The Intersection

Supporting Innovation in Education Webinar Recap: Removing Barriers to Postsecondary Success

July 21, 2020

“Partners have pivoted quickly to ensure student needs are being met and figure out ways to help under-served students in the long run.”
– MC Belk Pilon, Board Chair, John M. Belk Endowment

Throughout our series of webinar conversations with education policymakers, a common refrain has been that the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many of the inequitable aspects of our education system that have persisted for years. That theme came up again in the most recent episode of our Postsecondary Pathways webinar series, where our guests – MC Belk Pilon from the John M. Belk Endowment and Amy Kerwin from Ascendium – talked about barriers that can prevent students from transitioning into higher education and completing their studies.

MC and Amy have networks of partners who work to support higher education students in a variety of ways, and they shared what they’ve been hearing from education leaders who have developed creative and innovative strategies to remove access barriers. They both spoke not only about how the field has worked on supporting student transitions into higher education for years but also how that work has shifted, and become even more important, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Access Barriers – Individual and Systemic

One of the most significant barriers that individual students face is the issue of college affordability – will they be able to cover the costs associated with being a higher education student, including tuition, fees, housing, transportation, and more? MC touched on this issue when she described the FAFSAFrenzyNC campaign – a recent initiative launched by myFutureNC and a number of partner organizations (including The Hunt Institute) to help students across the state complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so that they can determine how much federal and state funding they are eligible to receive. Thanks to the great work of this campaign, 63 percent of school districts in North Carolina boosted their FAFSA completion rates.

Barriers that prevent students from succeeding in higher education also exist at a structural level, and Amy talked about how Ascendium’s network of partners has made this work a priority. One area of focus has been the removal of structural barriers that allow students to transfer their credits from one institution of higher education (IHE) to another, especially for students who begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year IHE to complete a bachelor’s degree. Amy also highlighted efforts to help the population of “some college, no degree” adult learners, who have earned higher education coursework credit but have not attained a certificate or degree, overcome barriers and re-engage with higher education.

Equity in Higher Education

“Now is the time to switch the narrative to one that’s about helping students complete their degree in the face of a global pandemic.”
              – Amy Kerwin, Vice President of Education Philanthropy, Ascendium

The webinar audience asked a number of thoughtful questions throughout the conversation, many of which touched on issues of equity in higher education: what barriers do students of color face as they seek to enter the higher education world, and how can policymakers work to help these students succeed? MC and Amy agreed that IHEs must be intentional about fostering inclusive environments that provide space for students of color to receive positive, welcoming support – and that all administration and faculty members who have student-facing roles must embody these values.

One specific point of discussion centered on strategies to increase the representation of people of color in leadership positions at IHEs. Amy pointed to a key, but often overlooked, constituency that has influence over decisions around IHE leadership positions: the trustees of individual IHEs. Stakeholders should ensure that IHE trustees understand the value of having people of color in leadership positions and have processes in place to ensure that candidates of color for these positions receive appropriate consideration. MC also mentioned an effort underway in North Carolina to create a pipeline of candidates for administrative positions at community colleges with a particular focus on candidates of color.


The hour-long conversation also covered a number of other interesting topics, including the importance of disaggregated higher education student data, strategies to bridge the digital divide, and the potential opportunities to reimagine how our higher education system serves all students. The full discussion is available through the video recording below.

View the complete webinar below.

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