When Senior Program Officer Sarah Bauder was a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she had recently given birth to her third child and was working multiple jobs. She was 27 years old.
Earning her way through school as an older student with a family wasn’t just an academic challenge, she said, it was psychological and emotional as well.
“My kids slept in drawers because we couldn’t afford a crib,” said Bauder. “When you’re thinking about going back to college, education is a part of that, but you’re also having to worry about your basic needs: how I sleep, how I eat, how I feed my kids. It’s an added struggle to also attend college and stick with it.”
She revisits that mindset every day in her role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she researches and develops innovative solutions to increase access, retention, and graduation rates for college students—especially those who are from low-income backgrounds, are students of color, or are the first in their family to pursue higher education.
A crucial component of Bauder’s work is ensuring low-income students are advised correctly and receive the right amount of financial aid. This is especially important for first-generation college students and for those who are balancing their studies alongside a job or a family. Of today’s college students, nearly half (40 percent) of are age 25 or older, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) have jobs, and more than one-quarter (28 percent) are parents.
As Bauder describes it, students who have a family and a limited income often go to a less-selective local college so they may stay at home and look after their families. Additionally, they may also limit themselves to attending school part-time so that they can continue to earn a living through a full-time job.
“So, you if have a family and a limited income, those are your choices. Or, don’t go at all,” said Bauder.
Bauder’s journey to the foundation is firmly rooted in her lifelong thirst for solving problems.
Once, as a seven-year-old, she removed door knobs from all of the doors in her house in an attempt to understand the mechanics of the standard home feature.
“I found a screwdriver and took them off, and wanted to figure out how to put them all back together better,” she said. “I was a bit of a daydreamer, wanting to take things apart and fix them.”
Growing up as an identical twin and the fifth of seven children on a large farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it was always assumed Bauder would attend college. Her parents both held advanced degrees: her father a Ph.D. in behavioral science, and her mother a master’s degree in music.
Yet, in her childhood, Bauder largely focused on sports and outdoor activities. She would often run five miles to high school, participate in class and then after-school track practices. Sometimes, she’d swing by the markets to sell fruit from the family farm.
“College wasn’t really on my radar until 11th grade, when my twin, who was more academic, started to talk about colleges,” said Bauder. She accompanied her parents on in-state college tours with the intent of entering college right after high school. However, in her senior year, she got pregnant, married, and started a family.
With two children by the age of 18, it was Bauder’s husband who encouraged her to continue to strive for a degree.
“I started off at Tidewater Community College, because that’s what we could afford,” said Bauder. “And then went to SUNY Albany, and from there went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland.” When she graduated, she had completed around 180 credits, well above the standard 120 needed to graduate.
“That’s one of the challenges of transfer students, credits are transferred as electives rather than equivalent courses” said Bauder. “One thing I do for the Gates Foundation is work to ensure that students are advised correctly.”
After graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Bauder was offered a job in their financial aid office—from the very same people she had been working with to transfer her prior college credits. She grew familiar with the office after remaining persistent in requesting that the classes transfer as equivalent courses— the type she needed to complete for graduation—rather than electives.
Bauder went on to receive a master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership, Policy, and Planning from the University of Maryland, where she continued her career in enrollment services and financial aid. She then decided to pursue a new career challenge at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Today, Bauder works daily with higher education institutions and organizations dedicated to increasing access and completion by implementing policies such as emergency financial aid.
“Emergency financial aid is a little bit of a trojan horse: small dollars, high reward,” said Bauder. “Internally, it breaks down the barriers that inhibit success. Institutions need help sharing data across departments. They need support building out technologies and automating processes. And they need other mechanisms and revenue sources. Also, donors love emergency aid. They love to see that they gave $500 and kept two students in college. It’s an immediate reward and they tend to give more.”
Implementing emergency financial aid can also be a first step for colleges in creating other innovative policies that address issues of accessibility and retention, while ensuring current students are better served. Bauder elaborates on such concerns, asking, “If a student owes $300, for instance, and they aren’t allowed to register for the next semester, is that a wise policy?”
She commends Georgia State University for their Panther Grant emergency fund, which helps students register for and stay in school with as little as $300 in assistance. Other schools like Arizona State University are paving the way toward greater access and affordability as well, she said.
“The institutions we tout are for good reason,” said Bauder. “They’ve done great work!”
Bauder said she feels lucky spending every day thinking about challenges specific to students across the country, in addition to helping, working with, and highlighting the institutions making a difference.
“The Gates Foundation is a unique place to work, in that the founders are still alive,” she said. “You leave your credentials at the door, and you focus on the team. It’s a wonderful melting pot of education, race, and experience. Every day is about combining knowledge, and strategically helping institutions and the students they serve.”