSA, but we can’t do that. Luckily, we do have the digital tools to spread her message far and wide. We launched a digital campaign called Better Make Room and launched an innovative free texting platform called UpNext that offers personalized support on the FAFSA and all things financial aid and college affordability. This year we texted about 150,000 high school seniors across the country, and next year we’re able to scale our efforts to connect with about 300,000 students. I always tell people my team is just six people. The idea that we are able to do so much work through partnerships, texting with 150,000 students and hosting 2,000 signing days with 600,000 students, building this momentum and movement and supporting school counselors through partnerships like the American School Counselor Association. I’m really proud of that work.

Let’s spend a minute just talking about school counselors because I think that it’s a critical community we can’t do enough to champion. Currently, the school counselor to student ratio is about one counselor to 476 students – something bananas. The American School Counselor Association recommends it should be one to 250 students. I still think that’s bananas – that’s not what students at well-to-do private schools are getting. We are not being serious about equity if we’re not being serious about school counselors. And unfortunately, even for the counselors who are in schools, too often they are busy doing lunch duty or proctoring tests. Some of them enter the profession without even having taken a class on college advising. So we have to do a much better job integrating school counseling as a key strategy around college access and success. We have to empower them as leaders in schools, we have to train them better, and we need to teach them about how to use data to help students make better college decisions, and articulate to students the value of college and what the skills are for them to be successful there.

“We are not being serious about equity if we’re not being serious about school counselors.” —@ewwaldo

We partner with organizations like the National Postsecondary Strategy Institute to facilitate trainings around the country to train schools and districts and counselors about how to conduct professional development opportunities for the school counseling community, how to better integrate them into the school community, and how to build on successes in places like Chicago – that have worked to build a strong culture around integrating school counselors.

Q: Your mother is Puerto Rican, and you have family and friends that still reside in Puerto Rico. So it’s safe to say the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria impacted you quite personally. In the aftermath of the storm, you organized a trip of former Obama staffers (including former US Secretary Arne Duncan) to Puerto Rico to contribute to the rebuilding of two schools. Tell me more about the work you did in these schools.

A: So this is interesting. As you mentioned, my mom was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I spent much of my youth spending summers in Puerto Rico with my grandmother, cousins, my aunts and uncles. And then I had the fortune that when I was in the Obama administration, I was part of President Obama’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. As you may recall, President Obama had to campaign in Puerto Rico because they voted in the primary. Both he and Senator Clinton traveled to Puerto Rico and made a lot of campaign promises. One of them was to expand a longstanding White House task force and have it be more inclusive of Puerto Rico (beyond legal status), and actually think about how to support the island in terms of economic, social, and educational development.  So I was the representative from the Department of Education on that task force, and I began traveling to Puerto for work fairly regularly. I worked with the Department of Education of Puerto Rico (PRDE), working on technical assistance plans, and dedicating a lot of time to the struggling school system on the island. Through this work, I began to develop my own personal and professional relationships there as well. So when the Hurricane Maria hit, there’s just that fear and anxiety when you can’t get in touch with anyone. No one had cell phone reception, and no one knew what was going on. I always say David Begnaud from CBS News (who has now become a little bit of an internet sensation) was the only reporter talking about Puerto Rico, and he was in Puerto Rico. The Sunday after the hurricane hit, I was watching Meet the Press and they didn’t ask one question about Puerto Rico. I was tweeting at Chuck Todd and I thought it was criminal that no one was talking about it.

“So we have to do a much better job integrating school counseling as a key strategy around college access and success. We have to empower them as leaders in schools, we have to train them better, and we need to teach them about how to use data to help students make better college decisions, and articulate to students the value of college and what the skills are for them to be successful there.” —@ewwaldo

So I started to view it as my job to try and lift up Puerto Rico. Arne Duncan called me in December of 2017 and said we’ve got to do more for Puerto Rico. So we organized a trip of other former Obama staffers and went down there. We worked with non-profits on the island like CONPRMETIDOS, donated about 15,000 sets of school supplies to elementary school students on the island thanks to a partnership with Yoobi, and painted a school. And ultimately, I think part of the importance of that trip was just showing people on the island that we cared and that while the current administration has failed Puerto Rico – morally, financially and otherwise, it was essential to show that’s not representative of the greatness and the goodwill of the American people. We did that, and we had so much fun doing that trip we went back in December of 2018. This time again Secretary Duncan came with us and we worked with an incredible non-profit called Caras con Causa. They are starting a turnaround charter school, which will be the first charter school in Puerto Rico. It’s in a neighborhood that’s co-located with some marshland that’s been an underserved community on the island. They use the marshland to teach about STEM education. Every single one of Puerto Rico schools is Title 1 (which means they receive federal funding), you’ve also got historically high unemployment, and had the trauma of this hurricane and what it’s meant for people. As opposed to the aftermath in New Orleans or Houston, in Puerto Rico, you weren’t able to drive to another community to escape the destruction. I am really hopeful about the incredible leaders within Puerto Rico and on the mainland here in the US who are investing in trying to make sure we’re helping Puerto Rico recover and recover soon, but I think we’ve got to keep banging the drum on this.

Q: If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about federal higher education policy, what would it be? Why?

A: Gosh that is a tough question. If we’re just thinking of top of mind, DREAMers should be able to get federal aid. Full stop. The idea that we’re taking these incredible young people and punishing them by essentially making higher ed almost impossible to pay for and making them part of the permanent underclass is a moral failure, an economic failure; it’s a terrible short-sided investment. I want to fix our policy toward DREAMers.

“I am really hopeful about the incredible leaders within Puerto Rico and on the mainland here in the US who are investing in trying to make sure we’re helping Puerto Rico recover and recover soon, but I think we’ve got to keep banging the drum on this.”—@ewwaldo

Q: You’ve had the good fortune to work alongside former first lady Michelle Obama for the last five years. Do you have a favorite memory from your time together so far?

A: The story that comes to mind happened within my first five months working in her office. It was nearing graduation season – the time when you start to see news clips featuring incredible stories of young people who went from being homeless to the valedictorian of their high school and then getting a full-ride at Georgetown. Just remarkable stories of students who are overcoming tremendous obstacles to finish high school and get to college. When I was at the Department of Ed, sometimes we’d pick stories like these and include them in the Secretary’s briefing book. And so, I started highlighting a few stories to send up to Mrs. Obama for her to read overnight in her briefing book. Having read some of those stories, she came back to us and said we should think about inviting some of these students to the White House to talk to them and learn from their stories.

“The idea that we’re taking these incredible young people and punishing them by essentially making higher ed almost impossible to pay for and making them part of the permanent underclass is a moral failure, an economic failure; it’s a terrible short-sided investment. I want to fix our policy toward DREAMers.” —@ewwaldo

So somehow that request turned into getting time held on her calendar for a conversation on “beating the odds.” We reached out to some trusted non-profits and requested their help nominating students who had overcome extraordinary obstacles and were preparing to start college in the fall. The first group was about 13 recently graduated high school seniors. They came to the East Reception Room in the White House, and we had a big table set-up. It was Mrs. Obama, me and those kids. And we sat around the table and spoke for around two hours. Mrs. Obama shared her story about being a first-generation, low-income student. And each student went around the table and spoke bracingly and honestly about their own struggles. There was a young man from Chicago, Illinois who had one of his best friends killed on the streets who spoke about what college meant for him. There was a young woman who had been in foster care her entire life because her parents were alcoholics. You had story after story of students who had just lived really tough lives and had made it through high school and now planned to go to college in fall.

It was this extraordinary sharing and communal storytelling, and Mrs. Obama was really able to connect with them by sharing her story that while the students may think she’s this established person, she was just like them when she was growing up.  And the students were blown away. We began a tradition after that. That first year there were just 13 kids in a room with Mrs. Obama. We began hosting a “Beating the Odds” summit, and for the last couple of years we were in the White House, we hosted about 130 students every summer who had been nominated. They spoke with Mrs. Obama in a roundtable, participated in a full day of activities with other non-profits, and I’m thrilled that we’ve continued this tradition since we left the White House. The really great thing is I kept in touch with a lot of those students from the first round. Many of them have already graduated, some are graduating now. Getting to hear from them – the idea that they were invited to the White House, that we wanted to hear from them, that they were being recognized when they didn’t think their own life was special – was so powerful.

Q: Who are your influencers in higher education?

A: Some of my heroes are people like Dan Porterfield (our interview with him here!) who is now President of The Aspen Institute. Dan was formerly the President of Franklin and Marshall College, and during his tenure, he tripled the amount of Pell-eligible students. Dan is one of those people who has no ego, like another mentor of mine, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Dan just wants to get the work done and is relentlessly focused on doing that. He was able to be so successful at an institution and now how he’s trying to replicate that across a much broader spectrum and sphere of influence.

“Getting to hear from them – the idea that they were invited to the White House, that we wanted to hear from them, that they were being recognized when they didn’t think their own life was special – was so powerful.” —@ewwaldo

I think about folks like Nicole Hurd, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of College Advising Corps - an organization that is getting students who are finishing college to commit to doing two years of service as college advising counselors in school districts across the country to supplement the advisors already there. They have an incredible mix of students who are first-generation and low-income. She took a great idea she had as a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and turned it into an incredible movement of hundreds of young people spending years of their lives supporting students and thinking about postsecondary access and success.

And then, of course, I think about thought leaders like Arne Duncan – who again was the Secretary of Education when I started working in the Department. He’s my old boss and friend and mentor. He worked in K-12 as Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools, and then covered the whole spectrum of education policy during his time as Secretary. And now, he’s gone back to Chicago and is working with the Chicago CRED program (which uses street-level recruitment to offer job training, employment, and support services to men identified as being at the highest risk of being shooters or being shot). And you might think that’s a really specific program, but I think Arne’s vision of higher ed and the importance of higher ed as a ladder of opportunity is precisely about being diligent and thinking about how we can extend these opportunities to the people least likely to get them.

I’d also say John King (our interview with him here!). And John is someone I didn’t work as closely with. He got to the Department of Education right as I was leaving to go to the White House, so we didn’t have the years in the trenches together. But now he’s on the Reach Higher advisory board. John’s got it all. He has a personal narrative that’s really compelling about his own story where he had a lot of trauma in his youth – losing his parents very young and being kicked out of high school. But John has been clear throughout all of his work about ensuring every conversation we have around education incorporates equity. It’s not an extra. I really appreciate his leadership and the work he’s done at The Education Trust that forced me to make equity part of the oxygen I breathe and not something extra that I think about once a week or once a year.

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