Becoming proximate to the American Dream

Broward College President Gregory Adam Haile (center) speaks with students. (Photo: Broward College)

Community colleges have long been the means to better oneself through higher education. Indeed, we have a storied history of being a clear conduit to the American Dream. Recently, our community colleges have stood at the nexus of economic disruption and a global pandemic. The importance of higher education attainment has revealed itself perhaps like never before.

Early during the pandemic and at the height of the economic disruption, those with less than a high school diploma experienced an employment decline of 24%, while those with a bachelor’s degree experienced an employment decline of a mere 2%. A working paper published by the Harvard Center for Population and Development revealed that, tragically, Covid-19 death rates were substantially elevated for a person without a college degree. The picture of the power of a college degree is in its sharpest relief. As a community college leader charged to manifest attainment for all, including the most challenged among us, I am reminded that those we do not serve are impacted by our absence.

This article comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Seventy-five years ago, the Commission on Higher Education produced a report entitled “Higher Education for American Democracy.” This galvanizing report charged our institutions to be physically proximate (“remove geographic … barriers to educational opportunity”), financially proximate (“remove … economic barriers to educational opportunity”) and socially proximate (“In some social circles, a college education is often considered a luxury which can be done without, something desirable perhaps, ‘but not for the likes of us.’”).

Three proximities imperative to enhance college access

Physical proximity reflects the geography that must be traversed before any hopeful student arrives at our campuses. The many buses they must take, plus the time they do not have, equates to the student that we will never meet. Too often, the individuals who we are designed to support — those with the fewest transportation options, those with the least amount of time, those who are unfamiliar with higher education — are the same individuals that we expect to come to us.

Social proximity is how close an individual or community feels to the possibility of attending college. We know children who grow up believing that college is inevitable, and others who have never thought of the possibility, or worse, grew up being told they were incapable. I learned of college by chance.

Related article: Six ZIP codes, endless impact

As a child, to get to school, I would walk through the projects, take a long bus ride and walk further to school. I remember saying to a classmate as we prepared to graduate from elementary school in 1989, “Isn’t this great? We will be the last class of the decade!” He said, “No, we’ll be the last class of the millennium because we will graduate college in 1999.” That was the first time I had ever heard the word “college,” and he, of the same age, knew precisely what year he would graduate. I was not socially proximate with even the term college; to him, college was inevitable.

Financial proximity is the economic feasibility — real or perceived — of attending college. This includes not only the cost of classes and books, but also the cost of food, childcare and transportation, and the opportunity cost of lost wages while studying for, traveling to and attending classes.

Become physically, socially and financially proximate

At Broward College (Florida), we started by auditing who we were missing. This self-audit revealed that a disproportionate few of our students hailed from communities that we are, in fact, designed to elevate: those with the lowest postsecondary attainment rates and highest unemployment rates. Even more, of our 11 locations, one was on the fringe of the six ZIP codes, with the lowest postsecondary attainment rates and highest unemployment rates. These are our “Broward UP communities,” which include nearly half of Broward County’s cities. Despite serving 60,000 diverse students, we had fallen short of our charge.

This revelation led us to expand our service model through Broward UP (unlimited potential). We designed Broward UP to improve postsecondary education access, attainment and economic mobility for residents in our Broward UP Communities.

We became physically proximate. Broward College has literally brought college to students rather than expecting them to come to us. We collaborate with municipal, nonprofit and county leadership to leverage their underutilized facilities to offer classes in the heart of our Broward UP communities. Many students can walk from their home to the classroom in minutes.

We became socially proximate. Residents can see their own possibilities of attending college by seeing learning locations in their neighborhoods. Our team members work daily in their neighborhoods, ensuring the residents know their capacity to succeed. Broward College flags and murals are beginning to adorn our Broward UP Communities. In addition, on-site case managers customize goal-setting and educational planning.

We are financially proximate. The price paid by the thousands of students who attended Broward UP programming: zero dollars.

Broward UP is in its fourth year, and we have strong evidence of meaningful impact. The college’s programming is available in 27 locations in our Broward UP communities. Every dollar spent yields a $19.27 return to students. To date, Broward UP has served more than 3,300 individuals and awarded almost 2,400 workforce-ready certificates and industry certifications.

Broward UP reflects the foundation of our existence. Broward UP may not be for all, but physical, social and financial proximity are challenges that we must all embrace. Perhaps, then, those we have been missing will become more proximate to the American Dream.

About the Author

Gregory Adam Haile
Gregory Adam Haile, J.D., is the seventh president of Broward College, a community college serving nearly 60,000 students in south Florida.