Mass. focuses on equity in higher ed

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The Massachusetts higher education system is embarking on a statewide effort to quash systemic racism and improve equity among its public colleges and universities. 

The state’s higher education department announced on Thursday that it will use a $1.2 million grant from Lumina Foundation to fund transformational efforts statewide at public colleges and universities. Six higher education institutions, including three community colleges, will receive part of the grant for their equity efforts.

The department and Lumina have been developing the groundwork for the initiative for more than a year, said Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago. Despite the challenges facing colleges brought on by COVID-19, the effort was not curtailed. In fact, the recent social unrest and inequities in access to technology and childcare, among others, has only make the effort even more important and should be accelerated, he said.

“I believe the greatest challenges facing higher education today is not COVID-19, but rather the persistent inequities in access to higher education and unequal distribution of the tools for student success,” he said Thursday during an online launch event. “COVID-19 has simply exacerbated those inequalities.”

Education leaders, policymakers and lawmakers have over the years “tweaked around the edges” to move the dial on equity, but it hasn’t yielded system changes that are needed, Santiago said.

“We have to stop tweaking around the edges and build a new system of higher education that serves all students,” he said.

Strategic plan

Santiago outlined the department’s 10-year strategic plan for its equity agenda. It will include a department-wide audit over three years to examine and assess all its policies and initiatives, and it will rescind or modify those that create or support racial inequity, he said.

The department also will use data to measure its progress toward its goals. The analysis will include qualitative data by using students’ experiences. In addition, the state will create tools to support the work, such as digital toolkits with evidence-based practices. And it will develop a statewide professional development curriculum focused on culturally sustaining teaching practices.

“We believe Massachusetts represents a major opportunity to show other states what it truly means to put equity first,” said Danette Gerald Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer.

Thursday’s online event included comments from federal lawmakers, state policymakers and college presidents, among others. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to serve the state in the U.S. House of Representatives, noted the “chronic underfunding” of state institutions that serve these populations, including community colleges, minority-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities, which “continue to be some of the strongest beacons of economic mobility for Black and brown families.”

State Education Secretary James Peyser said some efforts in Massachusetts already show promise, including early college. These partnerships between high schools and colleges are providing first-generation and underrepresented students with pathways to and through higher education. They have helped to increase matriculation rates by more than 20 percentage points when compared to similar students, he said.

Other efforts cited by Peyser as showing promise include:

  • Peer support groups
  • Affordable transfer pathways
  • Last-dollar student aid
  • Pro-active counseling
  • Diverse teachers

“Our challenge is to bring these various pieces together,” he said.

Efforts on campuses

The presidents of the three community colleges receiving Lumina funding for their equity programs — Bunker Hill Community College, Greenfield Community College and Holyoke Community College — highlighted their institutions’ efforts.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said her college uses data to assess its progress in serving its communities of color. One example is ALANA Men in Motion. It is a support program for young men of color that provides personal attention and help in academics, financial aid, and academic and career planning.

Data show that HCC Latinx students participating in ALANA had a fall-to-fall retention rate of 75 percent compared to 45 percent for Latinx students not in the program, Royal said.

Research also shows that mentorships benefit students of color, she said. So HCC is developing a Champions Mentorship Network that will build on an initiative the college started in fall 2019 that connects learners of color with alumni, friends and fellow students in the community.

Royal also this fall semester started a series called Black Students Lives Matter where invited Black students share their personal stories with the board of trustees.

“Leveraging the cultural wealth is critical to moving the equity agenda forward. The future of our communities depends on it,” she said.

An online briefing Thursday on Massachusetts’ new equity initiative included comments from college presidents, including Pam Eddinger (top right), Christina Royal (middle left) and Yves Salomon-Fernández (center). (Image: Screenshot)

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), noted that she is concerned about the college-going and college-completion rates of students in rural areas. She said current middle and high school students from which GCC draws are more diverse than five years ago and will continue to be even more diverse.

Students are coming to GCC with a heightened sense of equity for themselves and their peers, Salomon-Fernández said, adding that the college is learning from those students to design curricula and pedagogy that take their experiences into account.

It’s also important to support the faculty and staff engaged in this work, she added.

“We need to bring everyone together. We need to acknowledge everyone’s experiences, approach this work with humility and understand that we are all striving towards the same goal,” Salomon-Fernández said. “We will make mistakes, but we will learn from those mistakes and support one another.”

Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, added that policies, procedures and funding only goes so far. True change will require bringing everyone on board to do the work, which isn’t easy.

“One of the hardest things to change are hearts and minds,” she said.

About the Author

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