Want an equitable recovery that lasts? Serve adult learners of color better

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It’s difficult to overstate the impact the pandemic has had on our lives, our communities, our education system and our economies. From massive higher education enrollment drops to a volatile job market to record inflation, very little about our education and workforce systems looks like it did in the early days of 2020.

But this enormous disruption also presents a huge opportunity to do better — especially for the populations that these systems have failed in the past. What if we leverage the upheaval of the past two years to build better systems and cement higher education as the driver of strong futures for individuals and economies?

Postsecondary degrees and high-quality credentials are more important than ever for long-term success in the labor market, but systemic barriers and racial inequities have long hindered the promise of higher education and economic mobility for people of color. The pandemic has made it starkly apparent that the people most underserved by our current systems and structures are people of color without postsecondary credentials. If we want to get more people on paths to economic mobility and provide them with recession-proof opportunities, we must focus our recovery efforts on better serving these populations.

A potential powerful engine

There is a golden opportunity for community colleges, in particular, to build new systems and structures with a deliberate focus on better serving adult learners of color. With their ability to bridge the gap between job seekers and local economies, community colleges have huge potential to function as powerful engines of economic recovery and growth, benefitting both individuals and communities by helping employers expand and diversify their talent pools; but this potential cannot be fully realized without intentional efforts to recruit, support and better serve adult learners of color.

Like most institutions of higher education, many community colleges do not operate in ways that serve busy adults juggling work, family and child care obligations, and the desire to advance or redirect their careers through education. These students face particularly acute scheduling hurdles, financial challenges, structural barriers and numerous other roadblocks that prevent them from persisting and earning postsecondary degrees at the rates needed to achieve equitable student outcomes. The pandemic has amplified these challenges at the same time that higher education is becoming more essential; failure to take decisive action at this make-or-break moment could mean the loss of a huge opportunity to reorient the ways that community colleges serve adult learners of color.

A concerted effort

Fortunately, an increasing number of leaders, institutions, philanthropies and policymakers are recognizing this urgent need and are getting serious and specific about the work. Nearly 140 community colleges in California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia are participating in the REACH Collaborative, an effort supported by Lumina Foundation and the J.M. Belk Endowment to create academic pathways that acknowledge and address the needs and lived experiences of adult students of color. With an explicit, equity-driven goal of increasing credentials earned by Black, Hispanic and Native American adults, ages 25-64, enrolled at participating colleges by 2% within two years, the institutions participating in REACH are walking the walk of making the fundamental changes needed to set up thousands more adult learners of color for success.

The first major focus of this work is on the academic and structural core of the educational experiences that community colleges offer to students. The educational pathways that students pursue should all be thoughtfully designed to formally recognize prior work and learning and include shorter-term credentials that can “stack” on top of one another, leading to associate and bachelor’s degrees and faster academic and career gains.

It is also essential that these pathways are intentionally built to lead to high-wage, high-demand local career opportunities so that students can feel confident about the jobs they can enter after completing their education. All of the institutions participating in REACH are engaging in critical analysis of their local labor markets to identify high-opportunity fields and ensure that they are offering educational experiences designed to prepare students for success in those fields.

Strong supports and a welcoming environment

A second key pillar of the work to reimagine community colleges for adult learners of color is to recognize that students cannot succeed without support, and that support must take many different forms to meet their unique needs. In addition to academic and career supports, like tutoring and advising, institutions are more likely to see their adult learners of color succeed if they offer holistic wraparound supports, including resources related to food, transportation and child care. By seeking to better understand the specific barriers to success that these students encounter and proactively eliminating them, institutions can build a more equitable environment that incentivizes and demonstrates the value of continuing beyond the short-term credential.

Finally, community college leaders committed to building opportunity for adult learners of color must recognize that well-designed academic pathways and wraparound supports will be insufficient without acknowledgement of adult learners of color’s backgrounds, identities and culture. This means taking a hard look at pedagogy and long-entrenched processes related to enrollment and placement, access to financial aid and student services, and more to ensure that adult students of color feel welcome in higher education. Students need to develop a sense of belonging that cannot result from a one-size-fits-all approach to education and support. This need may feel less tangible or harder to define, but is no less important in fostering success for these learners.

Right now, we are at a crossroads opened up by the disruption of the pandemic. As we work toward recovery, education systems can either return to “normal” or choose to engage in the difficult restructuring work needed to effectively serve those who have been excluded or left behind. This is our chance to realize the promise of education for building a stronger society; if institutional, policy and philanthropic leaders can focus our collective energies on better serving adult learners of color at this critical moment in time, we may finally make real progress toward the promise of equitable opportunity for all.

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Matt Gandal is president and CEO of Education Strategy Group, and Christine Barrow is a director on the postsecondary attainment team.