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“Why the Pell Institute?” Plenary Session Cites Enduring Impact.


October 25, 2021

By Kate Robins

In September, during a plenary session at the 40th-Annivesary annual conference, experts discussed key research questions and values that guide the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. The panel elaborated on the importance of partnerships and included:

  • Margaret Cahalan (Director, Pell Institute),
  • Laura Perna (Vice Provost for Faculty, University of Pennsylvania),
  • Tafaya Ransom (Senior Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), and
  • Kyle Ethelbah (2019-2020 Chair of the COE Board of Directors and Director of College Programs, University of Nevada-Las Vegas).

The session was moderated by Waldo Johnson (Associate Professor and Deputy Dean of Curriculum, University of Chicago) and Terry Vaughan III (Associate Director, Pell Institute).

In the 1990s, COE initiated what is now known as the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. The Institute conducts and disseminates research and policy analysis to inform policymakers, educators, and the public to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.

[The Pell Institute invites you to complete its TRIO COVID-19 surveys and is also launching a TRIO Compensation Survey to understand how TRIO staff are compensated for their time and efforts. Give your responses today!]

The plenary session reflected the Pell Institute’s history and strategies to address the new and continuing issues of equity in the United States higher education system.

The Institute shares the mission of the Council to advance and defend the ideal of equal opportunity in postsecondary education. As such, the focus of Pell Institute is to ensure that the least advantaged segments of the U.S. population have a realistic chance to enter and graduate from a postsecondary institution.

A major takeaway from the session in September was the historic and vital role Pell Institute partners have played to aid the Pell’s mission in addressing major higher education equity questions. Its partner approach with practitioners and students assists its research effort to yield powerful insights for policymakers, TRIO programs and other leaders.

The Pell Institute works to identify and support best practices within TRIO, and to give a voice to low-income, first-generation students, and the professionals working with them — many of whom have similar lived experiences.

Dr. Cahalan noted, “Our natural partners are all of the 3,000 TRIO programs and the students they serve throughout the nation.”

The Pell Institute strives to contribute to higher education policy discussion both theoretically and practically. For example, it identified problems in the U.S. Department of Education studies on the efficacy of TRIO programs between 1997 and 2007. The Pell Institute’s efforts to spotlight the problems with the national studies led to language in the 2008 Higher Education Act Reauthorization requiring that evaluations focus on practice and adhere to Institutional Research Board standards.

Kyle Ethelbah also emphasized the value of partnering with scholarship practitioners. “They guide the questions that we're seeing in higher education research, academics, and development of curriculum, as well as all of the pieces that are necessary to make these programs successful,” he said.

The Pell Institute publishes the annual Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: Historical Trend Report. The Equity Indicators report is a tool to statistically track equity progress and serves as a foundation for shared dialogues with educators, policymakers, and researchers. Each year, findings from the report are cited internationally by media, scholars, policy makers, college-access practitioners, and business leaders.

Other key points from the plenary:

  • Pay attention to the effects of the pandemic: it has exacerbated differences in issues that matter for high-quality, higher education.
  • In research, ask and address questions that interrogate prevailing practices. What we’re doing may appear to be fair but may work to disadvantage other students.
  • Consider questions that recognize and value the diversity of today’s college students. Each new Equity Indicators report shows who today’s students really are.

Senior Program Officer, Tafaya Ransom, concluded the session by encouraging the Pell Institute to remain adaptable and agile amid the changing landscape of higher education.