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Love Students to Success and Close Equity Gaps Through a Culture of Caring

In 2015, Amarillo College (AC) focused on its key student success progress and completion points. The data told a disappointing and even devastating story. Using “secret shoppers,” data summits, focus group and survey data, AC identified key reasons our students were not successful — poverty, bureaucracy and lack of relational connection and support.

Dr. Russell Lowery-HartDr. Russell Lowery-Hart

After learning this, AC invited secret shoppers to design the perfect college for students like them — first generation, Latinx, mostly female, mothers working two jobs and going to school part time. Their insights fundamentally forced AC to rethink and rebuild itself as an equity-minded institution focused on loving the students we have (rather than the students we used to or wished we had.) AC named our
typical student Maria. She is smart, ambitious and the hope of our community.
Yet, AC was not structured to effectively serve her.

Our students are 70% first-generation, 54% part-time, 58% minority, 67% female, 58% financial aid recipients, 52% transfer focused and, on average, 25 years old.

The transformation worked. Completion rates more than doubled, enrollment increased and equity gaps in performance and access closed.

The most powerful “culture of caring” impact on students is two-fold: culture shift and relationship. Students told us what their “ideal” college looked and felt like. As a college, we knew we needed to embrace a culture of good service and intense caring. Students identified values, focusing on understanding the first-generation college student experience and responding with a culture of caring.

The new AC Culture of Caring Values are not typical higher education lingo. They include “Caring through WOW,” “Fun,” “Innovation,” “Family” and “Yes.” These values are written into every job description and merit pay evaluation. The first week of classes, we put these values on significant display by placing employees all over our campuses — from parking lots to classrooms — to ensure students have someone to guide them.

AC hosts data summits each semester where AC closes all offices for an afternoon. All employees and faculty gather for intensive data reviews, listening to student voices, idea generation and fellowship to celebrate our successes. The cultural investment in privileging the student voice and insight has been challenging and rewarding.

We learned that if the school 1) removes a life barrier, 2) provides an accelerated learning platform and 3) does so within a deep and systemic culture of caring that loves our students to success, then students will graduate with the skills and credentials needed to earn a living wage. Students were clear about their struggles. The top ten barriers to classroom success had nothing to do with the classroom. The top ten barriers to learning were life related rather than academic. Initially, AC was so focused on academics that AC failed to realize the more powerful and debilitating barrier — poverty.

By working with Dr. Donna Beegle, all employees understood poverty and its barriers. Survey data from Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and her case study on AC through the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University helped clarify how pervasive poverty is for students.

The Advocacy & Resource Center (ARC) is the hub of AC’s system designed to eradicate poverty barriers. ARC collaborates with over 60 local non-profits that have federal/state/private funds. Through these partnerships, students have access to funds for transportation, housing, utilities and childcare. With three social workers, robust emergency aid support from the AC Foundation, community supporters and an entire college committed to a culture of caring, over 3,000 students were served in one year. AC literally, systemically, thoughtfully and intentionally loved students to success.

The “culture of caring” demonstrates that addressing student poverty barriers increases student success. AC improved three-year completion rates from 22% to 56%, as measured by Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board student success points. More importantly, AC closed achievement gaps across the board with the exception of African American men who made significant gains.

In five years, AC has seen a 75% growth rate in first-generation students graduating with a degree/certificate (21% growth rate in transfer) and a 64% growth rate in Pell students graduating (29% growth rate in transfer). AC course success rates (A-C pass rates) have increased 110% for Hispanic students, 112% for African American students and 108% for all students.

AC recognized the needs of our first-generation students and worked across the institution to create systems embracing and supporting their needs. The AC culture of caring is an entrenched part of the college culture. AC faculty and staff take responsibility for the whole student and work together to remove the greatest threat to student success — poverty.

Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart is the president of Amarillo College.

This article originally appeared in the November 12, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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