Interviews with Influencers: Prof. Susan Dynarski

Interview Header Susan V4

You may be familiar with our Higher Ed Social Media Influencers list – if not, check it out! Our team has a ton of influencers in higher education (that would frankly never all fit onto an annual list), and we are thrilled to launch our new web series: Interviews with Influencers, as a way to highlight them and their innovative and impactful work. Enjoy! 

line break

Our interview with Professor Dynarski was nothing if not incredibly fortuitous. We value her research on low-income students, financial aid, and the intersection of education and the economy. And, while she was near the top of our list of folks we’d love to interview for our new web series, interviewing someone in Michigan from our office in Washington, D.C. proved to be logistically complex. So, when she was in town testifying during the Senate HELP Committee hearing on financial aid and loan simplification, and found herself free for the afternoon, we counted our lucky stars we caught one very important tweet (see below)!

And so, on a bench in the middle of the afternoon in Dupont Circle one sunny afternoon in January, we had the pleasure of conducting the first of our Interviews with Influencers series, featuring Prof. Sue Dynarski!

Q: What Inspired You To Work In Higher Education?

A: I grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts and was a first-generation college student at Harvard University. I developed an interest in inequality and started working with the secretary union. It was during this experience that my class consciousness formed. I went on to work as a union organizer for six years – which served as a source of economic mobility for me, and candidly was an exhausting gig. In the early 1990’s, I went on to pursue a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard. It was at this time the first literature on inequality in education was being released. People were heavily engaged in this work at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They were teaching a model of “here’s what’s going on, and what can we do to make it better?” 

Thanks to a scholarship, I went on to complete my Ph.D., in Economics at M.I.T. I knew I didn’t want to continue with the union stuff, and identified education as another fissure where it was clear there were gaps in the economy. Only 9% of the lowest income kids in the United States earn a bachelor’s degree, and I felt this was a place I could make an impact.

Q: What Is The Most Rewarding Aspect Of Your Job?

A: The HAIL Scholars Program, providing full tuition and fees for low-income, and high achieving students at University of Michigan. (Professor Dynarksi launched this scholarship in partnership with U of M). I’d love to scale this program in institutions across the State of Michigan, and elsewhere throughout the U.S.

It’s also incredibly rewarding to work as an academic, and have the ability to move seamlessly between research and policy – where I’m not required to have a position on any specific issue. I also thoroughly enjoy mentoring and training the next generation of researchers. Any research I do that helps influence policy makes my heart sing! 

Q: If You Had A Magic Wand, What’s One Change You’d Make in Higher Education?

A: (Unsurprisingly she had more than one!) I would make financial aid automatic. And, it should also be personalized – based on tax returns. This would help create political ownership of the programs. I’d also dismantle procedural barriers experienced by low-income schools. I would also work to institute required SAT and ACT testing for all students by administering the tests during the school day, free of charge for all students. (Check out the results of this pilot program!) 

Q: Best Professional Advice You’ve Ever Received?

A: Work with people you respect and who are kind. Make networks available to the next generation.


Q: Who Are Your Influencers? Why?

A: There are so many. Two individuals that helped shape the trajectory of my work are Josh Angrist and John Gruber, both Professors of Economics at M.I.T. (Gruber has also been described as the key architect for The Affordable Care Act). They both employed methods of teaching and research to help move policy forward in an engaged way.