Creating better pathways for students of color

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Supporting students of color goes beyond words and initiatives. Community College Journal, the sister publication of Community College Daily published by the Ameican Association of Community Colleges, asked Frank Harris III about how colleges can assess and expand services and the need to create racially healthy campus cultures. Harris is a professor of postsecondary education and co-director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State University (SDSU).

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Community colleges serve students from all backgrounds. What are some ways, beyond completion rates, colleges can assess how well they are serving students, particularly historically underrepresented and underserved students?

Dr. Frank Harris III

Most community colleges are publicly funded, open-access institutions whose mission is to provide equitable access to postsecondary education to the communities they serve. As we know, for most underrepresented and underserved students, the community college is their only pathway to postsecondary education. So, the mission of the community college is broader (and perhaps more challenging) than that of a four-year institution, which tends to be focused more narrowly on degree attainment. Thus, the work of a community college educator has broader implications beyond completion.

Moreover, because historically underrepresented and underserved students often experience educational environments in ways that are alienating and microaggressive, which contributes to attrition and a host of other negative outcomes, community colleges are responsible for creating campus environments that are safe, welcoming, inclusive and engender a sense of belonging for these students. Toward this end, community colleges should also consider students’ use of student support services — and the accessibility and efficacy of these services — in assessing how well they serve historically underrepresented and underserved students. Academic advising/counseling, health and wellness support, basic needs, campus libraries, financial aid and orientation are some core services that are critical to student success but are sometimes underused by historically underrepresented and underserved students.

How can college leadership set the tone for the institution in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must be seen as a core aspect of a college’s identity rather than an initiative or something a college commits to when convenient or affordable. Campus leadership at all levels — beginning with the governing board — plays an essential role in establishing DEI as a set of shared institutional values. Of course, this is often easier to say than it is to do because most colleges and universities in the United States were not founded on principles aligned with DEI. As a matter of fact, most were founded on principles that directly contradict these values.

DEI work must be approached strategically, just as a campus would approach a comprehensive fundraising campaign, construction project, or any other transformation effort. Campus leaders must start by getting a transparent understanding of their institution’s culture and readiness to be equity-focused. Having a transparent understanding provides guidance on where intervention needs to occur. Leadership must also include DEI in its mission, vision and all campus planning documents with measurable goals and resources allocated toward these efforts.

Finally, enacting clear accountability measures and expectations toward helping the college meet its DEI goals and priorities must also be considered in the performance evaluation process for all college personnel. DEI work is everyone’s responsibility and should never be regulated to any one person or campus unit. Making sure this expectation is reflected in all position descriptions and hiring processes is another important step campus leaders must take to ensure DEI is engaged meaningfully throughout the college.

We’re seeing enrollment drop at colleges — but particularly enrollment of Black men. What are some of the causes and what are some ways colleges can not only bring back Black men, but also help them succeed as students?

Declines in enrollment for any student population is rarely caused by any one factor. Typically, multiple factors and forces are at play. Published research on the experiences of Black boys and men in education has taught us that most educational institutions (K-12 or postsecondary) are not welcoming and inclusive spaces. In addition, far too many educators have bought into the stereotype that Black men are not intelligent nor capable of being successful in college, which Dr. Derald Wing Sue describes as an ascription of intelligence. Moreover, we have to consider longstanding racist stereotypes about Black boys and men, which associate their identities with criminality.

Taking all this into account, too many educators are fearful of Black men and/or do not invest the same time, energy and resources into educating them that they do with other students. Thus, Black men often experience education in negative and hostile ways.

This is not a new phenomenon — it has been the case for a long time. However, this phenomenon in combination with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic — notably declining wages, increased costs of living, uncertain employment opportunities and more family responsibilities (e.g., homeschooling children, taking care of parents, grandparents, and siblings) — has resulted in a devastatingly negative impact on the representation of Black men in postsecondary education. Bringing them back will require colleges to create seamless pathways for enrolling, keep costs of attendance low, serve students holistically and intrusively, and make sure all educators at the institution have the cultural competence necessary to work well with Black men.

Educators must understand Black men’s lived experiences as Black men without having a deficit perspective of them. I would also encourage colleges to forge partnerships with local employers and secondary institutions that could result in increased enrollments of historically underrepresented and underserved students, including Black men.

Read the full Q&A here.