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A ‘Big Idea’ for Higher Education

A ‘Big Idea’ for Higher Education
Colleges must create new venues to reach and recruit
under-represented students.

There is no shortage of ideas in the world of higher education. But many college and university leaders don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about the big picture. Right now, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of one of the biggest challenges ahead for higher education: reaching out to traditionally underserved students from the Hispanic community. Hispanics are on the brink of becoming a majority population in this country, and to address this challenge, what we need are some big ideas.

California’s student population offers a preview of what is soon to become a national trend. At the California State University system, the country’s largest four-year university system, with more than 400,000 students, only 7 percent of the student body is African-American. The Hispanic population at CSU is much higher, at 26 percent. However, it is comparably small considering that 35 percent of California’s high school graduates are Hispanic.

To say African-American and Hispanic students deserve special attention is an understatement. Student enrollment numbers for these groups are not going to rise if we don’t first do something about their academic eligibility to attend a university. They continue to struggle in high school. For African-Americans, particularly males, even completing high school has become the exception rather than the rule.

The California Postsecondary Education Commission reports that only 19 percent of African-American and 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates would have qualified to attend either CSU or the University of California system in 2003. By comparison, 48 percent of Asian
and 34 percent of White high school graduates were eligible.

Are our educators and communities doing enough to help these students get information and take the courses they need to prepare for college? Probably not. In many cases, these students do well in high school, but they didn’t have the resources or the information they needed to take the proper coursework or prepare for a postsecondary education.

So what is the “big idea” that higher education needs to pursue? Essentially, we need to stop waiting or hoping that students will come to us. We need to get out of our current comfort zones and go directly into these communities to reach out to and assist our future students. 

At CSU, this has meant moving beyond our existing outreach efforts and partnerships by creating new venues to reach students. For instance, this year we held “Super Sunday” events, in which CSU presidents and trustees went to multiple African-American churches in Los Angeles and in the Bay Area to make presentations about the requirements for college. We expected a receptive audience, but we were surprised at the extent to which people were truly hungry for information. We had some parents and students waiting in line for more than 30 minutes to receive a copy of our “Steps To College” poster.

CSU has also created a program to help Hispanic parents in underserved communities create a home learning environment, navigate the school system, collaborate with school officials, encourage college attendance and support a child’s emotional and social development
What are the consequences if we don’t find new and better ways to reach out to underserved populations? The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released a study last fall showing that the educational level and personal income of the American work force will drop in the next 15 years unless states do a better job of educating all racial and ethnic groups.

This tells me that higher education has an imperative to find new ways to help young people from traditionally underserved groups. If we simply wait for those students to find their way to us, we do so at our own peril. A population with lower levels of education — at a time when higher education is more important than ever — means lower levels of productivity and prosperity. Let’s take on this “big idea” and do whatever we can to reach those students who represent the face of our future.

Dr. Charles Reed is chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system.

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