In an article in Inside Higher Ed, you were described by a colleague as someone who "totally understands higher ed" and makes it relatable to government officials and other stakeholders. What originally sparked your interest in higher education? How did it become your career focus?
My plan after undergrad was to become a teacher, and I gained my bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt in both education and political science, with a certification to teach secondary social studies. Since I had always been interested in education policy, I had planned to transition from teaching at some point. However, after an internship on the Hill right after college before grad school, I decided that I wanted to come right back to DC, without teaching first. I took a class in grad school on college access, and it got me interested in financial aid and other policies that are within the “higher education” realm. My first job out of grad school was at the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, where I worked on a report on college access programs and early financial aid information. From there, the next report I worked on was about financial aid simplification, then community colleges, and by that point I was thoroughly enmeshed in the “higher education” arena. Still, it wasn’t until I transitioned to the Department of Education in the Obama administration that I began to think of myself as a “higher ed” person.
As a senior adviser at the Department of Education and to the White House, describe what it was like to be in your 20s and influencing important people and agendas. What were some of the challenges you faced in the job?
These jobs are challenging no matter how old you are! Washington is a place where young people can thrive more easily than in other locales, so I am thankful for that. I actually think that my youth and energy gave me a leg up. I was willing to stay late (no spouse or kids to be responsible for!), and I had the energy to power through when the slog was tough. Certainly, there is some age bias that is natural to higher education, in particular, but I tried to know my facts inside and out so that I was always a useful person to have in the room when policies were being debated.
At a relatively young age, you've moved up the career ladder quickly. How did you do it? Do you have suggestions for YEP readers who are looking to make similar moves in their own careers?
I think it’s bit of “right place/right time” and a bit of grit and hard work. I believe DC is a place where you can rise quickly if you’re willing to work hard — knowledge and information is prized here, and those who can provide those things are valued. If you understand a policy in depth, or tackle an issue no one else is looking at — that can be really useful. In particular, I think that developing an area of expertise where you add value to the public policy debate is key. For instance, so many people are interested in “the achievement gap” broadly, but there aren’t as many people who are experts in the types of developmental education that are most effective at helping minority students graduate from college. You don’t need to over-specialize, but if you don’t have any depth at all, it’s harder to be useful. Someone once told me, "Make it hard to not have you in the room." You should strive to learn enough about an issue, or a set of issues, so that you are so valuable that people constantly want to have you in the room. That said, I’ve also had amazing mentors and bosses who continually looked out for me and recommended me for positions that I never even knew existed. I got most of my jobs in DC by being approached by someone who thought I’d be good, not by applying cold turkey.
Why did you make a career change from government to a private foundation? What are some of the main differences between these two sectors, in terms of their impact on education and the issues you care about?
I was tired! Honestly, it was just the right time for me to have a different pace. After five and a half years in government and four in the Obama administration, I felt like I had made a solid contribution and learned a ton in the process. Obviously, within government I was able to have a more direct influence on policy. However, there is a ton of bureaucracy involved in order to get things done. Organizations outside government can focus the public and policymaker attention on key issues, as well. I value the freedom that I have now to explore new issues and contribute to the public dialogue more freely.
What are some of the initiatives you are currently working on at Lumina?
At Lumina, I lead the foundation’s work to develop new models of student financial support for higher education. Basically, I am leading our work to re-think the way we help students pay for college and all of its associated costs. There are a ton of things that fall under that bucket, and I’m excited to begin peeling back that onion.
Amanda Klein works for an education nonprofit. Her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Send your suggestions for future interviews to amandalklein(at)gmail(dot)com.