High school students deliver pitches for improving higher education equity; now schools eye which ideas to activate

A student draws on a whiteboard containing the words GVSU and REP4
Hailey Bos from Reeths-Puffer High School in Muskegon County was a presenter.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

From early mentoring before entering college to addressing mental health and food insecurity, high school students from across the country on August 5 virtually presented to higher education and business leaders ways they believe will help all students thrive on campus.

They made their presentations during the national event for REP4, the alliance of six colleges and universities across the country that launched in May to address the pressing concerns in higher education faced by many underserved students.

REP4, which stands for Rapid Education Prototyping for Change, Learners, Community, Equity, puts the power of establishing equitable systems for public higher education in the hands of learners. The movement has attracted interest from 54 countries and every state. Nearly 1,400 voters cast more than 8,200 votes for the proposals seen during the national convening. 

The next step is for experts at colleges and universities to work with the best ideas from the 12 proposals presented to determine where they're tested and how they progress.

President Philomena V. Mantella smiles while looking at a computer screen. A screen with the REP4 logo is behind Mantella.
President Philomena V. Mantella during the REP4 national convening
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

"What we have become is a learning lab for the future, a place where thousands of ideas shaped by diverse students come to life through their lived experience," said Grand Valley State University President Philomena V. Mantella said during the event.

Grand Valley was the convener of REP4. The five other founding institutions are: Amarillo College, Boise State University, Fort Valley State University, San José State University and Shippensburg University.

During their presentations, students described, sometimes from personal experiences, the challenges with food insecurity, mental health, financial struggles and more that fueled their ideas for change.

Apps were a common thread through the ideas. One app suggestion was to help anonymously connect students with peers and counselors during financial struggles. Another idea from students at Shippensburg University was to use an app to help measure students' stamina and perseverance in what they called a GRIT score.

Alivia Snyder said the idea of the GRIT score is to give schools a different way to see the students who want to be there and who will work to succeed.

"Not all students are equal. We want them to be but they're not," Snyder said. "There are a lot of kids who are really good at standardized testing and a lot of kids who aren't. However, sometimes the kids who work really, really hard are those kids who don't do so well on tests. But they put the effort in, they're doing the work, they're showing the perseverance and they're trying to make themselves better."

Two students appear on a screen with a yellow background showing a chat and the logos of the REP4 schools.
Image credit - Elizabeth Lienau
Two students smile one one works on a computer and another sits to the side
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Two students look at a computer screen. One is talking and another looks on.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
Student presenters from across the country were brimming with ideas to help make higher education equitable.

Mentorship was also a common thread and is an important one for students, especially those from diverse backgrounds who arrive on campus and see few people who look like them, said Jaime Casap, former chief education evangelist at Google, an advisor to REP4 and one of the panelists at the August 5 event.

"Imposter syndrome is a huge issue when it comes to higher education," Casap said. "If we can connect students who all feel alone and then you add to that environmental factors and economic factors, having someone there to hold their hand, someone there they can turn to -- a mentor is absolutely critical to the higher education experience. I wish I had that when I was in school."

And as the REP4 movement continues, higher education leaders and other partners agree that keeping students at the core of the effort is essential.

"At the core is the student, and that's where everybody's attention should be," said Mona Morales, Microsoft U.S. higher education industry executive who is an advisor and served as an event panelist. "This is unique. This isn't everywhere. This is really truly something special."

Paul Jones, president of Fort Valley State University, said continually finding ways to incorporate student voices is key to the effort's success. "We have to be very courageous. This isn't the way we normally do business. But it is the way we should be doing this work," he said.


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