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University of Wisconsin Madison
Powered by Publics

Julia Michaels
Executive Director
Center for Public
University Transformation
(202) 478-6071

Media Contact:
Mike Brost
Associate Director
of Public Affairs

(202) 478-6038


To better understand, address, and improve the challenges related to college affordability and student debt, nine institutions participated in a collaboration between APLU's Powered by Publics initiative and TIAA Institute to investigated best practices and possible long-term reformation of current financial aid approaches.

The COVID-19 pandemic unearthed systemic and institutional impediments that exacerbate the equity disparities that campuses are trying to address. With participating institutions, APLU has undertaken intensive research into college affordability, innovative approaches to affordability, as well emergency student aid distributions made availability through the CARES Act. This work is outlined in three research briefs.

  • The Pandemic, College Affordability, and Student Debt
    APLU and the TIAA Institute co-released a brief examining the COVID-19 pandemic, college affordability, and student debt. The brief examines long-standing disparities in student debt and how, without proper support for students, the pandemic stood to magnify them. Additionally, the brief outlines a framework for providing universal college affordability. 
  • Insights on Emergency Student Aid, Student Need, and the CARES Act
    The second brief APLU and TIAA released examines the disbursement of emergency student aid available the CARES Act. The brief examined different institutional approaches to distributing emergency, federally funded financial aid to students during the pandemic. The research also identifies constraints on the student aid and how this experience can inform future emergency financial aid efforts.
  • Addressing Student Need Beyond Crisis Management
    The third brief APLU and the TIAA Institute examines innovative approaches institutions are taking to address affordability and student debt. This brief examines innovative approaches institutions are taking to advance equity and college affordability, outlining varying approaches to one-stop advising centers; completion and retention grants; institutional debt forgiveness; affordable learning materials; and industry partnerships.
  • APLU-TIAA Institute College Affordability Convening
    APLU and the TIAA Institute also hosted a Powered by Publics-wide convening exploring the research. The first session explored financial aid innovation for affordability and student debt. Don't have time to watch the video? Read a quick recap of the session.  

    The second session explored the distribution of emergency student aid made available through the CARES Act. Read a quick recap of the session. 


The institutions participating in this effort are: Cleveland State University; Rutgers University-Newark; University of Cincinnati; University of Louisville; University of North Texas; University of Texas at San Antonio; Virginia Commonwealth University; Wayne State University; and West Virginia University.

As fellows, these institutions examined how stimulus funds from the CARES Act were distributed to Title IV-eligible students, and how different processes or methods may ultimately result in disparate impact on various populations, including student veterans, undocumented students, low- and middle-income students, and students of color. The institutions also explored how the pandemic has exacerbated existing affordability barriers and student debt for minoritized student populations, including how universities can collect disaggregated data to examine the racialized impact of financial aid policies and practices. By explicitly taking an equity lens for this research, fellows have conducted deeper discussions and improve the evidence base for financial aid innovations that impact affordability and student debt, particularly for students most affected by COVID-19.

Project Highlights

  • Nearly 125 change-ready universities and state systems
  • 16 transformation clusters
  • 3 million undergraduates

Project Goals

  • Produce hundreds of thousands more graduates by 2025 with an emphasis on underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students.
  • Cut in half the achievement gap by 2025 for underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students while increasing access.
  • Share key data, learning, and effective practices to drive innovation and transformation across the higher education sector.


Four strategic priorities guide Powered by Publics work. They are:

  1. Taking explicit action to pursue educational equity for low-income, first-generation, and students of color.
  2. Committing to transparency by sharing data and monitoring progress toward equity goals.
  3. Developing common opportunities for cross-cluster learning, sharing, and collective action in the thematic areas of Affordability, Holistic Student Supports, and Teaching & Learning.
  4. APLU and its partners committing to invest in institutional capacity through grants and technical assistance.