Stella Flores is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. Dr. Flores is a leading expert on higher education policy and uses quantitative methods to examine the effects of state and federal policies on postsecondary access and completion for low-income and underrepresented populations. She is also the Director of Access and Equity at The Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy. Ithaka S+R graciously thanks Dr. Flores for sharing her thoughts about the role of state policy in improving access to well-resourced colleges and universities.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Recent studies have drawn attention to academic undermatching—when qualified students do not apply to or enroll in selective institutions that match their academic ability. How can state policymakers encourage selective and well-resourced institutions to increase the enrollment of low-income students and students from underrepresented racial groups?

Part of the undermatching issue is often that it’s incorrectly defined, or sometimes the analytics that are used to construct that definition might be lacking. But let’s assume that we have a correct identification of undermatching. We do see this notion of undermatching playing out with Latino students, for example. They may have adequate academic preparation, somehow get the right guidance on applying for financial aid, and they get a financial aid package so the financial burden of college is reduced. But it’s often the distance, the responsibility of family obligations, or the foreignness of attending an institution with that much power and prestige, whether public or private, that’s too much.

Policymakers need to think about families as the unit of analysis. We’ve done well identifying the key mechanisms impacting individual students—the application process, the SAT, the financial aid—but how is this really going to play out for a first-generation family? And I don’t think we have a clear sense of that. We don’t have a state rubric in terms of what it takes for the first-generation college student to make the big leap from what would have been maybe the local community college to a public flagship or to go out of state to Princeton or the University of Chicago or a similar institution. So there’s an information gap, and I think policy really needs to focus on the family more so than just the individual student. We don’t make decisions just as individuals at that point in our lives, but we create policy as if that’s the case.

Black students in particular remain drastically underrepresented at selective institutions. Do you see a role for state policy in improving access to high-quality postsecondary opportunities for Black students specifically?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve been doing research in Texas over the last ten years, and the situation for Black students in terms of access to high-quality courses is really dismal. What we’ve seen is that if we want to get more Black students to selective institutions or even increase the college completion rate, there really has to be a partnership between the K-12 and postsecondary education systems. If we’re talking about college completion, a big indicator is, for example, taking trigonometry. However, the gap of math-taking between Black and white students is so incredibly large that it should be a national tragedy. Although it’s a little bit smaller for Latinos, the gap is just unacceptable. For Black students, our research indicates that there’s a severe problem in access to quality high school education, and if you miss that boat, the ship to and through college is even further away. There definitely is a role for state policy, but it’s going to have to be a connected, interdependent set of investments.

What should state policymakers be thinking about in terms of supporting Latino and immigrant students?

There’s a major demographic evolution happening. The white birth rate is declining. Meanwhile, the Latino and Asian birth rates are booming. Right now, a majority of all students in our public schools and a majority of all births are non-white. So tomorrow’s college classroom is going to look radically different. And yet, our instructor force and our leadership force in colleges, largely remains predominantly white. So there’s going to be a huge demographic mismatch between who’s teaching in and leading colleges and then who’s in the classroom.

I’m concerned that the demographic mismatch of instructors, leaders, and students is going to lead to either poor teaching or bad mentorship if we don’t understand these students—understand their culture, their families, their incentives for going to school—and if we don’t mentor appropriately. I’m concerned about states that deliberately put in place policies—especially for immigrant students which are often a proxy for Latino students—that block access to either enrollment or financial aid. States like South Carolina have imposed clear access barriers. North Carolina has flip flopped on policy to prevent access for undocumented immigrant students based on leadership, which is a sign that leadership matters; not only in the legislature but also in higher education. I’m concerned about states that put barriers or blocks on all forms of Latino wellness education policy, such as bilingual education, affirmative action, and other access policies; yet, we have many states and their voters doing that. Ultimately, policies around Latino and immigrant students often don’t align with the needs of these students. Policymaking needs to be rooted in educational progress rather than fear.

You’ve mentioned that race-neutral admission policies don’t yield the same level of racial and ethnic diversity as affirmative action on college campuses. Given that affirmative action has been banned in some of the states with the most diverse student populations, do you see a path forward for affirmative action, and if not, how else can these states support racial equity in higher education access?

Affirmative action is only one arm of an equity mechanism. It’s an essential arm but not the only arm to diffusing inequality and creating more equity. We have a number of states that have blocked the use of race in college admissions. What we know from that is, not only do those states seem to end up with lower rates of underserved students in college, but where there are interdependent regional higher education economies, neighboring states are also experiencing some of the effects of lower minority enrollment. Because our higher education markets are often regional and aren’t necessarily defined by state boundaries, the negative ramifications extend beyond state boundaries as well.

With the passing of Justice Ginsburg, I’m really quite concerned about a path forward for any educational law that will create more equity if the court becomes more conservative in terms of ruling against any form of consideration to race, income, or gender. College admissions often have to rely on proxies, and we know proxies for race don’t work very well, if at all. This means colleges are going to have to expand where they recruit. Right now, many recruitment mechanisms are often modeled toward a sort of 1970s white and English-speaking population. To reach equity goals, recruitment mechanisms are going to have to become more culturally sensitive, more family oriented, and really involve the family or whoever the caretakers are in the entire process.

Voting is also important. Because so much of higher education depends on state policies, that means who we elect matters, especially in states with voting referenda. If we’re really interested in reducing inequality and providing more equity, we need to start from the bottom up in terms of elections and in terms of convincing all of our elected officials–from school boards to governors–why equity is going to make us a better, stronger, more economically viable state and nation ultimately.

How does college affordability play into undermatching or access to high-quality postsecondary opportunities more broadly, and what do you think the implications are for state funding and student aid policies?

Thanks to people like Sue Dynarski, Bridget Long, and Judy Scott-Clayton, we’ve made progress on simplifying the FAFSA so families can understand it, but there’s still work to do. We often set these definitions that are very familiar to a U.S. born, English-speaking population, and even then, first-generation families still struggle with them. Imagine families of mixed citizenship, mixed languages, and mixed generations that are trying to figure all this out. We haven’t done a good enough job of translating the affordability element and pathway to all families.

In terms of undermatching, I think about some of the stories where a student was recruited by a public flagship, met the SAT requirement, got admitted, got a financial aid package, and got a scholarship, but the family’s vision of affordability goes way beyond a scholarship. Maybe it includes that student’s ability to work and help the family. So how we think about affordability has to be re-imagined to incorporate how low-income families really see money and issues of value, time, participation, and obligations to family members.

Do you see any disconnects between the higher education policymaking process and the needs of today’s students?

When you have people who have never been poor making public policy for the poor, there’s going to be a disconnect. This is why we need more people at the table who understand the realities of poverty and the realities of foreignness. Foreign might mean no one in the family has gone to college, no one in the family has had a woman go to college, or maybe the parents weren’t born here but the students were.

We also need to consider the reality of wealth versus income. Racial wealth gaps are even more stark than academic gaps by race, and we need to understand that our financial investment does need to go to people who are truly in need. It concerns me that we often look at income rather than wealth when trying to help students. A scenario in which a family has a bad year but has had some wealth advantages may be a very different scenario than a family who has never had wealth. If generations of families have gone to college, the potential for wealth accumulation and economic advantage is huge.

Another thing that concerns me is the shift from need-based aid toward merit-based aid. It’s a travesty that we came up with financial aid as a key mechanism for equity, and it’s now going to mostly merit aid cases. If this is the new priority, we’re going back on our promises as a nation. Merit aid is not a bad policy as a concept, but alleviating poverty and investing in talented low-income students should be a national priority.

As a result of the pandemic and state higher education budget cuts, many colleges that already faced limited resources—such as community colleges—are likely to face further financial instability. With limited funding, how can states expand the supply of well-resourced institutions?

I think we really have to re-envision what we mean by “well-resourced” institutions. The traditional vision tends to be these big cathedral institutions in the Northeast that have these incredible landscapes and well-paid professors and lots of resources, and that’s how you get a high-quality education. But the reality is that higher education needs are evolving. Community colleges are the first stop for first-generation and immigrant students of all races. If we’re unable to provide these students with resources such as high-quality teaching or the courses necessary to retrain people, then there’s less incentive to keep these schools open and maintain this infrastructure. So the notion of a well-resourced institution needs to also consider connection to technology, connection to information and employers, and the quality of instruction. By improving these elements in the community college sector, we are expanding access to well-resourced institutions, and we are also creating scaffolding for further higher education opportunities such as transfer to four-year schools and graduate and professional programs.

What do you consider to be the fundamentals of expanding access to high-quality postsecondary opportunities? How should state policymakers be approaching this notion of access?

There’s been a lot of work done around what creates more access. I believe the three pillars of access—what I call the trinity pillars—are academic preparation, financial aid, and information. This third pillar, information on the pathways to and through college, is important. Some students can access this at home, so for students who can’t, we need to recreate and provide all of the knowledge around college-going that accumulates when multiple generations have participated in higher education.

In some cases, one of these three pillars may matter more than others. You might have, for example, a state that provides a higher quality of K-12 or at least high school preparation but maybe the state allocates fewer resources to providing scholarships. Or you might have a state with a better-resourced financial aid system, but not all students are receiving high-quality K-12 academic preparation.

Can you point to any states that have been exemplars in improving access to high-quality and well-resourced colleges and universities?

No state is doing everything perfectly, but some shine in particular areas. Latinos in Florida tend to have higher rates of college enrollment and completion than in other states. But it’s also a state in which the predominant Latino group are of Cuban origin, and they may have a very different introduction to the United States than Latinos of Mexican origin. California probably had at one point some of the lowest tuition in terms of public community colleges, but their enrollment rates are still really low as a proportion of the population that’s eligible to go to college. They’re also a state with a lot of bans—they had a ban on bilingual education, and they still have a ban on affirmative action.

In Texas, state policies are more supportive of bilingual education or immigrant students who could benefit from in-state tuition. I also think when you have more representation of underserved individuals in the schools—from the teachers, to the school board members, to the legislators, and up to university leadership—those underserved kids are going to have a better shot. It’s not just about the individual abilities that allow students to get through college. It’s the ecology of who’s providing the services, and there needs to be more representation of underserved individuals in that entire pathway.