Higher education will play a key role in strengthening communities as we recover from the pandemic, and community college students are key to our economic prosperity. To ensure that students become the skilled workers and critical thinkers our workforce needs, boards of trustees must play a key role in policy and budget decisions that open up clearer pathways to education and careers. And with states like California becoming increasingly diverse, it’s more important than ever that those actions taken are explicitly anti-racist and help build a more inclusive ecosystem that supports students of all backgrounds, especially those who are Black and African American, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and Indigenous. Trustees are central to this work.
Like many higher education institutions across the country, California’s community colleges have doubled down on their commitment to ensure our institutions truly work for all students across race, ethnicity, region, age, class and gender. We face challenges stemming from decentralized governance, with our 116 colleges governed by 73 district boards. This decentralization, along with initiative fatigue, adherence to traditional practices that uphold structural racism, inadequately-scaled reforms and turnover in leadership positions, can stand in the way of sustained, substantial change, but progress is possible.
To beat these challenges and drive continuous improvement, students need trustees to lead the way.
Trustees play a key role in advancing state, system and local goals and driving real change for students through their policy and budget decisions. In many districts, students’ valuable perspectives help shape these decisions when students serve as trustees or are included in policy implementation activities.
To help California trustees understand the board’s role in improving and ensuring equity in student outcomes, nearly half of the California Community Colleges boards recently participated in a two-year fellowship. Intended to help trustees be collaborative partners in advancing the system’s strategic plan, the Vision for Success, the fellowship shared proven practices drawn from high-performing boards across the country. The fellowship has also influenced the launch of a statewide “New Trustee Orientation,” hosted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, which will help new leaders understand their role in advancing this collective vision for the state and our system.
Two focus areas
We learned that trustees seek tangible ways to lead transformational change, with two major areas of opportunity identified as a priority: remedial education reform, and faculty and staff diversity. Drawn from our findings in California, below are ways that trustees across the country can take similar action to close equity gaps.
1) Take bold action to reform remedial education. Five years ago, the California Community Colleges began a movement to transform remedial education by dropping placement tests and providing all students access to transfer-level English and math (initiated through Assembly Bill 705-Irwin, chaptered 2017, and accelerated through Assembly Bill 1805-Irwin and Assembly Bill 1705-Irwin).
Research showed that historically marginalized students were more likely to begin in remedial courses, and students at California community colleges who began in remedial courses were less than half as likely to transfer as those who began in transfer-level English and math. In evaluations of early implementation, research is showing improved outcomes: all students are two to three times more likely to complete transfer-level English and math courses when they begin directly in a transferable, college-level course than in a stand-alone remedial course one level below transfer level. However, studies show that reform of remedial education is inconsistent across California, which will exacerbate equity gaps if not addressed.
To fully enact these historic remedial education reforms, trustees must make policy and budget decisions that create adequate capacity for college leadership, faculty and staff to implement. For example, Riverside Community College District’s board initiated a project to design a new delivery mode for college math instruction that embeds all the support systems into the course in the same manner as the labs in the natural sciences are integrated into the lecture course. Santa Monica Community College District’s board committed to review and examine the current data and trends in introductory transfer-level math courses before and after AB 705 implementation and to research best practices that improve learning and successful course completion in math. Based on results, the board will support the implementation of proven best practices in an effort to decrease racial equity gaps and improve completion in transfer-level math courses for Black and Latinx students.
2) Diversify college leadership so that presidents, trustees, faculty and staff reflect the diversity of students in every community. Research shows that graduation rates for students of color are positively affected by faculty diversity, yet when researchers compared Black and Latinx faculty representation against student enrollment in 2020, some 57% of institutions got Fs for Black faculty diversity. Nearly 80% failed on Latinx faculty diversity. With respect to college leadership, a 2022 report shows that at public colleges and universities, 65% of board members are white and 63% are men, falling short of representing today’s student population.
To address this in California, a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) strategic plan is guiding actions such as embedding a DEIA component in employee evaluations and faculty tenure reviews, championed by the system’s Board of Governors. Boards play a significant role in upholding the commitment to DEIA.
Compton Community College District’s board, for example, developed an action plan to implement a board resolution that codifies their commitment to faculty and staff diversity from the top down. Community college boards across the nation can follow their lead and take several actions to express support for DEIA action plans, such as making a public commitment to a reform strategy during a regular board meeting, including DEIA items in work sessions and retreats, scheduling frequent progress check-ins, and building metrics into chancellor or president evaluations.
To measure progress and hold presidents accountable for the achievement of goals, especially in these two suggested areas, trustees must encourage the capturing and monitoring of data that matters. The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program suggests that boards select up to 10 leading and lagging indicators to monitor regularly, aligned to goals for student outcomes. Budget decisions and presidential evaluations should also be clearly aligned to these goals to ensure all efforts are centered on the North Star of high and equitable levels of student success.
The community college board is arguably one of the most important drivers to help make good on our promises to students. As leaders, trustees have an opportunity to impact real, momentous change by improving access and completion for historically marginalized students through evidence-based practices like remedial education reform and a commitment to DEIA in leadership.
For additional resources and actionable tools from the Trustee Fellowship to organize your board effectively around equity-centered student success, read the full report. The Trustee Fellowship was facilitated by the Foundation for California Community Colleges Student Success Center in partnership with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, funded by the College Futures Foundation.
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Dr. Daisy Gonzales is interim chancellor of California Community Colleges.
Pamela Haynes is a Board of Governors member representing trustees.