Equity at the ‘heart of everything’

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The months-long pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing many community college students, but it has yielded some areas of promise in helping students succeed.

During a webinar on advocating equity last Thursday with leaders of the California community college system, the discussion addressed myriad issues, including areas that continue to plague many two-year college students, from food and housing insecurities, to access to laptops and reliable internet connection. The leaders also continued to beat the drum for Congress to base any future Covid-related emergency funding to colleges on headcount. But they also highlighted some areas that are proving to serve as foundations for better equity, such as structured pathways.

No other higher education system is better positioned to help more Americans now than community colleges, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges. Because they are flexible and adaptable, two-year colleges can quickly pivot to the changing workforce development needs of a community, both in preparing future workers as well as enabling current workers to get onto a path toward family-sustaining careers.

“One of our primary missions is exactly this moment in time,” Oakley said during the Jobs for the Future event.

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Serving those economic and workforce needs also provides an opportunity for colleges to ensure that are serving students the best they can, Oakley said. Many of the 2 million students attending California community colleges come from low-income backgrounds and are people of color. Without serving those students, California and the U.S. won’t be as prosperous, which is why it’s even more critical now to give those students access to a high-quality education and supports to help them succeed, he said.

“Equity really became, and continues to be, the heart — the center — of everything that we talk about in our system,” Oakley said.

What’s working well

Marty Alvarado, executive vice chancellor of the California system, gave kudos to how two-year colleges shifted quickly and fairly seamlessly to remote learning this spring. The colleges also were able to pool resources and found additional resources to ensure that students had access to technology, laptops and wi-fi.

“Obviously, the need is beyond what the resources concurrently support, but the mobilization was phenomenal,” she said.

The state office has focused on listening to colleges regarding student barriers, Alvarado said. It then gave colleges maximum flexibility so institutions could address their most pressing needs. That included staffing and hiring, grading, support for students, how money could flow and more, she said.

A silver lining in helping students during the pandemic has been the guided pathways framework, Alvarado said. Previously, there were too many competing initiatives and funding streams. Creating the pathways structure has helped colleges to focus on students to ensure programs are centered on them and grounded in equity, she said.

Guided pathways is leading toward structural systemic reform, and now it is at a point where the state system office and its colleges are using it to ensure equity, Alvarado said.

Areas to address

Funding during the pandemic remains a critical issue for community colleges. The California system and other national advocates, including the American Association of Community Colleges, continue to press Congress to use student headcount in allocating federal pandemic-recovery funding.

Many of the 116 California two-year colleges are in some of the state’s most under-resourced communities, and the colleges are the “heart of their community,” Oakley said. That’s why it’s important for Congress to use headcount to distribute any future Covid-related emergency funding to higher education institutions, he said.

“We need to ensure that Congress understands that if we’re serious about supporting individuals, if we are serious about helping our most-impacted citizens and residents of this country, we need to fund community colleges based on headcount,” Oakley said. “We need to fund the entire need of a student, not a part-time need of a student.”

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That was a challenge in distributing CARES Act funds, which community colleges appreciated but noted that it provided a fraction of what is needed to help their students. Many of these students also face other challenges. For example, they typically don’t have access to quality health care — though they were hit the hardest by the pandemic — and have suffered the most from the economic fallout, Oakley said. They also are struggling through the social unrest, because many of their communities are the hardest hit due to interactions with the justice system.

“So we have a myriad of disasters all coming down on them at one time, and we need to support them by supporting community colleges,” Oakley said.

Providing technology and internet access has been an immediate focus for the state system, but at the same time colleges are evaluating their structures to ensure they are serving students the best they can, Alvarado said. For example, the state office has had a 450-plus percent increase in requests for captioning. That doesn’t include students who are potentially undiagnosed and struggling with learning disabilities, she said.

“That’s an equity issue,” she added.

Strong partnerships also will be key, including K-12 and business and industry, Oakley said. Working together, partners can chart out problems earlier, and they can work to overcome those barriers sooner.

It’s also important to connect with adult learners, many of whom only have a high school education or less, and to provide them with skills that will place them on a path toward better-paying careers. It’s especially important to help this population — many of who are underserved and people of color — in an economy that was changing rapidly prior to the pandemic and now has shifted into unknown territory.

“This moment calls on us to be courageous and to do something different,” Oakley said.

About the Author

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