Providing an equal chance at success

Cerritos College President Jose Fierro meets with students. (Photo: Cerritos College)

Community colleges have made great strides in advancing student success and completion during the last decade. But not all students have benefited from these efforts equally.

According to Lumina Foundation, the postsecondary attainment rate for adults in the United States is around 40 percent. Yet, there are still large gaps in attainment between various student populations. For instance, just 27 percent of African-American adults have a college degree or certificate. For Native American and Latinx adults, the numbers are even smaller: 23 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

“We know we have moved the needle (on completion), but we also know there is more work to be done,” says Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “Is it truly success if only some of our students are achieving their goals? I don’t think so. We have a moral imperative to provide success for all of our students.”

To identify these gaps and support all students having an equal chance at success, AACC has launched a new national initiative called Unfinished Business. The effort kicked off in December with the first of a series of national meetings to discuss the issue.

This excerpt comes from the April/May issue of AACC’s Community College Journal.

Unfinished Business is not about identifying every obstacle to success, Bumphus says, but is about “having the tools to identify equity issues and achievement gaps and understanding the barriersthat create them. We will strive to develop tools and ways of thinking that will arm our college presidents with powerful and meaningful ways to ensure that all students have a clear pathway to attaining their goals.”

Jose Fierro, president of Cerritos College in California, attended the initial December meeting. Noting that two-thirds of today’s jobs require more than a high school diploma, up from 56 percent in 1992, Fierro said that equity in college completion is an essential driver of economic mobility.

“A college credential is a way to the middle class for underrepresented populations, including immigrants and minorities,” he says. “Unfortunately, many minority groups continue to lag behind.”

Removing barriers to success

One initiative that Cerritos College has created to solve this issue is a scholarship program for students who enroll directly after high school, called Cerritos Complete.

Like other College Promise scholarships, it provides financial assistance for any student who is willing to meet certain academic requirements and pledges to graduate from the college on time. However, the program also recognizes that tuition isn’t the only barrier standing in the way of success for minority and low-income students.

“We’re promising not just financial support, but extensive wraparound services to help students complete their degree,” Fierro says.

Before they enroll in classes, Cerritos Complete recipients are required to meet with an academic advisor to build a personalized education plan. They also must take a short summer course called Connections, which prepares them to navigate the college environment. And a representative from the college meets with students and their parents together to explain what they can expect.

“About 60 percent of our students are first-generation college students,” Fierro says. “We have found that it’s very important to include parents during the transition to college, particularly for students of color.”

Related article: Tackling ‘unfinished business’

Aside from paying the tuition costs of Cerritos Complete participants, the college has made a significant investment in the success of these students. For instance, it spent more than $1 million last year to embed academic tutoring into courses where students tend to struggle the most, such as math and English.

Participation in the program has grown from 262 students in 2015-16 to more than 1,400 students this year. Initially, the program only paid students’ first-year tuition expenses. But with a new state program pitching in additional funding, the college recently announced that it would expand Cerritos Complete to cover the full cost of a two-year degree.

Convincing underserved populations that college is even possible is another key challenge. Cerritos College has hired a liaison who travels among the area’s high schools and helps students realize that college is an attainable goal, regardless of their circumstances.

The liaison, whose salary is paid by the college and each of the school systems it serves, advises high school students how to prepare for collegeand helps them fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Look at the data

The equity gap might mean something different for each institution, depending on the communities they serve. Some colleges may see large gaps in completion rates between students of various ethnicities; for others, these gaps might show up in the achievement of students from different genders or economic groups, or among veterans or students with disabilities. Leaders should examine their institutions with a critical eye to identify where their own gaps exist and what might be causing them.

“Look at the data. Let it tell you a story,” says Maureen Murphy, president of the College of Southern Maryland (CSM).

College of Southern Maryland President Maureen Murphy with students and staff. (Photo: CSM)

By focusing heavily on student success initiatives, CSM has increased its number of graduates by 36 percent over the last five years. “That’s pretty extraordinary,” Murphy says. But when college leaders disaggregated the data, they saw that poorer students of color were not affected by these gains nearly as significantly. Murphy called closing the equity gap “our greatest challenge.”

In combing through the data, CSM leadership discovered the college was losing a significant number of students in the transition from their first to second year.

“When we looked more closely at what students who enrolled for their second year had in common, we saw that in nearly every case, they knew where they were going and what they wanted to do,” Murphy says. This insight led the college to create guided pathways with intrusive counseling to make sure every student was placed on a career path early on in their experience.

“We have added structures that don’t allow students to fall through the cracks,” she explains.

Read the rest of the article in CCJournal.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.