student success

Access and equity: Are community colleges the answer?

Courageous conversations and unapologetic leadership are vital to helping students.

Every Thanksgiving I travel and take the opportunity to catch up on reading materials.

While in flight to California, I opened the November 11 issue of The Chronicle. Three headlines caught my eye: “How Dual Credit Contributes to Inequality,” “Public Colleges Backslide on Access” and “How to Help Disadvantaged Students Reach the Middle Class.” The community college mission aligns with my life mission: providing access to those who may not otherwise have the educational opportunity that leads to a middle class earning potential in America. So, you can imagine the range of emotions I experienced when I read these three headlines.

Let me unpack these three headlines as they relate to community colleges, which, by the way, was not necessarily the focus in the three articles referenced. First, let’s examine the headline, “How Dual Credit Contributes to Inequality.” I strongly disagree with this headline, and would argue it sends the wrong message from my community college lens. Inequality would suggest that everyone does not have EQUAL access to the opportunity of dual credit — this is not true. Most community colleges offer dual credit, and because community colleges are open access institutions, everyone has equal access. There is an embedded EQUITY issue.

Equity issues

The first equity issue: high school students often have the deck stacked against them that prevents them from placing into college-level courses. I’m not blaming the schools, the families or anyone’s ethnic background; what I am saying is that the data speak for itself: students from homes with low socio-economic income levels are less likely to attend college. Students from homes where both parents did not attend college are less likely to complete college. And students from schools with low college-going rates are less likely to go to college. Is this always the case? Of course not. I’m living proof that while poverty can be a barrier, it doesn’t have to be.

So, you may be asking, “I still don’t see the equity problem.” Well, if a child comes to the baseball game ready to play, but can’t afford a glove or tennis shoes (or is it cleats), the coach is either going to tell the child he or she cannot play, or a good coach is going to get the child the needed essentials to play the game. How does this relate to college and specifically to dual credit? Many students have EQUAL access to the placement test to place into dual credit, but cannot place into college level due to the deficient skills; hence, the equity challenge.

Let’s take it a step further. A child has all of the barriers stacked against him or her: being raised in poverty by single parent who graduated from high school doing her best to make ends meet. The child has always been bright, takes the placement exam and places into college level. Now, the child has to pay for the courses — enter the second equity challenge.

Anyone reading this article can place a name and face with the scenarios highlighted above — in fact, I would bet that you could place hundreds of faces and names with these scenarios. What can community colleges do? The better question is what SHOULD community colleges do?

Live up to the mission

Again, community colleges were built to democratize higher education — provide access to higher education to provide greater earning potential for ALL, not those who could afford it or came from the best neighborhoods, or those who came from the best families, or those who came from the best schools. If this is our mission, we should live up to it!

There are a number of great models out there where colleges live up to the mission. Some colleges defray all costs for dual credit students. In Virginia, a state that is poorly funded in higher education, many colleges have partnered with the school districts to fund students’ tuition. How? The high school pays half the tuition and the college subsidizes the other half. In this case, the high school paid the tuition only for those students on free or reduced lunch, balancing the equity scale.

It’s up to leadership

In my view, this is where courageous conversations and unapologetic leadership comes into play. As leaders, we have to grab the bull by the horns and examine the class schedule to ensure we are addressing all markets. Do we offer night, online and weekend courses? More importantly, do we offer the courses in a manner where a student can complete a program at night, online or on weekends? This is can be an attractive model for adult learners who work during the day or have a family.

Many of my colleagues blame the faculty, stating that they won’t teach beyond the 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. sweet spot time of the day. Not true. When I was a faculty member, we had faculty who wanted to start at 8:00 a.m. (I was one of these folks) because they have children and wanted to work while they were in school, as was my case. Others had a lot of flexibility in their schedules and enjoyed coming in at 2 p.m. and teaching through the evening. It’s not the faculty, it’s the lack of leadership to stand firm to the mission which may mean scheduling classes throughout the day.

There’s more to the story. Read the full article at CC Daily.