Advocate for Access

Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 is passionate about her education—so she’s on a mission to make sure every student in the country has access to one.

Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 (Photo by Scott Cook) Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 (Photo by Scott Cook)

Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 is a strong believer in the power of education. So when, as a researcher working at IBM in the late ’90s, she came across a deeply embedded social issue that prevented much of the population from attending college, it was only natural that she wanted to find a solution.

“I was working with Georgia Tech to see how we could keep more women there or to keep them from changing majors from computer science, for example, to management,” she explains. “And what really became apparent to me was that we had a problem with—not just women going into math and science—but with low-income students not feeling like they belong on campus. It’s been the focus of my research ever since.”

Today, Bailey is director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Go Alliance, a program that works to increase high school graduation rates, access to education beyond high school, and postsecondary degree completion—particularly for those who would be the first in their families to enroll.

A researcher who graduated from Rollins with a degree in psychology, Bailey went on to earn a master’s and PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Georgia Tech. She’s a self-described critical thinker.

“What I love about what I do now,” she says, “is it that it is applied to a specific problem—not just research for research’s sake.”

Go Alliance is a national program funded by membership fees from participating states. It works with state governments to form “collective impact teams” made up of stakeholders who have vested interests in increasing college access in their states—everyone from government officials to educators to business leaders. Bailey and her team conduct research and gather data about the educational practices and policies already in place to show what’s working and what’s not and help determine the road ahead.

The key, she says, is identifying the values and perspectives of the communities she works with. For example, in her years researching this field, Bailey has seen that many low-income groups dislike the idea of being labeled as “needing” federal aid such as Pell Grants to attend school.

“When you talk to low-income students, you find out there’s a huge stigma with the term ‘aid,’” she says. “Or in some communities, there is a fear of taking out a loan and owing anyone money or filling out government forms. In rural areas, parents don’t want their children to leave home to go to school. So instead of going in and saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ it’s about understanding what they value and figuring out how you can turn that into a message for a public information campaign.”

Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 (Photo by Scott Cook) Alice Hardee Bailey ’94 (Photo by Scott Cook)

Her strategy has proved successful. Since its inception, the Go Alliance has been a partner in national efforts to help enact tangible changes to education policy: extending the deadline for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); simplifying the FAFSA form; and even creating a White House ceremony to honor the national school counselor of the year.

Under Bailey’s direction, the Go Alliance achieves its mission through efforts that touch on all aspects of the issue. Among other things, it has helped states start and then replicate successful programs in West Virginia (to use text messages to help answer students’ questions about applying to and paying for college) and North Carolina (to provide one-on-one assistance to students completing applications to postsecondary education—now a national program).

Bailey has also become involved in the issue at a federal level. In 2013, she was invited to partner with President Obama’s College Opportunity project—planning, attending, and facilitating several meetings of national leaders and Department of Education staff at the White House on the topics of college access and financial aid. More recently, she played an instrumental role helping to launch and support Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, a campaign to encourage students to complete their educations beyond high school. It’s a cause that Bailey can’t help but get excited talking about.

“Looking back I’m so proud to think that—even if it’s five kids—knowing that you helped someone complete their education is the best feeling.”

Maybe that’s because for Bailey, education goes beyond professional interest; it’s a personal crusade.

“Our society as a whole depends on having an educated public,” she says. “It’s the absolute key to the success of our country.”

And indeed she can easily enumerate many proven benefits of a post-secondary education: People with a college education are more likely to have meaningful work, less likely to become unemployed, more likely to be civically engaged, less likely to be obese and have health problems—the list goes on.

But when it comes to taking on this daunting challenge, Bailey’s inspiration is less statistical and more emotional.

“We do a lot of focus group work with students, and I’m continually inspired by how much they say they want to go to college,” she says. “It’s not just because they know they’ll have a better life; it’s because education is a transformative experience.”