Panelists Discuss College Accessibility and First-Generation Experiences at HGSE Webinar


Education experts and advocates called for financial aid transparency in higher education and greater support for first-generation students at a Harvard Graduate School of Education webinar Wednesday.

The event marks another installment of the school’s Education Now webinar series, which follows the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the state of education in the United States.

Wednesday’s panel was moderated by Francesca B. Purcell, an HGSE senior lecturer and the faculty director of the school’s Higher Education Program.

Panelist Quentin Jenkins, a Pitzer College senior who is the first in his family to attend university, said his support system was a critical factor in facilitating a smooth transition into higher education.


“Very early on, I met the college president at the time, Dr. Melvin Oliver, and he was very welcoming,” Jenkins said.

“Seeing that someone so high up in the school was just open to having those conversations and caring about my specific experience at the college made me feel more welcome there,” he added.

Jenkins started Nobody Fails at Pitzer, a student group at Pitzer that successfully advocated for a “universal A” policy, a grading system that made all courses pass-fail and all passed classes worth a 4.0 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The policy lasted for one semester after the college switched to remote learning.

HGSE professor Susan M. Dynarski ’86, another panelist, also referenced her own experience as a first-generation college student. She said first-generation students have a particularly steep learning curve for norms such as attending professors’ office hours, and she called on colleges to assist students through this adjustment.

“In the moment, we can try to put on the glasses and see the perspective of a student who’s experiencing all this for the first time, who doesn’t have a college-educated parent to guide them through the process, and think about how to help them to the resources they need,” Dynarski said.

According to Dynarski, many people who would normally receive full financial aid to college do not apply due to a lack of information. To combat this inequity, Dynarski said she advocates for targeted free college, a program where colleges identify and communicate with students that are eligible for full financial aid for four years at the beginning of the application process.

“We’ve got a financial aid system in which you don’t really find out what your cost of college is going to be until you apply to a college, have been admitted to that college, and got an aid offer from that college,” Dynarski said.

Another significant barrier to making college more accessible is universities’ resistance to change, according to panelist Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America. Watson Spiva’s work focuses on closing the differences in college completion rates across racial and socioeconomic groups.

“Unfortunately, we’re held back by antiquated policies or practices,” Watson Spiva said. “When you onboard a new person, you tell them, ‘This is the way we do it,’ and unfortunately we pass on bad behavior.”

In addition, Jenkins said institutions may be reluctant to consider proposed reforms that aren’t feasible in “the snap of a finger.”

“But, I think by having those conversations and letting students know, ‘We hear you, we value what you’re saying, and we can come to a compromise amongst each other,’ that will create a relationship between them to continue working toward the betterment of the institution,” Jenkins said.

—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @azusalippit.