New Conversation: What is Higher Education’s Moral Obligation to its Students?


What is Higher Education’s Moral Obligation to its Students?

A Conversation with Jase Kugiya, The University of Texas at Austin

On March 6, 2023, JPHE Senior Editor Z.W. Taylor spoke with Jase Kugiya, a native of Hawaii and a doctoral student in the program for Higher Education Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He currently serves as a graduate research associate at Project M.A.L.E.S. working at the Research Institute while also helping with the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

As an emerging scholar in the field of higher education, Jase discussed Minority-Serving Institutions, the role that institutions of higher education play in student development, and what moral obligation institutions have to their students.

Zach Taylor:

So, from the perspective of a young scholar working in higher education and engaged with many students of Color within Minority-Serving Institutions, what is a critical and pressing topic that matters to these students?

Jase Kugiya:

I think that the thing that I thought about was return on investment for students. And I think, specifically, ensuring that institutions reassess how they've supported students in the past, the response to the pandemic, and the kind of the sociopolitical environment that we're navigating to reassess how they support students and to better to align with practices and policies to support them with resources, with the end goal being to graduate. I don't know what your thoughts are, but that's what I was thinking about because right now we're in the middle of doing site visits in South Texas. And you know, even at The University of Texas at Austin (UT), many of these institutions tout themselves as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) or Asian American, Native Alaskan, and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) or this or that, but there's not much action behind those terms or these titles that they give themselves.

Zach Taylor:

I just heard you say a couple of different things. One is that return on investment is important. So, is a student going to get out what they put in, either time wise or financially? Is higher ed worth it? Because quite frankly, you can go be an assistant manager at a gas station and make more than some entry level bachelor's degree holders. And guess what? The gas station promotes from within, so you can make a career of it. It's not like it's a part time job or a side hustle. The gas station can be some folks’ career.

Jase Kugiya:

Exactly. And when I was thinking about this issue and why is that important, I think to your point, with the pandemic and even before then, there's a rising conversation about, “Is education worth it?” And to your point, whether you're going to work your way up at the gas station or you're going to get some type of credential or specialized training, I believe some of the tech companies, they offer three-to-four-month trainings and then you possess the capabilities of coding. And they have good salaries. I think it's really begs the question, is pursuing an education, meaning taking out loans potentially right for most students, is that even worth it?

Zach Taylor:

Well, it's an interesting conversation, but you also kind of segued into identities of Minority-Serving Institutions. I was in this this area of literature earlier today and yesterday, just the whole Gina Garcia school of servingness and what servingness actually means. Is there intentionality behind things or is it just the federal designation? Or is it Hispanic-Serving because you reach in a certain number of students? Or are you intentionally Hispanic-Serving through your actions that affect students?

For instance, what does it mean if an AANAPISI was truly serving and it is also embraced the idea of fulfilling the promise of the return on investment? What is an AANAPISI doing to convince AAPI students that by attending an AANAPISI, you do get your return on investment? And what is that? Is it the message that you’ll get a financial reimbursement through earned salary with a credential, but you're also serving your community? I mean, where is the intersection between a Minority-Serving Institution and their servingness toward students’ return on investment?

Jase Kugiya:

No, I definitely know what you mean. Just briefly before our call, I circled the term moral obligation. I feel like in general, education has been called the “great equalizer” and I put that in quotations. I know I went to a small private school for my undergraduate studies. And, you know, I've bounced around to larger public institutions. But especially these smaller institutions, these regional private institutions that enroll a lot of students, I don't want to pinpoint just these small private schools. I think, in general, all institutions have a moral obligation to really provide that support and return on investment, meaning graduation.

At the very least, the goal for all their students, is graduation. There are adverse effects for students if they don't graduate, especially for students who come from marginalized communities who are of low socioeconomic status. There’s a certain level of risk that comes with pursuing an education. I think most people take out loans, right? They go into debt to pursue that degree and if they were to step away from their education, stop out for whatever reason, their institution doesn't provide enough targeted support to their community. They don't feel supported, they feel marginalized and minoritized at their institution. They feel unwelcomed. They might step away from their education. And what good does that do? And they've already taken out the loans for that semester or past semesters.

I really think to your point, I'll kind of touch back on the on the Minority-Serving Institution piece. But really there's a moral obligation for institutions, higher education institutions, to really provide that support and help these students graduate. And specifically for Minority-Serving Institutions, and yeah, you know you quote Gina Garcia's work on servingness, and I think that's still a hot topic conversation, especially in the literature. Even doing site visits at some of these institutions, we're an HSI, and yeah, they're an HSI because of the city population or the population of the region that they're at. But if you look at some of their practices, it's still generally kind of race neutral student support services.

And so I think in these cases to my earlier point, with the pandemic, I think we can all agree that the pandemic has impacted virtually everyone in higher education. All stakeholders in some shape or form have been impacted by the pandemic. We really have to understand that virtually everyone was affected and the ways that people are able to bounce back is affected by various other factors. Other identities like socioeconomic status, whether you come from a single-parented household, or if you have to take on the primary caretaker for family members, or you're a young parent. There are all these other intersecting identities that can impact students' abilities to overcome some of the challenges that were brought forth by the pandemic.

To the point with the MSI's or just in general for institutions, I think there's a real opportunity. Or it's maybe not opportunity. I think it's imperative that institutions reassess the way they understand their students. And the way that they can best support these students because things change. And thinking about, as I mentioned, statuses or intersecting identities we think about. You know specifically in Texas and Hispanic Serving Institutions, talking about some of the research that I do, that I'm involved in in South Texas and how immigration status can impact things. Some students don't have access to the FAFSA. They don't get supported through, you know, the Pell Grant or federal work study. They may be waiting to hear back about their DACA application. They can't technically be legally employed, and so understanding how they were impacted in the pandemic is critical. All that to say that institutions must reassess how they can use their resources to support these students. Not just all students, but providing specific support to students who may not have the capabilities or the capital, the resources to sustain themselves, and possibly their families, during the pandemic.

As we navigate a “post-pandemic” world. I think there's an opportunity for institutions and imperative for institutions to really understand what their goals are and what their student population is, the population that they’re serving. And what does that mean to serve these students? I can tell you that a lot of the students, it's going to be a financial piece for sure. At the very least, that is a starting point.

Zach Taylor:

For sure. Students are asking, “What's it going to cost me? Can I afford it?” And I have a couple of questions about the affordability piece and the access piece because I think affordability is access in so many ways. The mental gymnastics you do, and then you have sticker shock. I mean, we do this with consumer goods, too. It's like, I really want a new TV and the one that you want is $900.00 and you have a budget of $400.00. You're like, OK, I'm going to community college. I'm going to get a smaller TV. Or I’m going to take out debt to afford what I want and deal with the repercussions later. Everyone does those mental gymnastics, but my question is, with declining state appropriations, higher ed has had to raise tuition. It's across the board. The Feds aren't funding it, and the states don't fund it. My first question is what do institutions do but raise tuition and make it more expensive? Where does that money come from? Or does higher education need new lobbyists? I mean, do we do we need better lobbying for state funding? I mean, where does the money come from?

Jase Kugiya:

We've already talked about HSIs specifically in Texas or even AANAPISIs. To my point about supporting these students and reassessing how we're supporting these students, I don't necessarily see it as costing the institution anything more than all they're paying already because these institutions are eligible based on their enrollment to receive additional funding through the MSI grant. So I think I forgot to mention that earlier, and you know you asked about finances and where is that money going to come from? I think from a programmatic level, if we want to support our Hispanic or Latinx students, your institution claims you're an HSI, but have you applied for the grant? In what ways can the institution apply for these grants and leverage that additional funding to provide targeted support to these students? But going back to your question about whether we need new lobbyists. I'm not too sure what the answer to that is. I would say, maybe, yeah, we would need new lobbyists.

Zach Taylor:

With declining state appropriations, there's a direct negative correlation. I mean, as the cuts increase as the funding goes down, the tuition goes up. I mean especially in Texas when they had tuition deregulation. The state said, you know, we're not going to fund you, but you can fundraise yourself. And that's the rise of big philanthropy, too.

So what is the role of MSI fundraising? What is the role of Minority Serving Institution fundraising? And what's problematic is that within this country, a very White supremacist, capitalist economy, there's a crazy racial wealth gap. Then are graduates of Color supposed to support institutions through philanthropy? Is this where the money coming from? And is this where MSIs embrace that moral obligation to support graduation or post-graduate readiness? Is it getting a job? Is it making money? Is it graduating debt free or close to debt free? I mean, is it just graduation or is it workforce preparation? Where does it stop?

Jase Kugiya:

I think that's the challenge, right? When I when I initially said graduation, I appreciate you pushing back on that. And I say moral obligation, I think it's important for institutions to recognize the pivotal role that they play in preparing students not only to graduate, but to take that next step right. So not just funneling students and you know saying, “Congratulations, you got your degree. Come again!” I think it's important for them to understand that it goes beyond just graduation, and that's something that even my small institution, Saint Martin’s, did a good job of helping with that next career step, whether that's grad school or entering the workforce.

Graduation is the bare minimum. Career preparation beyond just graduation, helping students be prepared with resumes, interviewing skills, and even building their network; I think those are integral pieces to helping students, making sure they see that return on investment, if you will.

Education can be the great equalizer and part of that is providing these students who may not have had these types of trainings access to resources and capital. The type of guidance and knowledge, if you will, to support them in taking that next career step. Not just, you know, as I mentioned earlier, getting your degree. Not to say that students don't come with their own capital, right? Yosso’s Community cultural Wealth model—I don't want to discredit that. But I think in addition to graduation, I think institutions are morally obligated to help set up their students for success post-graduation. And now they can mainly do that by facilitating professional opportunities like internships, facilitating these relationships that can be really fruitful for students. But part of that is making that connection for those students who may not have that capital.

Zach Taylor:

I totally agree, and my follow up question to that is if we know what's important. Higher education is an opportunity to expand your horizons. Really dive into a topic you're passionate about, develop as a human being, build relationships, all of those things. Plus, there is this aspect of preparing for a career so you can earn money to survive and make a living. How do institutions actually communicate that though? Because as a communication person, I'm just curious about when students are exploring institutions, how do schools communicate return on investment?

I mean, advertising works, that's why businesses and colleges do it. That's why you see UT Austin billboards. Go up to Dallas and you see advertisements for McCombs, hours away from Austin. I mean, you see advertisements for institutions. UT Austin has a commercial. Schools advertise. But how are we communicating return on investment? How do we say, “If you spend your time and money here, it's worth it.” How are schools doing that?

Jase Kugiya:

It's a great question. You know, obviously I can only speak from my own personal experience and observations. And I think I do I agree with what you were saying. I think in many instances when you're looking at admissions pages or even being on campus, you're not really seeing that type of marketing, if you will, and I think it's a missed opportunity for institutions. Also, I think it underscores the importance of institutional research. You know, and even tracking past graduates and taking note of certain trends, you know whether across gender and/or race and whatnot. I think the more data that you can collect the better. And I think that's once one way that institutions can marketing those types of things to students.

I would add that I've heard from many student affairs professionals saying we have these services and students don't come. And so I think it comes down to how are we communicating with students. You know, as trivial as it may be, I think social media is just one way to help communicate certain messages to students, and not just current students but prospective students as well. Whether that's through TikToK or Twitter or Instagram posts. I think you know, having maybe a pamphlet or having a table at admissions events, that’s not enough. The way we consume information is significantly different than it was, even just ten years ago.

For institutions, whether you're talking about general student services support or even just the return on investment, institutions need to communicate to students about how this education going to benefit you in the future in terms of graduation rates, job placement rates, average graduate salary. I think all of that can be communicated through social media. In terms of informing students about the various student services available to them, I think it's important not to just advertise it during the first week of the new school year but finding opportunities to integrate that into their first-year seminar class, if they have that, or for transfer students making it a requirement somehow within their classes, maybe they get extra credit or something like that to entice students to engage with these services. Socializing them in certain spaces or connecting them with certain people can really help especially, again, going back to marginalized communities.

College is scary, right? It was never built for students of Color historically, right? And so these campuses can be really intimidating. And so again, I think it's important for institutions to be able to communicate with their students.

Zach Taylor:

When you were talking about in the history of higher, at least in the United States, that institutions weren't built for communities of Color. Of course, there might be some disconnect between students and services because they don't see it built for them. You can completely understand that and imposter phenomenon. Students saying, “So these resources can't possibly be for me because I don't belong here.” There’s that line of thinking. And I'm wondering if maybe students would respond to more of a transactional type of message where institutions say, “You are paying for this education. Get your money's worth. Use the services.” Like the career counseling office and the Career Services Office isn't an additional expense. You are paying for this class, so you should reap all the benefits of this class. You should seek out all the services and to get your money's worth.

Think about other aspects of people’s lives. When people go out to eat, they take home leftovers. People don’t often leave before the movie is finished. In general, people want to get their money's worth. We drive and use all the gas in our cars. We wear clothing until it no longer fits or another reason. So maybe when students don't feel like services are for them and they're not built for them, institutions could sit down with them and say, “You're paying for this. This is for you. It is made for everyone.”  Maybe that would destigmatize the use of them and maybe students would feel more welcome. Or maybe not welcome, but more empowered that to know that the institution created this for students. I am a student, therefore I should use this service

I used to work as the assistant director of a mentoring program and the student benefits were incalculable. There was nothing about the program that wasn't good, but it was like pulling teeth getting people to participate. Do students not want to build their soft skills, build a professional network, and get a recommendation letter from authority figures? In that case, students did not see the return on investment.

Getting back to our main idea, those students did not ask, “What's the benefit for me? What am I going to get out of this?” And maybe meeting them where they're at on social media and conveying that message to them more directly is maybe that is the pathway forward. So at Minority Serving Institutions, does that communication look different? I mean how do you think, for instance, that an HSI or an AANAPISI should communicate? If you were the President, how would you instruct your staff?

Jase Kugiya:

I'll get to that. But I think listening to what you're saying earlier, I think there's two things that came to mind.

You mentioned your own experience with that mentoring program. And you know, I agree that changing the way that it's framed, that you're already paying for this, don't you want to learn soft skills? I think that could work. I also think it's important though, and I think this might kind of get at the MSI question. But research shows that especially for students of Color, it's important that they're working with people who look like them, right? And not just look like them but shares similar experiences. I think that's something that is understated. In some of these conversations, we have these services or don't you want to do this? Don't you want to do that? I think that's kind of a missing link.

You know, if I'm going to understand and take someone else's suggestion, their message might relate slightly differently if they also came from Hawaii, if they were also Asian American, in this type of kind of environment that we're in. I think that racial or ethnic piece matters in in those cases, right? Can you imagine if it's me in South Texas saying, “Hey, you know, how come y'all aren't taking advantage of the counseling services?” as opposed to someone who is Latinx, saying, “Hey, I was in your shoes, I know how difficult it can be to want to talk about your feelings. I've been there but you know what? I did it once and this is kind of what happened.” This is how it changed my perspective.

There’s a lot of power in that fact in regard to maybe changing the narrative, but also making sure that there's adequate representation in the staff, faculty, and administrators. Are these institutional actors representative of the student populations that they're serving? So in the context about AANAPISIs, I think that that applies in that conversation as well. But I also think regardless of if you're an MSI, it's important to have faculty, staff and administrators that are reflective of the student body.

You mentioned something else about building it for the students. A lot of students, especially when you're considering socioeconomic status or even family size, institutions might have a counseling services or career services available on their campus. But for some of these students, they may not have the capacity to take advantage of these resources even if they wanted to pursue those types of resources that they're paying for, right? Because they have a job after class, they go to class and right after they're going to their job for the next 4 to 8 hour shift and then they come back home to sleep and do it all over again. So in those circumstances, I think it's also important we're thinking about building out services and supporting students where they're at.

So sometimes physical offices, physical events are just not the most accessible for students. You know switching modalities, offering hybrid options, recording events. There are just small ways to help increase the accessibility for some of these student support services. For students, because you know who's to say that they don't want it, but rather they just don't have the capacity or the time to do it because they're too busy working? They're too busy taking care of their little brother or little sister, you know, and especially considering communities of Color. I don't want to assume or generalize, but in many ways, at least for me, being a Japanese American who was born and raised for many generations in Hawaii, it very much is a collectivist culture. Taking care of siblings, grandparents, aunties, uncles, that's all part of my role. And so understanding that it's not just narrowing it down to judgments on students' desire to learn soft skills or their lack of interest, I think understanding their holistic experiences is important to point out and talk about in this conversation.

Zach Taylor:

That's actually becoming more and more salient as we talk about it—representation. Is that not part of the moral obligation of the institution? It's for the faculty and staff to represent the students. Is it also not in the moral obligation to serve who you admit? If you are going to admit a commuter population, you got to have commuter population resources, right? Who you're admitting morally obligates you to provide services for those students, and if you want students to go out and get a job and be able to earn and feel like what they paid for what they sacrificed for was worth it, is it not the moral obligation to prepare students for careers?

If you're going to charge a certain tuition rate and not provide grants and scholarships that provide a free education, is it not the moral obligation to align students with a career or with an income stream that can help them pay their loans or help them afford school? If you admit people from a collectivist background, are you not going to then provide different modalities for more flexibility, so people don't have to sacrifice who they are for where they're going to school? There’s like a whole moral obligation framework that is kind of emerging from this discussion, is it not?

What is the moral obligation of a Minority Serving Institution when they're communicating on social media? If you're going to admit Gen Z, if you're going to have a Gen Z population, aren't you morally obligated to communicate with Gen Z in their platforms, on their on their territory? You know what I mean?

Jase Kugiya:

I understand that there's attention for institutions themselves to receive a return on investment. But also understanding that they too benefit when their students feel supported, and their needs are met. They're graduating on time, right? And that they're getting jobs. I think those are all things that institutions, regardless of size or student population that they serve, are mutually beneficial. That’s an important consideration: To not only recruit other students, in terms of enrollment, but rankings, right? All those things are incorporated into institutional rankings. And I'm not just talking about US World News report for top colleges, but I'm even talking about the school that I went to Saint Martin’s, a small school in Washington.

It's a badge of honor when you're seeing these regional rankings. Also, when you're able to demonstrate through data your impact that you're having on the students, the community, I think that also opens up opportunities for external grant funding. There's opportunities when you're able to demonstrate and tell a story about your impact for these students.