‘Uncomfortable conversations’

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, moderates a discussion on equity and other issues with community college leaders. (Photos: Matthew Dembicki)

Community college leaders are addressing equity issues on their campuses — from disaggregating data to get a better picture of who their students are, to eliminating certain programs that don’t lead to local jobs with family-sustaining wages — but it isn’t easy work.

In fact, several college leaders who participated Wednesday in a discussion on the topic at the offices of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in Washington, D.C., noted that these efforts frequently include “uncomfortable conversations” because they often tie into race, ethnicity, poverty and other issues that their communities face.

“It’s hard work,” said AACC President Walter Bumphus, who invited the college presidents and state directors as part of a series of meetings held by AACC to examine “gaps” in community colleges’ efforts to improve student success. AACC is working with member colleges to identify and address those areas in what it is calling Unfinished Business. It will be a major focus for the association and the community college sector in the coming years.

Tackling the challenges

Leaders at Wednesday’s meeting outlined some of the shifts and obstacles their colleges face in helping certain populations of students to succeed. Those ranged from understanding changes in local demographics — several cited a growing Hispanic population — to the unique challenges at rural colleges, especially in serving areas that are slipping deeper into poverty.

Discussions related to these topics can make some individuals on campus and in the communities feel threatened because they may associate equity with something being taken from them and given to someone else, several leaders noted.

“Equity can’t mean someone loses,” Bumphus said.

College leaders at the meeting shared their efforts to address these challenges, from digging deeper into student data to get a clearer picture of who is succeeding and not succeeding, to providing more professional development opportunities to faculty who can help change the culture of a campus.

Working with partners

With an ever-shifting workplace landscape, colleges must be nimble and work with business and industry to ensure they have a skilled workforce, several college leaders said. Community colleges also must develop pathways for their students to continue their education. There are great examples of two- and four-year higher education partnerships —such as Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, Maricopa Community Colleges and Arizona State University, and Valencia College and the University of Central Florida — but in many areas it’s still a struggle, especially when it comes to helping students successfully transfer.

The group also discussed partnerships with K-12 systems. A growing number of community colleges are depending more on dual enrollments to try to keep level their overall enrollments, but that has risks, the leaders said.

Other topics discussed at the meeting included developmental education and challenges to developing a pipeline toward the college presidency.

Betsy Oudenhoven (center), president of Community College of Aurora in Colorado, highlights the growing diversity at her college.

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About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.