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Five Commitments Every Community College Must Make to Meet the Moment

July 10, 2020

At a Glance

Colleges must explore how their campus structures reinforce systemic racism and then take steps to undo the inequities in education and economic outcomes that people of color experience.

Policy Leadership Trust

The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests against police brutality prompted many colleges and universities to issue statements declaring their opposition to racism and affirming their support for diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus. In this historic moment of reckoning, however, the postsecondary field must take much bolder action—or our words will ring hollow.

As community college leaders serving on JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust, we urge each and every college to do more this fall: to explore how campus structures reinforce systemic racism and white privilege and then take tangible steps to undo the deep inequities in education and economic outcomes that Black students and other students of color experience.

We offer these five commitments for colleges to adopt to guide the hard work ahead:

  1. A commitment to care
  2. A commitment to serve the whole community with a focus on social justice
  3. A commitment to build a culture of equity on campus
  4. A commitment to identify and dismantle campus structures that breed disparities, and then redesign the college for equity
  5. A commitment to fund what matters most

As a field, we must act with the same urgency, fortitude, and collegiality that we exhibited this spring when we made the swift transition to remote instruction and responded to student needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Otherwise, we will never accomplish our open-access mission, nor will we realize the full potential of community colleges to serve as engines of economic opportunity.

Community colleges were built for this moment—to be the catalyst for change and the voice for those who couldn’t be heard.

Trust member Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College in Florida

1. A Commitment to Care

The pandemic is exacerbating economic insecurities facing many community college students, especially students of color. Yet, too often colleges force students to jump through hoops to get what they need in order to stay in school.

“Students needed love and support before COVID. They just need more of it now,” says Trust member Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, which has established a nationally recognized Culture of Caring on its Texas campus. “This is our opportunity to completely reimagine ourselves to serve our communities in ways we hadn’t dreamed of before COVID.”

To meet this commitment, colleges must pledge to:

  • Ensure that no student goes without basic needs, including food, shelter, child care, and transportation, and that no student lacks access to the IT tools and systems necessary for remote learning.
  • Take a more coordinated approach to distributing aid to students, by working with partners to connect students to community resources and advocating to ensure that students are eligible for public benefits.

2. A Commitment to Serve the Whole Community With a Focus on Social Justice

Too often, community colleges fall short of their mission to serve populations facing the greatest disparities in education and employment. For example, they pour resources into programs like dual enrollment, but those programs remain disproportionately accessed by more advantaged students. Colleges must embrace their responsibility to promote more equitable learning opportunities and help build a more inclusive local talent pipeline.

We need to commit to a new Day One and refocus on creating access and opportunity for all.

Trust Co-Chair Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College in Ohio

To meet this commitment, colleges must pledge to:

  • Create a safe space for current and former students of color to discuss their college experiences, so that administrators, advisors, and faculty can gain insights that will enable them to build a more inclusive and supportive campus environment.
  • Scrutinize patterns of recruitment, enrollment, retention, completion, and employment outcomes to assess disparities among students. Colleges ought to follow St. Petersburg’s lead and use zip-code-level data to uncover and address shortcomings.
  • Deepen partnerships with community organizations that provide targeted outreach and support to underserved populations. The Bronx Opportunity Network offers one such model.

3. A Commitment to Build a Culture of Equity on Campus

Community colleges must lean into, rather than shy away from, challenging conversations about racial disparities and injustice. Only then will it be possible to take individual and collective action to address these disparities.

Acknowledging racial disparities in student success “can be quite painful, because you’re in love with your profession, you want to help, and you intend to do well,” says Trust member Cynthia Olivo, assistant superintendent and vice president of student services at Pasadena College, a national leader in equity work.

The reality is we have to learn to teach differently; we have to learn to serve differently.

Cynthia Olivo, assistant superintendent and vice president of student services, Pasadena College

To meet this commitment, community colleges must pledge to:

  • Call on their boards of trustees to bolster their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. That would create the momentum for campus leadership to pursue concrete initiatives.
  • Offer all faculty, advisors, staff, and leaders implicit bias and cultural competency training.
  • Apply the principles of Guided Pathways to the college workforce, especially employees of color, to ensure greater transparency and support for their long-term success. This would involve reviewing recruitment and hiring processes, as well as employees’ first-year experiences, professional development plans, and career advancement opportunities.

4. A Commitment to Identify and Dismantle Campus Structures That Breed Disparities, and Then Redesign the College for Equity

Institutional policies designed to help students succeed can have unintended negative effects on students of color and other populations. Colleges must commit to identifying and redesigning inequitable policies and practices.

Our institutions have to do a self-check. We need to rethink the hoops we’re asking people to jump through. For example, why is it necessary to have a 16-week term or require students to take a particular math test that most faculty couldn’t pass?

Trust Co-Chair Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College in New York

To meet this commitment, colleges must pledge to:

  • Equip faculty, advisors, and staff with data on student success rates, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and other relevant attributes. And provide support to uncover disparities and develop new practices to improve education and career outcomes for populations with comparatively low success rates.
  • Audit institutional policies and practices. The Trust urges colleges to use these equity guides and take this 11-question self-assessment.
  • Use external means to hold themselves accountable for making progress. One way to do this is to commit to equity redesign work through the five-year quality enhancement planning process required by some regional accreditors.

5. A Commitment to Fund What Matters Most

The way an institution spends money and allocates resources is the clearest indication of its priorities. To close equity gaps and fulfill the commitments discussed in this blog, colleges must take a hard look at their budgetary decisions.

Your budget reflects your values. How can colleges make spending decisions to close, rather than reinforce, equity gaps?

Trust member Madeline Pumariega, executive vice president and provost at Tallahassee Community College

To meet this commitment, colleges must pledge to:

  • Apply an equity lens to all budgetary decisions, focusing on spending tied to the institution’s core mission and on ways to scale evidence-based approaches to increasing access and success.
  • Develop a sustainable pool of resources to fund student services, which are often first to be cut in times of budget shortfalls—when students need them most. This strategic financing white paper, commissioned by the Policy Leadership Trust, has useful recommendations.
  • Support inclusive regional development by doing business with minority-owned companies and treating them fairly.

Equity initiatives are not quick or easy undertakings. It’s incumbent on college leaders, faculty, staff, and trustees to commit to the long-term work of dismantling flaws in campus structures.

Yet, institutional efforts alone will not eliminate racial disparities in completion rates and career outcomes. Ultimately, it will take broader and deeper structural change across the nation’s education ecosystem, in the world of work, in safety net programs, and in our social compact.

Public policy at the federal, state, and local levels can play an important role. Historically, higher education policy has served as both a catalyst of—and an impediment to—racial equity and economic mobility. In future blogs, the Trust will offer practitioner-informed policy recommendations for strengthening equitable attainment of postsecondary credentials that are valued in the labor market.

For more from the Policy Leadership Trust, see our first blog in the Practitioner Insights for Recovery series.

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