AASCU President Mildred Garcia

Administration August 2023 PREMIUM
Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and recently appointed as the first Latina chancellor of the California State University system (CSU), discusses key issues affecting state colleges: budgetary battles, affirmative action restrictions, and AI. Garcia's work at AASCU has focused on financial restoration, securing grants, and advancing public higher education.

Key Issues for State Colleges in Transformation

Mildred Garcia, current president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and recently appointed Chancellor of the California State University system (CSU), is a native Brooklynite of Puerto Rican heritage. She was raised in the then working-class Dumbo area, in a tenement that housed her Hispanic family, a Jewish-American and Italian family. “I learned about diversity before it became a thing,” she said.

But when she was 12 and her dad died, her family moved to a public housing project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She then attended New York City Community College, earned a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College, a master’s degree from New York University, and a doctorate from Teachers College.

Now, as president of AASCU, she heads an organization that represents 350 state colleges across the nation. If you ask her what the dominant concerns are that affect these state colleges, she rattles off a host of complex, thorny and multi-layered issues. Because state colleges are in the midst of a transformative time, they must grapple with budgetary battles, affirmative action restrictions, and even challenges related to artificial intelligence (AI).

But though Garcia has been fighting and lobbying for state universities since being named president of AASCU in January of 2018, her tenure there is ending in October. In July 2023 she was named the first Latina chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system (CSU), which awards 130,000 degrees annually, and is based in Long Beach, California. She starts on October 1.

Concerning the issues on the plate of most state colleges, Garcia cited the recent Supreme Court decision on eliminating race-conscious affirmative action. That decision could “hinder higher education’s ability to continue to serve as society’s great equalizer,” she said. For example, she noted that Missouri’s Attorney General recently ordered the state to stop issuing race-and-ethnic-based scholarships.

But Garcia also pointed out that state universities aren’t as exclusive as Ivy League and other highly competitive universities. State colleges continue attracting diverse students, and she noted that the Supreme Court verdict included a loophole allowing students to write about their “backgrounds, trials and tribulations” in their admissions essays.

She envisions that based on that decision, many extremely bright African American and Hispanic students might opt for attending Historically Black Colleges (HBCs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). “You don’t want to go to some college where you feel you won’t belong,” she added.

For example, when she was president of Cal State Fullerton from 2012 to 2018, a community college in Fullerton, California, its student population was approximately 40% Latino and 22% Vietnamese, drawn from the local communities. “So why not go to a great institution and be around people who believe in diversity?” she asks.

Then she brings up Artificial Intelligence, wondering what effect it will have on teaching, testing, and state universities. “We have to help faculty use AI, understand how it can affect learning, and not be afraid of it,” she noted.

And then, she mentions the changing demographics in the U.S. and whether state colleges can continue to “ensure that we are educating those that need education the most.”

The pandemic, she cited, also disrupted state colleges, which were forced to turn to online learning. And the workforce is changing because of increased numbers of minorities entering the job market.

She also pointed out that budgets, which depend on state legislatures, have been an issue bedeviling state universities because of budgetary declines and reduced higher education budgets.

For example, two New York state colleges, Buffalo State and State University of New York at Fredonia, were both facing $16 million deficits in their budgets during the academic year. Garcia’s response was that state colleges must “use the power of their collective voices. In some places, if the state college disappeared, so would the town.” She suggested they need to get the alumni and citizens together to rally to fight for increased budgets.

State Universities’ Unique Role

State universities, Garcia noted, play an invaluable role in higher education. “They are institutions that are involved and anchored in the community. They are the social, cultural, and educational hubs of the community, and they must change accordingly,” she said.

AASCU’s role in these dramatically changing times is to organize state colleges. For example, she said, AASCU is advocating for doubling the amount of Pell Grants and increasing state budgets to provide more resources to state colleges that “serve low-income, first-generation, diverse student bodies,” so that these colleges can “provide the skills and support the services they need.” It strives for “academic freedom and diversity, equity and inclusion,” she added.

What do its 350-member constituents, from 47 states, want from AASCU? Garcia said they desire several outcomes, including: 1) Accelerated institutional transformation that optimizes their respective missions and student success goals, 2) Representing and defending the member’s institutional interests before Congress, the Executive branch, and courts on policy issues, 3) Leadership programs that prepare the next generation of diverse higher education leaders.

Enrollment at state universities has been another concern because it declined during the pandemic but is finally leveling off and stabilizing. Yet, Garcia added, “we know that communities of color and low-income households were hit hardest by the pandemic.” Studies from fall 2022 show that Black enrollment declined at public four-year institutions by 4%, Hispanics fell by 0.5%, Whites dipped by nearly 4%, and only Asian enrollment increased by 2%.

The Appeal of State Universities for Latino Students: Cost-Effectiveness, Career-Readiness, Transfer Agreements

Students opt to attend a state college for a variety of reasons, including cost, location, and programs. In terms of cost, in the academic year 2020-21 the average price   of an AASCU member was $13,140, while private non-profit four-year colleges cost $21,520 - around $8,000 a year more than state colleges.

Attending a state university rather than a four-year private college lessens a student’s debt, Garcia pointed out. Of Pell Grant graduates at AASCU colleges, 93% carry $20,000 or less in student loan debt, compared to 68% of Pell Grant graduates that have $20,000 or less in student debt at four-year private colleges.

Latinos, many of whom hail from lower-income families, gravitate toward state colleges because “they are a much more affordable option for all students, including Latino students,” Garcia said. She added that the degrees Latino students earn at AASCU colleges “can be directly applied to their local workforce.” Since many Latino students start their college experience at community colleges, transfer agreements with AASCU colleges are imperative to promote the transition into four-year colleges.

Asked for specific examples of AASCU colleges that offer programs to attract Latino and minority students, Garcia described a host of innovative programs such as  Arkansas State University System’s A-State Online Program, which focuses on three strategies, including shorter terms, fewer classes and helping minority students manage their academic course loads. Other examples are Washington State University Tri-Cities, which rewards student engagement in co-curricular activities as a way to boost retention and graduation rates, and Texas A&M University-San Antonio, which is developing a career-ready program at their Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement.

State Universities – Essential Institutions in Need of Greater Recognition

State universities are critical to the American economy, Garcia emphasized. “They provide the teachers, health service workers, social service workers, and people involved in public service. They are the workforce that is vital and critical to this country,” she said.

Garcia feels strongly that state colleges don’t always receive their just recognition. Finally, she noted, “I’m tired of reading about higher education that doesn’t recognize the great work that happens in these underfunded campuses in our nation.”

Thus, as a staunch advocate of state colleges, the accomplishments she is most proud of over her five years as president of AASCU are restoring the financial health of the organization; helping it receive $30 million in foundation grants and awards; and developing strategic partnerships that advanced public higher education. 

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