UNM-Taos Executive Director O’Neill meets with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

By Bill Knief

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UNM-Taos is proud of its designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution. In order to be an HIS, an accredited, nonprofit college or university must have a student body containing a minimum 25% Hispanic students. Nationally, Hispanics make up 17% of the population, but at our community college, Hispanic students represent a solid 64% of the full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollment. That puts us in the top 26 percent of HIS’s in the nation.

On October 25 UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill was one of only 18 college and university directors from across the nation who were invited to attend a meeting in Chicago sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities—HACU—serving over 350 HSIs. Being a participant at this level speaks volumes about the importance of what is going on here in our rural, remote, underserved spot on the map.

This wasn’t the usual convention setup with a keynote speaker, meetings and breakout sessions for thousands of attendees, however. It was an opportunity for our director to meet with the Obama administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, face to face. The purpose was for Secretary Duncan to discuss the President’s higher education agenda and gather feedback from attendees on those proposals. Upon her return, I asked Dr. O’Neill for her impressions of this significant event.

It was a rare opportunity to actually participate in in the national conversation on where we want to go in terms of higher education. It was well worth the time and energy invested, in order to be there at the table,” O’Neill said. “Those of us who are passionate about education and who have regard for the integrity of the educational enterprise need to be at the heart of these conversations. There are so many variables, such as motivation, curiosity, creativity and different learning styles, that ‘no child left behind’ and ‘teach to the test’ have left out of the equation. But in rethinking education, we can’t just throw everything out. We’d still be missing the boat if we did that.

Secretary Duncan made it very clear that, in the time remaining in the Obama administration, he wants to try to move education forward as much as possible. One idea that the administration is putting forth is rating colleges and universities in order to better inform students of their options in terms of financial aid, degree programs and career pathways. He emphasized that this was not a ranking system of best and worst institutions such as the US News and World Report’s annual ranking of colleges and universities, but rather a system similar to bond ratings, where you create categories based on such variables as cost of tuition, time to complete, and the overall performance history of the institution.

We are 12th in the world in education, based on number of graduates and in terms of important programs such as science, technology, engineering, math and healthcare. If you look down the whole educational pipeline, you can see that there’s room for improvement at every point, and I think Secretary Duncan’s question was, what are the pluses and minuses of an approach to incentivize colleges and universities to not only revamp their programs to get students graduated as quickly as possible, but also, how do we communicate that to students, and how do we hold colleges and universities accountable for the results?

I asked Secretary Duncan specifically about Pell grants. Fifty-four percent of our students receive Pell grants, and they are no longer available in the summer. He acknowledged that diminishing Pell grants was a serious issue, and he was disappointed that they had to choose at the federal level between putting more money into individual Pell grants, and making them available year round. But he didn’t feel that they would be able to include summer programs any time soon.

The point is that everything was on the table, and we had a very stimulating and frank discussion about where we are in this country in terms of education. We talked about the methodology we use in determining the success of our students, and how we move the needle; how we go from being 12th to moving back up again. We talked about the difficulty of tracking students, both in school and after they graduate (as an example, one college chancellor mentioned that he was the head of a college today, but one year after graduation he was washing dishes).

The Secretary urged us to reach out in a bipartisan way on the local and state levels to support education. We discussed the limitations of IPEDS (Integrated, Postsecondary Education Data Systems) data acquisition that made no distinction between the unique mission of a two year, open enrollment college and a four year university.

It was thrilling, just to be a part of that level of thinking. It was not just a photo op. Secretary Duncan made it clear that he wanted us to be practical but at the same time think outside the box and give him real feedback about how we are to move education forward.”

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