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Transforming Community Colleges for Equity

The recent Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report on the steep enrollment declines of Black male students at community colleges is a stark reminder that our sector must accelerate the crucial work to ensure the academic success of Black male students.

In the light of decades-long enrollment declines and historic low enrollment numbers among Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, our work is an uphill battle but not insurmountable. The pandemic exacerbated the need to transform our institutions to being more student centered, keeping in mind the unique needs of racially marginalized students.Francesca I. CarpenterFrancesca I. Carpenter

While it is tempting to look at all the external factors that impact every institution’s ability to solve the larger societal problem of historical racism, our colleges won’t make significant progress without efforts to systematically address their institutional structures and practices that perpetuate inequities. 

Economist Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce makes a compelling case that U.S. higher education, by virtue of its prominence in economic life, is now “the capstone in an education system that is a primary cause of the reproduction of race and class privilege across generations.”  Carnevale says that postsecondary education and training “mimics and magnifies the inequality that it inherits from the pre-K–12 system. It then projects this inequality into labor markets, housing markets, and local school districts, guaranteeing the intergenerational transmission of race and class privilege.”

Since its founding, Achieving the Dream has been focused on helping institutions deliver more equitable results in student success. In recent years we have recognized the need to go beyond incremental changes and help institutions recognize our nation’s persistent racism to create more equitable institutions. Since 2020, ATD has partnered with the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center to create the Racial Equity Leadership Academy (RELA), an intensive institute that supports teams of community college leaders as they develop strategic racial equity plans and consciously dismantle barriers to equity at their institutions.

For the past two years, the first cohort of 10 institutions have introduced challenging racial equity change efforts and conversations to catalyze cultural change at their institutions, focusing on three key areas:

·        Introducing inclusive pedagogy and classroom practices that provide more personalized research-based approaches to teaching and learning that builds on what students already know, introduces relevance, higher-order thinking, real world problem-solving that help students “own” what they learn. 

·         Diversifying faculty hiring and increasing retention of racially minoritized faculty so that they are as racially and ethnically diverse as the students they serve. We also know that this can further help create a sense of belonging that leads to increased student success.

·         Strengthening professional learning to encourage staff and faculty to continually improve their practice by creating structures and opportunities for ongoing, collaborative learning and development of research-based practice that support student success. 

What ATD Colleges are Doing

Mott Community College (MI) seeks to intentionally ensure fairness and inclusivity by encouraging all members of the community to be change agents to address systemic racism, critique college systems to remove barriers for people of color, remove deficit mindsets that label minoritized students as problems, and implement inclusive practices.  While MCC’s own equity audit showed that the college was taking significant steps to promote inclusivity in learning, the audit found a perceived lack of infrastructure that formally institutionalizes systems, processes, communication, programming, and accountability metrics for diversity, equity, and inclusion. MCC is introducing a new framework for leaders that will drive critical thinking, professional development, and community accountability. The framework encourages decisionmakers to set data goals for implementing programs and practices and measuring impact that reflects change to the access, retention, completion, and/or workforce statistics for the employee and student groups.

Anne Arundel Community College (MD) is creating ongoing opportunities and expectations for college employees to examine policies that result in adverse impacts for racially minoritized students, faculty and staff. The institution aims to prevent discrimination and microaggressions by creating a clear understanding of what racial equity means, cultivating an environment for meaningful, respectful interactions across racial/ethnic groups; and helping faculty engage equity-minded, culturally responsive pedagogical approaches and practices. A key focus to achieve these goals is incorporating race-conscious and equity-minded criteria into annual performance evaluations.

Pierce College (WA) is revamping its faculty hiring and tenure process. The college is introducing cluster hiring of tenure-track faculty with demonstrated experience in and commitment to teaching, mentoring, and/or engaging in services for Black and Brown students; helping these students navigate higher education; and introducing culturally relevant pedagogy all with the goal of centering Black and Brown student excellence. The first-year faculty cohort participates in a community of practice with other tenure-track faculty and is encouraged to bring their lived experiences and authentic selves to contribute to discourse and action in supporting all students, especially Black and Brown students.

Leadership for Culture Change

A crucial underpinning of this work has been building broad-based leadership on campus committed to racial equity change.  In the words of the racial equity leadership team from Austin Community College, culture change requires daily reinforcement; new structures, policies, and practices; strategic and symbolic action; and constantly putting racial equity issues at the center of institutional transformation. Leadership also requires an ability to advance a multi-layered, actionable strategy through a series of short-term racial equity efforts that demonstrate what is achievable through effective implementation and collaboration.

ATD is currently identifying a new cohort of institutions to participate in RELA. The next cohort will develop a new vision for their campus’s racial equity work, and launch a racial equity change effort with a comprehensive action plan that aligns with their college’s strategic plan and student success initiatives.

Francesca I. Carpenter is director of equity initiatives at Achieving the Dream.

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