NISOD Session Highlights Latino Student Success Imperative

Improving student completion rates at community colleges goes hand in hand with improving educational outcomes for Latinos, Excelencia in Education President Sarita Brown said Monday at the 34th annual convention of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) in Austin, Texas.

“You can’t reach this goal without a tactical plan for Latinos,” said Brown. Founded in 2005, Excelencia is a research-based organization dedicated to improving education for the nation’s fastest-growing population. It emphasizes Latinos as an “asset” and “human capital” the nation can ill afford to ignore.

“We are a major proportion of your student body, our workforce and of this country’s civic leadership. Those are arguments that Excelencia makes every day,” said Brown during a panel titled “Examples of Excelencia: Meeting the Latino College Completion Challenge.”

The panel also included Dr. Lydia Tena, northwest campus dean and dean of instructional programs at El Paso Community College; David Pluviose, editor of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, moderated.

Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the country and growing, and the youngest racial and ethnic group, Brown said. Though this growth has been projected for at least 30 years, she said, educators are still coming to terms with the implications for higher education. “Demography is destiny. I don’t believe that anymore,” she said, referring to the challenges in getting educators to stop viewing Latinos as “nontraditional students” rather than as simply part of the increasingly diverse student population of the country.

Most Latino college students are first-generation, many attend colleges near home, so they can live at home and work to help pay for their education, Brown said.

Excelencia maintains a searchable database, Growing What Works, with information about Latino students and college programs with a successful track record in educating them. In addition, each year, Excelencia recognizes a college success story. El Paso Community College, one of the fastest-growing community colleges of its size in the nation, was recognized in 2011 for its early college high school initiative. The program allows students from area school districts to receive college credit while in high school and boasts an 85 percent Latino enrollment.

Tena said the dual credit enrollment program offers free college tuition to students, an important feature in El Paso, a Texas city on the Mexico border where the average median income is significantly lower than the U.S. average. She said many Latino parents in El Paso face a choice: “Do I put food on the table or set aside money to send my student to college?” The program ensures that students don’t have to make the tradeoff, she said.

The session on Latino educational attainment was among dozens of panels at the annual NISOD conference, affiliated with the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

The international gathering brought together hundreds of community college educators and administrators to discuss developments and best practices in the fastest-growing segment in higher education. In recent years, the community college mission has been threatened by steep funding cuts. At the same time, two-year institutions are facing pressure to improve completion rates, several speakers noted.

In “Faculty Roles in Re-Imagining America’s Community Colleges,” a panel discussed a new report by the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges that addressed several concerns. The 38-member commission included chancellors, presidents and thought leaders in the field of education.

The nation’s community college leaders were “looking to this report to inform and guide them in the work they’re going to do with their strategic planning,” said Dr. Walter Bumphus, president of the AACC and moderator of the panel discussion.

“The U.S. is now ranked 16th in the world in the educational attainment of 18-to-24 year olds,” said Dr. Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and co-chair of the AACC commission. “By 2018, two-thirds of jobs are going to require some post-secondary education.”

What’s needed are “fundamentally redesigned educational experiences for students,” McClenney said.

Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, co-chair of the commission and president of Cuyahoga Community College, added that educators must help meet the job skills gap, preparing students for the workforce. In addition, they must improve students’ math proficiency because “math is an important predictor of college success.” That work has to begin in grades K-12, she added, if colleges are to improve completion rates and provide students with jobs and an opportunity to attain “the American Dream.”

“We must change in a very determined and inventive way, putting into practice practices that make sense, not just [those that] we’ve always done,” Thornton said.

Jennifer Lara, professor of education at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, represented faculty on the commission. She said the role of faculty has changed since she signed on to teaching at Arundel 12 years ago. “Now, not only am I a teacher, but I wear many hats,” she said. “Not to mention that in a tight economy we are asked to do a lot for less.”

The NISOD conference continues through Wednesday.