When she was little, Jessie Ryan’s mother often read her the story of Cinderella—but with a twist. She added a different ending.
“My mom would say, ‘And then Cinderella went to college,’” Ryan said. “Sometimes she would add, ‘And to graduate school.’ I thought that’s how the story ended.”
Growing up, Ryan’s family was low income. They struggled to find a stable home. Bills went unpaid. Lights got turned off. They sometimes visited food pantries to stock the cupboards at home. Through it all, her mother remained resolute: Her daughter would get an education.
Ryan fulfilled her mother’s dream and ended her family’s cycle of poverty when she attended a community college, transferred to a public four-year university two years later and earned her master’s degree. Now she’s working to help others do the same. She knows firsthand that education is key to economic wellbeing.
[quote_center]“The work I do is always connected to this profound sense of responsibility, this desire to make the path easier for others,” Ryan said. [/quote_center]
Today she is executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity and a newly-elected Sacramento City Unified School District board member. Her life is dedicated to ensuring that all eligible and motivated children—regardless of their family income, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation—have equal opportunity and access to higher education.
Ryan said there is a myth in the United States that too many people accept as truth: that equal opportunity is available to all, as long as they work hard. But when it comes to education, how and where you start in life matters.
She knows the deck is stacked against you when you are low income. You’re much less likely to attend college, and if you do, to graduate. Take graduation rates for example: Once enrolled, students from wealthy families are eight times more likely to graduate from college than students from low-income families.
A Degree Is Not Just a Piece of Paper
Ryan knows from personal experience just getting to college can be a struggle. But she firmly believes that education is a great equalizer.
[quote_center]“If we educate our students well and help them access and succeed in higher education, that’s how we level the playing field and lift families out of poverty,” Ryan explained.[/quote_center]
The payoff is big for college graduates. Over the course of their lifetimes, college graduates will earn one million dollars more than high school graduates. They are also less likely to be unemployed, incarcerated, need social services and far less likely to live in poverty.
But there are many systemic barriers to enrolling and succeeding in college. Ryan knew without deliberate policy reform that addressed those barriers, too many students would continue to be left behind.
In particular, she saw a huge flaw in the community college transfer process. Requirements to earn an Associate of Arts degree, for example, didn’t always match those needed for transfer to a four-year college. So she joined the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) of the Women’s Foundation of California in 2009 to tackle this inconsistency.
During the yearlong fellowship with the Women’s Policy Institute, Ryan and her WPI team members helped draft new legislation aimed at aligning credits needed to earn an AA degree with the credits needed to transfer to a California State University. Their legislation faced fierce opposition and that first year, the bill didn’t pass. But Ryan had learned policy change takes time, and she understood that today’s adversary could very well be tomorrow’s greatest ally.
The second year, the California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) systems joined the Campaign for College Opportunity as enthusiastic co-sponsors of the bill. They even strengthened the bill by adding an important amendment: the CSU system promised guaranteed admission with junior standing to anyone who earned an associate degree for transfer. Up until then, transfer students often had to repeat units to earn junior status at a CSU school. SB 1440 (Padilla), ultimately passed, and the governor signed the legislation into law on September 29, 2010.
[quote_center]“It was amazing. It truly was historic,” Ryan said. “It’s changing the way community colleges do transfer, a sea change for the public higher education system. Since then, more than 20,000 students have earned associate degrees for transfer.”[/quote_center]
We Need Women at Every Level of Public Office
Being part of the Women’s Policy Institute and helping to pass the historic law gave Ryan the confidence she needed to keep affecting social change through good policymaking.
After WPI, she worked to pass Proposition 30, which gave much needed resources to K12 classrooms and public colleges; she fought to increase financial aid for California’s neediest students; and she spearheaded efforts to secure $60 million dollars to fix the broken remedial education system and keep millions of community college students from dropping out on their path to reach their college goals.
Then in 2014 she ran for public office to represent the poorest and most diverse neighborhoods in the Sacramento City Unified School District. Though wary of her chances and doubting her credentials, her experiences in the Women’s Policy Institute and as an education advocate told her she deserved to be at the table and to lead. She won with double digits.
“I was consistently out there telling women to run, that we have to be courageous and to own our power—that it’s not a dirty word,” Ryan said. “I needed to take my own advice. If women aren’t represented at every level of public office, we won’t ensure gender equity. We won’t alleviate poverty and we won’t transform the system.”