Forbes: How leaders can help address barriers to higher education

Forbes: How leaders can help address barriers to higher education


Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university in Arlington, best known for its innovative curriculum

Growing up in Puerto Rico as a Cuban immigrant, the question was never if I was going to college, but what I would study. I moved to Miami to live with my grandmother and attend the University of Miami, where I majored in electrical engineering. I put myself through college, applied for scholarships and grants and worked, all while still managing to graduate at the top of my class. Upon my graduation, I had great job offers, primarily out of Miami, that all had one thing in common: the companies offered tuition reimbursement that would allow me to pursue my master’s degree.

Unfortunately, I believe too few companies offer tuition reimbursement to employees today. As a result, many new hires straight from college must put off saving for retirement to pay down their student loans. Without a doubt, I believe the added financial burden of student loan debt can negatively impact the productivity of these young professionals.

In 2018, the Society for Human Resource Management said only four percent of U.S. companies offered tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit. It’s worth noting, however, that recent legislation offers employer incentives for helping repay employees’ student loan debt, and throughout the pandemic, tuition assistance has become a more popular offering among companies, according to Forbes. Employers can provide up to $5,250 of tuition reimbursements, and an employee can benefit from the amount written off as tax-free income.

Beyond the lack of tuition reimbursement, as a university president, I’ve also seen some people question the intrinsic value of a college education. The rhetoric seems to be shifting from “go to college” to “college is not for everybody.” I have observed the evolution of this sentiment and often wonder, “if college isn’t for everybody, who then is college not for?”

The Barriers to Earning a College Degree

When I hear parents and prospective students question if they should go to college, my answer is that education benefits our national competitiveness, our global standing and our resiliency to potential unforeseen challenges. I believe education is and has always been a great equalizer, the path to the “American Dream” and the underpinnings of our democracy. As the president of one of the most globally diverse institutions in the nation, I can attest to this.

The idea that all Americans can pursue a college degree is what I believe makes our country great. I’ve seen many students who come to the U.S. for the promise of a better life through education. Many of my students have shared how an American education was not only their dream but also that of their families. In addition, more than one-third of my university’s students are “first-generation,” or the first in their families to obtain a college degree.

But universities haven’t always been a role model of access for all. Not long ago, Black and minority students and women didn’t have equal access to higher education. And even today, “educational experiences for minority students have continued to be substantially separate and unequal,” Brookings reported. Historically Black colleges and universities (known as HBCUs), women’s colleges and Catholic universities were later established to help meet the needs of these students.

Less evident barriers with regards to accessing higher education still exist as well. For example, preferential admissions based on legacy, requiring interviews or recommendations (particularly from Congressional leaders) and standardized testing all present biases to multicultural students.

For students negatively impacted by these barriers, there’s the added worry of paying for their college education. Completing the financial assistance applications can be very difficult for young adults with little experience in tackling these types of complicated forms. A recent survey by EAB revealed that almost 40 percent of first-generation college students filed the FAFSA themselves vs. 11 percent of higher-income students.

Beyond financial issues, another barrier is a lack of familial or community support. Attending college with no help can be a daunting experience.

How Leaders Can Help Students Overcome These Obstacles

Fortunately, a dedicated mentor can fill these gaps nicely. A mentor can nurture a student’s talents and impart wisdom when guidance is needed the most. From knowledge transfer to helping acclimate a student to change, a mentor can create an atmosphere conducive to optimal progress and success. All students, from community colleges to elite universities, invariably feel the well-documented “imposter syndrome.” A mentor can help build the student’s confidence and show them, “yes, you do belong here!”

When business leaders mentor college students, in particular by offering internships, they’re investing in their bottom line. After all, college students can bring a fresh perspective to your business and a skillset based on the latest industry advancements and innovations learned on campus.

I’m thankful every day for my parents’ will to leave Cuba with me when I was eight months old. I’m also grateful that at that time, Cuban immigrants were awarded American citizenship upon arriving in the U.S., which allowed me to receive federal grants, scholarships and work while going to college. In turn, I became an engineer, a professor and now a university president, all while providing financially for my family.

Amidst the noise about the worthiness of a college degree, I feel compelled to raise my voice in a call to action for business leaders to help preserve, protect and value access to higher education for all.

Read the original article on the Forbes website.