Perspectives: Adapting to Achieve

In 2003, the United States ranked 24th in math, 15th in reading and 20th in science in comparative performance of its 15-year-old students in the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) among 29 Organisation (CQ-BB) for Economic Co-operation (CQ-BB) and Development (OECD) countries. Fast forward to 2009, and it is not surprising to find the number of students in U.S. colleges and universities that are underprepared for college-level work. Some of the students represented in the 2003 PISA have already swirled in and out of college and are returning to join “nontraditional” adult learners. What they did not learn the first time, or have since forgotten, requires that institutions of higher education (often, community colleges) provide crucial remedial or developmental education for them to be college- and career-ready.

For the United States to be competitive globally, increasing the number of students who complete a certificate or degree that is aligned with higher-value-added labor market skill demands will be critical. Unfortunately, many educational institutions are not equipped to offer the necessary student and academic support, policies, practices, content and care that are required to help students succeed. Despite the nation’s long tradition of being a melting pot, multicultural appreciation and global citizenship remain foreign concepts in many U.S. colleges and universities. The nation’s changing demographics also suggest that a heightened appreciation and understanding of diversity and citizenship will be essential learning for many institutions and their stakeholders. Furthermore, tailoring educational offerings to meet the needs of diverse learners will require new ways of working with students, faculty, administrators, trustees and other stakeholders to increase student success. How do institutions dig in and help students achieve their educational and career goals?

Each year, the Community College Leadership Program in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin conducts a Board of Trustee Institute (BOTI) for Texas community colleges that participate in Achieving the Dream, a national initiative to improve student equity and success. The institute starts with trustees and CEOs analyzing their respective institutional data and discussing possible policy implications to address identified gaps. The 2009 BOTI focused on the poor success rates of students referred to developmental education.

Videos of focus groups, provided by the Center for Community College Student Engagement, shed light on some of the challenges from students’ perspectives. A returning adult African- American male said, “I haven’t been in school for 20 some years. My head is hurting; I couldn’t take much more.” A Latino male stated, “My English is not that nice. That’s the bad thing about people that are bilingual; I am split into two. . .”

It shouldn’t hurt to be a student — whether a returning-adult, limited-English-proficient or first-time-in-college student. These are all individuals courageously entering our institutions to improve their lives. Data are used to identify performance gaps. By including students and other stakeholders in discussions about identified gaps, awareness can develop about barriers to change and specific areas for improvement with input from those potentially impacted by decisions.

To be competitive, the nation and its institutions will need to be responsive to changing labor-market demands. To be domestically and globally productive and responsible, educational institutions will need to build awareness and understanding about global citizenship, respectfully open conversations and minds to embrace changing student populations and learn to adapt to diverse learning needs.

— Dr. Margaretta Brédé Mathis is associate director, Achieving the Dream, Community College Leadership Program; and senior lecturer, Department of Educational Administration, The University of Texas at Austin