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Looking Inward, Outward, and Ahead to Improve Equity

Promoting more equitable access to economic mobility was at the core of JFF’s meeting of the Postsecondary State Network

August 8, 2019

At a Glance

Promoting more equitable access to economic mobility was at the core of JFF’s meeting of the Postsecondary State Network

What does it mean to be committed to equity? How can we promote more equitable access to economic mobility? What’s the role of postsecondary institutions—and our role as individuals working in postsecondary education—in this effort? Those were some of the thorny issues examined at a meeting of the Postsecondary State Network in steamy Fort Lauderdale last month.

Our plenary and working session speakers presented new research, shared promising practices, and challenged us to expand our thinking about what it means to be committed to equity. In particular, we were challenged to look inward—at ourselves and our institutions—and to look outward—at the systems and communities that students interact with throughout their educational and career journeys.

It's disingenuous to work for equity . . . but ignore the inequities that permeate our own lives.

Dr. Jamica Love, Opening Plenary Speaker

Looking In

As a network, we share a sense of urgency for transformation. Like our speakers, we see educational equity as a moral imperative. But we were reminded by presenters from the Community College Research Initiatives and Achieving the Dream that, before we dive into solutions, we need to take time for critical reflection, with an emphasis on examining the structures, processes, and attitudes that lead to inequitable outcomes.

From our opening speaker, longtime student affairs leader Dr. Jamica Love, to our closing speaker, Greenfield Community College president Dr. Yves Solomon-Fernandez, we were pushed to think first about how we as individuals come to this work, including the identities and beliefs that shape how we approach postsecondary reform.

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As Josh Wyner of the Aspen Institute said, we talk a lot about the work we are engaged in, but “we don’t talk a lot about the people who are doing the work.” Love in particular emphasized individual development as essential to promoting equity and implementing equitable policy and practice. “It’s disingenuous to work for equity on our campuses but ignore the inequities that permeate our own lives,” she said.

We were also challenged to examine the ways that our systems can and should be designed around students’ needs, rather than our own convenience. For example, Dr. Judith Scott-Clayton of the Community College Research Center urged us to consider what student-centered financial aid policy would look like.

As Dr. Jim Martin of the U.S Army College put it, when working on issues of transfer, “my job is to be [my students’] advocate”—to emphasize what’s convenient for students, not what’s convenient for the college. When our institutions and systems are designed around faculty, staff, and policymaker needs, it sends a message to students about how much we value their time and their investments in education.

Dr. Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York, echoed this idea. He noted that while we frequently talk about a growth mindset for our students—the belief that most abilities can be developed through education and effort—we don’t work on developing a growth mindset for administrators and faculty—ensuring that all those tasked with student success truly believe that our students can learn and grow. We also spoke about the message we send to students when our institutions communicate a commitment to equity but have minimal diversity among faculty and leadership.

This inward reflection is where the work can get uncomfortable, because we have to consider how our own identities, beliefs, and actions impact students. But the message was clear: We need to lean into that discomfort, not shy away from it. Historically, a focus on equity in postsecondary reform has primarily involved naming the equity gaps—the differences in outcomes for students of color or low-income students. From there, the discussion often went to interventions that might close those gaps—extra tutoring or minority mentoring programs. These strategies aren’t easy to implement, but in some ways they are safe—they don’t require individual and cultural transformation. Our presenters were clear, though. We need to pursue this deeper level of change.

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It’s only through partnerships that we can fully support learners on their way to economic opportunity.

Looking Outward

At the beginning of the meeting, JFF Vice President Michael Collins challenged us to lift up our gaze and to more actively partner with workforce systems, K-12 programs, employers, and community-based organizations (CBO). We know that all of these groups play a role in students’ educational and career paths, he said. It’s only by looking outward that we can reach the students who might not be making it to our doors. And it’s only through partnerships that we can fully support learners on their way to economic opportunity.

Throughout our two days together, we heard about what it looks like when we expand our horizons. We learned how CBOs can play a wide range of roles in reaching the “untapped workforce,” from providing on-ramps to credentials, to offering wraparound supports, to operating entire credentialing programs.

Through partnerships with postsecondary institutions, these CBOs can help learners access a wide range of options beyond the first credential. Beyond access to education and supports, working with external partners is an important strategy for addressing student financial stability.

Presenters from Michigan shared a vision of community colleges as hubs that work with partners to ensure that students get access to the resources they need. This could mean partnering with the workforce system to tap into funds under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Employment and Training initiative. We heard how in Alabama, efforts to dramatically increase the number of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid required partnerships with numerous high schools, county officials, and many colleges throughout the region.

We were urged to lift up our gaze beyond our own internal silos as well: to get out of our offices and get to know our students as people with rich and complex lives. We learned how in North Carolina, the student success coaches who spend the most time interacting with students out on campus, rather than in their offices, have a higher impact on student retention. Love also urged us to spend more time with students outside of the classroom—and let them get to know us. This is what opens the door for conversations about what students need in order to achieve their goals.

We are on a transformative learning journey together . . . [that will] ultimately transform the future of higher education.

Looking Forward: Where Do We Go Next?

We need to take time to examine ourselves and our ecosystem, but we also need to keep moving forward, especially given the current pace of change in our economy. First, we must examine the incentives we have at our disposal and see how we can promote a common framework for reform. We must focus on professional development at all levels so that everyone is equipped to support equitable credential attainment.

Finally, as we heard from multiple speakers, we must leverage the Postsecondary State Network and other networks of innovative, equity-minded leaders. As JFF Associate Vice President Dr. Stacey Clawson reminded us, we are on a transformative learning journey together. The deep, constructive, and meaningful learning we are creating together is what can ultimately transform the future of higher education.

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