Dr. Tiffany Jones will be joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as its deputy director of measurement, learning and evaluation. Formerly the senior director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, Jones has spent four years at the national nonprofit for higher education reform, advocating for students of color and students from low-income families.
In her new position, Jones is most excited to go back into “student mode.”
As an advocacy organization, “what we’re able to do in my work at EdTrust is use good data to make the case that something’s wrong, and, over time, it’s been great to watch people receive that message and want to act in response,” she said.
At the same time, she wants to do a “deep dive” into questions like, “What is it specifically that we need systems and institutions to do? How might that look different depending on the type of institution and the types of students they serve?” she added. “… The examples of what’s working and for who it’s working are just too thin in terms of my personal understanding and development.”
Through her research at the Gates Foundation – which invests in colleges trying new strategies to close opportunity gaps – Jones wants to take another step toward those answers.
Her transition is bittersweet for her colleagues.
“Tiffany is a champion,” said Satra Taylor, manager of higher education justice initiatives at The Education Trust and formerly an intern under Jones. “Tiffany has foresight and vision that I have not seen before. Her ability to connect pieces and dots across disciplines, across organizations, for a higher purpose is impeccable.”
While Jones’ job title is changing, she’s been working toward a more equitable education system since she was a teenager, participating in televised debates on education policy issues in high school. Early on, she thought she wanted to get a Ph.D. to become the superintendent of a school district. For her, this wasn’t just a career plan. It was personal. She went to school in a low-income, working-class community in Michigan and saw the impact of inequitable policies firsthand.
“I’m walking by [and] there’s parts of my school roped off with caution tape because the ceiling is going to cave in and it’s dangerous and we can’t get repairs,” she said. “It helped me understand, this is really broken. Something is really wrong.”
Later on, as a student at Central Michigan University, she found herself challenged by the transition from a diverse high school to a predominantly White institution, as well as the unforeseen costs of college.
Even though scholarships covered her tuition, when she first heard how much her housing would cost, “I was just in tears,” she said. While she was ultimately able to work in the dorms to waive her fee, it “infuriated” her knowing other students faced similar roadblocks without the support that she had. It helped motivate her future career in higher education policy.
In her first year as an undergraduate, she thought about dropping out, but she ultimately found a sense of community among student activists. In hindsight, her policy work feels rooted in her time as an organizer.
“I realized it was therapeutic to feel like you were making a difference,” she said. “And I was hooked.”
That sense of activism followed her to graduate school at the University of Southern California, though it was in part because she felt she had no choice.
Unlike in K-12, in higher education in general, “faculty gave me energy like they weren’t happy I was there,” she said. “I developed my identity as a resistor. If that hadn’t been my experience, my orientation might have been one to work insides the system to try to make change. I all of the sudden realized I’m not a part of this system. I’m on the outside of it, and it’s my job to push and transform. But it took a while for me to find my voice that way.”
After three years at the Southern Education Foundation, focused on higher education policy, she found her way to the Education Trust in 2016, a time of transition not only for her but for the country as U.S. President Donald J. Trump took office. Congress was so polarized that passing higher education legislation fell to the back burner, which gave Jones and her colleagues room to think about the “long game.”
“It’s not about what bill can we get in next week,” she said. “There is no bill next week.” The nonprofit pivoted to questions like, “When the time comes, when the comprehensive bills really have the opportunity to be passed and constructed, what should be on the table?”
She decided to put an emphasis on Black student debt and the needs of students who are incarcerated, among other issues at the nexus of higher education and racial justice that The Education Trust hadn’t explored in the past.
That was a “philosophical shift” and it involved uncomfortable conversations across difference, but “part of change making is education, and with education comes discomfort,” she said.
This week, as Congress sits on the cusp of passing legislation that would reinstate the Pell grant for incarcerated students – a part of its year-end spending deal – Jones’ legacy is especially felt by her former colleagues. It’s something she made a part of the nonprofit’s policy agenda.
Taylor pointed to The Education Trust’s newly launched Justice Fellows Policy Program, which will onboard six to eight fellows affected by the criminal justice system to be an active part in developing and presenting on policy. Jones also created an equity and accountability advisory board and forged partnerships with the UnLock Higher Ed Coalition among other advocacy organizations centering the voices of incarcerated people.
She “strategically made sure she was working with, alongside and amplifying the voices of individuals directly impacted by policy,” Taylor said.
For Jones, her proudest accomplishment at The Education Trust was cultivating other advocates through learning programs with different civil rights organizations and in developing her own team.
“That space is in such good hands,” she said. “If I never did anything else, I feel most proud to have been able to invest in folks like that, to be able to partner with them, co-labor with them.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].