With a background in biomedical research, Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. is keen on evidence-based practices. So naturally, when he learned of an opportunity to attend the G7 University conference in June, sharing discoveries with six other nations, he was intrigued.
The event was a follow-up to the 43rd G7 summit, held in May, in which leaders of the seven G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) gathered to discuss world affairs.
“G7 meetings in the past have been primarily about global financial, economic and trade issues, or international security,” President Stanley said. “But higher education has not been on the agenda. The idea was to have this special session on higher education to convey to the G7 members how vital higher education is to each nation’s well-being.”
With university leaders invited from all seven nations, G7 University was held in Udine, Italy, and designed around a theme of “Education for All.” It was a perfect fit for President Stanley to discuss something he is passionate about: improving access to quality college education.
“We are fortunate to attract a number of economically disadvantaged students to Stony Brook University, many of whom are first-generation college students,” he said. “They come from families that have tremendous respect for higher education and believe it is a pathway to opportunity.”
President Stanley was particularly eager to share the results of a recent study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. In the study, titled “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” Stony Brook is ranked among the top 5 universities in the country for bottom-to-top quintile mobility.
“That’s our ability to take students who come from families in the lowest quintile of income,” he said, “and help them to achieve the top three quintiles of income. We do this for a high percentage of our students, and it’s something that we are all really proud of.”
President Stanley pointed to the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) as the basis for some of this success. The EOP at Stony Brook was started in 1968 and given the local name Advancement on Individual Merit (AIM). EOP/AIM accepts about 200 students per year who are economically disadvantaged and may have SAT scores and GPAs that are a little lower than the average student accepted to Stony Brook. With a pre-freshman summer academy, mentoring program and specialized tutorial services, these students are set on a path to have a successful college experience.
“The EOP is a statewide program, so it’s something New York really cares about,” said President Stanley. “But since I’ve been at Stony Brook, I’ve put significant additional investments into it so that we could add more students. It’s one of the first things I learned about when I came to Stony Brook. I immediately recognized that this program works—EOP students graduate at a higher rate than the rest of our Stony Brook students, the numbers speak for themselves. The higher graduation rate for EOP students is critical, but I also believe the program has a halo effect, influencing other students to seek out advisors, take advantage of tutoring, develop better study habits and achieve success.”
Among the other things those numbers are saying: Stony Brook has effectively eradicated the gap in graduation rates between black and white students, and Hispanic and white students.
“In fact,” President Stanley said, “black students graduate at a slightly higher rate than white students at Stony Brook. That’s relatively unique in this country. And it’s not because white students are doing worse here; it’s because black and Hispanic students are doing better.”
The President is also proud of a new statewide program, the Excelsior Scholarship, which enables qualified students with less than $125,000 of annual family income to attend SUNY and CUNY colleges completely tuition-free.
“That’s a major commitment from the state,” said President Stanley. “This is a state that realizes an investment in higher education pays dividends.”
The Excelsior Scholarship does have some conditions that help to ensure a wise investment — a 30-credit annual requirement, for example, to help students get to graduation in four years. It’s a plan President Stanley was especially proud of when he learned of issues faced in other G7 countries.
“It was interesting to hear from other countries, in places where college is free or nearly free, that they have some challenges in their completion and graduation rates,” he said. “You need a pretty strong incentive to keep going and get that degree. That’s one of the things that was really important with the Excelsior Scholarship, tying it to completion.”
In addition to improving access, discussions at the G7 revolved around the increasing importance of having a college education. In his remarks to the group, President Stanley shared the results of a 2016 Georgetown University study that examined job growth by education level in the United States. It revealed that of 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, almost all went to workers with at least an associate degree. A mere 80,000 jobs went to workers with only a high school education.
“They were really struck by that,” said President Stanley. “It points to how much more important higher education has become. The study suggests that in the United States, the bachelor’s degree has now become the required qualification for entry into the workforce. ”
But job prospects are just one benefit, according to the President.
“Higher education is the clearest pathway to reducing income inequality,” he said. “But it’s more than that. It creates a more sophisticated, more engaged citizen who is better able to participate in democracy. It provides research and innovation, and all of these things pay returns for all of us.”
Research and innovation were exactly what Jennifer DeLeon, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biology, was eager to talk about at the G7. She represented Stony Brook in a discussion on “University, Culture and Society,” alongside presidents, chancellors and corporate leaders from Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“It was very informative for me to see what challenges other universities are facing and how they are choosing to address them,” she said. “Even more, everyone was eager to hear from the students and get our perspective on all of the topics discussed. They always treated the students more like colleagues and welcomed our input, questions and ideas.”
That openness to diverse input, said President Stanley, is the reason higher education will be key to addressing the world’s problems.
“Take polio, for example,” he said. “We have had a vaccine for polio since I was a child, and yet there is still polio in the world. Why is that? Because it’s not purely a technical solution. We have an effective vaccine, but we have people who for political or sometimes religious reasons are not getting vaccinated. Or we have countries that have simply been too poor to support the infrastructure necessary to get everybody vaccinated. There’s a political aspect to it, there’s understanding the culture of it, the psychology involved. These things turn out to be extraordinarily complex.
President Stanley said that is why, even with his biomedical research background, he does not underestimate the influence of other fields.
“In my own education,” he said, “the courses that probably had the biggest influence on my career were the ones that taught me how to write better and think more critically — Russian lit, Western civ. I never used organic chemistry again in my career as a scientist, but I certainly had to know how to write and communicate well to present my ideas to others.”
Still, he describes himself as an unabashed supporter of Stony Brook’s focus on the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I wanted to make sure that we return to the reason why we were founded, which is to be an outstanding public research university, a place where new knowledge is generated,” he said. “Stony Brook came in the time of Sputnik, with the notion that the United States needed to respond in science and technology.”
At the conclusion of G7 University, the group collectively created a manifesto that outlines some basic recommendations for universities to promote: global citizenship; economic, social and environmental sustainability; democratic participation in social life and mobility; and the role of higher education in fostering future social and economic development. It’s a vision that was created from, and requires, input from a variety of cultural and professional perspectives.
“That is why universities are so unique,” President Stanley said. “You bring together really smart people, and they vary in their discipline training, their experiences and in their worldview. The multidisciplinary, multigenerational and creative approaches that universities foster are essential to tackling the critical issues that the G7 countries and all nations face.”
— Lia Tremblay