Two events unite in the nation’s capital behind a common purpose—one with ever-rising stakes

They say timing is everything. NASPA was unaware when planning the co-located events many months prior that the backdrop for the conversations would have become so appropriate. A new administration has taken power in the city where participants came together, and with it has come threats to many of the resources that enable our students to succeed—resources that our field considers engrained in the values of higher education. From across the country practitioners from all walks of higher ed traveled to the city where political battles rage over policies whose outcomes are the decision point between access or not for many would-be college graduates from underrepresented and historically disenfranchised backgrounds. For months many registered to attend these events had been glued to their screens watching fundamental tools for empowering students face the chopping block and on a balmy morning last week, with the Capital Building and the White House just down the hill, they gathered together to do some battling of their own.

Held June 15-17 at the historic Marriott Wardman Park, the 2017 Closing the Achievement Gap: Student Success in Higher Education Conference and the 2017 Symposium of Collegiate Financial Well-Being created a space for a dynamic cross section of higher ed professionals to wrestle with the tough questions that cloud the future, and lift up the paths to access we are determined to continue to pave. Co-locating these events, and thereby examining the topics of student success and collegiate financial wellness intentionally at their intersection, struck a timely chord with the field so much that over 500 professionals from every sector of higher education chose to attend. In registering for the topic most aligned to their functional area, participants were able to benefit from attending any sessions of their choosing from either schedule. The conversations that were facilitated by the extraordinary lineup of presenters universally echoed the certainty that the only way forward is side by side.

Catherine Montalto, associate professor in the department of human sciences at The Ohio State University, remarked “The theme of collaboration really stood out to me. As a researcher and faculty member, I was aware of collaboration within the financial wellness space, but I have now been able to see the vital importance of that collaboration within a much broader framework under this umbrella of the roles we all play. [Everyone has] been so willing to share experience, and share perspectives and ideas, and to have opportunity for that exchange within the sessions was very valuable. I gained so much insight into the multiple dimensions that contribute to student success and it is clear the furtherance of this work is in collaboration across our individual areas and functions.”

Wandering between rooms while in session, the focused passion of the practitioners was palpable; each of whom had carved out time and dedicated resources to be there, dissecting and tackling these challenges alongside colleagues from every institution type and perspective within the field. As Dr. Amelia Parnell, NASPA’s vice president for research and policy, put it, “We are sending the message that the higher education community is not forgetting about our students’ unique challenges, with finances being at the top of that list. [These events] speak to our community’s dedication to providing all students, in particular those with access obstacles relating to their background, the holistic support they deserve.”

Dr. Parnell facilitated a featured panel entitled “A Shared Vision for Student Success,” intentionally bringing together three higher education professionals who do not work in a student affairs division—a chief information officer, a lead researcher for a non-profit research organization, and a strategy director for a philanthropic organization—with foresight of the collaborative themes the event would uncover. “For me, a shared vision for student success means all hands on deck, and I wanted to use this panel as an opportunity to give attendees a big picture perspective on the potential power of collaboration on a more macro level,” explained Dr. Parnell. The conversation circled around the need for more integrated data functions, especially for student affairs, IT, and IR departments, in order to better serve our students with actionable information. When asked a lighter question about what would be in a toolkit you would give a freshman in order to help them achieve their degree, panelist Dr. Bonita Brown, director of higher education practice at the Education Trust, brought the crowded ballroom back from the entrenched theoretical discussion to the heart of our work by answering: “A daily reminder that I can do this and I belong here.”

In tackling any big-picture issues within the space of a professional development experience, it can be hard not to ask But who is really going to do this work? At #CTAG17/#SCFWB17, an answer came in the form of the unveiling of NASPA’s new Center for First-generation Student Success. “Central to NASPA’s mission is supporting low-income students, first-generation students, and students from underrepresented backgrounds, and the launch of the Center demonstrates our commitment, with the support of the Suder Foundation, to provide timely research and scholarship, thought leadership, as well as professional development, to anyone who has an interest in supporting first-generation students,” shared Dr. Parnell. Unveiling the new Center at these student success infused events felt like good timing; the timing of the ignition of the Center’s work is critical for first-generation students navigating the policy changes threatening their paths to access, and our field’s work to support them.

If any one idea rose to the surface following two days of informative presentations and poignant dialogue, it is that this is our moment to use the strength of the intersections of our work to lift up the fight for increased student access and success. The road will be hard, but in community with each other we will find the path through to ensuring that degree completion continues to grow and avoids the many cliff falls lining the way. A commitment to continuous collaborative engagement was packed into suitcases along with trinkets from D.C. as participants prepared to head back to their own campuses. Tough questions were battled during their time together, and each participant left with some new answers, many new questions, various iterations of action plans to move the work forward, and a new network of colleagues to call upon to support them through any roadblocks they encounter along the way.

Thank you to the incredible group of professionals who joined us for the 2017 Closing the Achievement Gap: Student Success in Higher Education Conference and the 2017 Symposium of Collegiate Financial Well-Being. We appreciate all that you contributed to enrich the events. We hope all SA pros committed to facilitating student success will consider joining us when we gather next year. 

Be sure to follow @NASPATweets for updates as we announce dates and location, open the call for programs, and announce featured guest speakers for #CTAG18 and #SCFWB18. Your perspectives will be integral to next year’s conversations, and with the pace of change we are experiencing now, we will have an entirely new landscape to navigate together in 2018. For more information about the Center for First-generation Student Success, follow @FirstgenCenter. For weekly updates on the ever-evolving policy landscape as if effects higher education check out the Research and Policy Institute’s blog feed.