By Rachel Williams, NACAC Communications

Baltimore, MD (September 21, 2023) Even though education in the United States is rife with challenges, it is a privilege to serve students, families, and the next generation of the workforce during these times of change. That was the message from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Governor of Maryland Wes Moore, who joined Angel Pérez, NACAC CEO, in a main stage panel discussion to open NACAC Conference 2023 in Baltimore.

Around 7,000 counselors and admission professionals watched as Cardona, Moore, and Pérez shared their personal journeys to higher education along with their strategies to make education more accessible and why it is imperative to do so. The panelists praised an inclusive, rather than exclusive, approach to postsecondary education.

“To me, higher education is a pathway to opportunity,” said Cardona. “Folks with a college degree earn, on average, $1 million more than those with a high school degree only. I’ve talked to parents, like many of you have, whose children – by 6th grade – say they aren’t going to college because they can’t afford it. Think about how much more powerful this country could be if we tapped on the talent we have that’s getting overlooked. For far too long we’ve normalized that higher education separates the haves and have-nots. It’s time to stop protecting the status quo.”

Cardona reiterated the commitment of the Biden-Harris administration to fix the current student-loan system, and to highlight and praise colleges that promote inclusivity, not exclusivity, in the name of a greater good.

In Maryland, Moore has implemented measures to keep costs down for students seeking postsecondary education. He’s invested in the state’s community college and higher education systems to ensure they have what they need to remain competitive and to ensure additional costs aren’t put on the backs of students. Additionally, Maryland became the first state in the country to offer a service-year option for recent high school graduates, which allows them to work for the state serving the environment, veterans, older adults, or other areas of service while earning a living wage. After their year of service to the state, they receive a $6,000 stipend to put toward whatever they want, such as tuition or a down payment on a house.

“We need to help students understand their correct path. Maybe, at first, it’s doing something different. There is not a one-size-fits-all for every student,” said Moore.

Cardona and Moore both understand nontraditional paths to higher education. Cardona attended Wilcox Technical High School in Connecticut, where he was part of the automotive studies program, until a teacher suggested to him that he’d be a good teacher. Curious, he took a course at the local community college and learned that’s where he belonged.

“I haven’t stopped being in a school since,” said Cardona, who now holds a doctoral degree from the University of Connecticut, among many other credentials.

Moore, the first Black governor of Maryland and just the third African American elected governor in the country, completed military service before earning an associate degree from Valley Forge Military Academy and College. There, his advisor connected him with the director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University, where he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in international relations and economics. He also holds a master’s degree in international relations from Wolfson College at Oxford.

“I’m still convinced to this day that it worked out [being admitted to Johns Hopkins] because I had someone who saw me; someone on the inside who was willing to take a chance on me,” said Moore.

Seeing students for who they are and their potential – rather than as a legacy admission or a test score – is a vision that Cardona, Moore, and Pérez shared with the crowd. The potential of realizing that vision can help power through difficult times and high rates of burnout, they said.

“Embrace the time you’re serving. No one signed up to serve in a pandemic. No one signed up to serve at a time when the government is so divided,” said Cardona, who added that counselors and admission professionals today are tasked with confronting systems that label students as college material or not before they even walk into schools.

“We have 99 problems, but courage isn’t one,” said Cardona.