The Obama Administration put an unprecedented emphasis on access to higher education, emphasizing the idea that a college education is not only the way to upward mobility and job security, it is an individual right, almost as inalienable as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The problem, though, is higher education as an industry is not set up to support students, and particularly not those who don’t come from affluent families where college-going is tradition, says California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley.
“Our system is built on keeping people out, not letting people in,” Oakley recently said in an interview with Education Dive. “We built a system, both a public and private system, that relies on someone in the family having been through higher ed.”
In California, where Latinos and people of color now outnumber non-Hispanic whites, it is particularly imperative for institutions to shift the paradigm to better support these students, who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher ed.
Recently, Education Trust-West released a report detailing what researchers identify as institutional racism and implicit biases which marginalize students and their families — which has a particularly profound impact on young men of color. From course steering to housing policies which keep students of color in neighborhoods with under resourced schools, the system is not set up for the success of these students.
“When we think about the future of California, we’re really at an inflection point. We know that our demographics are shifting. We know that we’re having really good conversation about equity, but we know the data show that there’s still a ways to go in supporting young men of color” in education, said Ed Trust-West Executive Director Ryan Smith.
“We’re talking about the pipeline, we’re talking about what we’re doing preschool to college, and unfortunately for young men of color, the likelihood that he’s going to a high school that lacks the necessary resources … [is] high, but there are a good many young men of color who succeed and go on to college despite that.”
However, Smith said, “when they go on to college, you see that they face some of the same issues” that they faced prior to their arrival on campus. “We ask young men of color to assimilate and blend into the environments that they’re faced with instead of looking at what they can do to make sure young men of color can thrive,” he said.
‘We’re hurting our own economy’
“It’s important because if our approach is to weed out, we no longer have the luxury in California — or the nation — to have only a small subset of our population with a postsecondary credential. We’re hurting our own economy,” Oakley said. “It’s really an economic argument that we need to push through more students with a college credential. …[It] makes this an economic necessity for our institutions to not only talk about this,” but do something about forcing the completion agenda.
Smith said “institutions have not been set up to be welcoming to these young men and have traditionally not done a good job of supporting them at all.”
‘I think a lot of colleges and universities like to talk about diversity, but when they look at the data … actually making sure that those students are graduating in four years is still a challenge,” Smith said.
Oakley agreed, saying, “With the availability of data, we can now clearly show how well institutions are doing at graduating [different subsets of] students and really hold institutions accountable.”
“We really see this as an opportunity to connect individuals who come from different places … to become strong contributors to our nation,” Oakley said.
Re-engineering the system to support success
Better support means “not just thinking we need to provide all students with the same things, because we know that students from [higher income, often white] communities have access to resources in order to help them navigate those institutions,” he continued.. “We need to think differently about how we provide supports to those students in order to get them to graduation day.”
Ed Trust-West’s policy recommendations start with having leaders who are invested in “making transformational change.”
At California Polytechnic State University, President Jeffrey D. Armstrong said he and his wife fundraise intentionally to support a scholarship fund to help better support underrepresented students on campus.
“One of our major goals for Cal Poly is to enhance the diversity of our students, faculty and staff,” he said. “It is our desire to better reflect the demographics of California.”
But for Armstrong, the motivation is a little more personal than just Census demographics. Both Armstrong and his wife are college first-generation college graduates and recognize the doors a college education has opened for them. It is this recognition which has motivated them to seek private funding for a scholarship to support low-income students in California and hopefully spark a generational pattern of college-going in these communities.
At Cal Poly, advising and mentoring are also key components of the support the institution offers to low-income and first-generation students on campus — the impact of which is often underestimated.
“Mentorship is key,” Smith said. “It’s really important that we’re setting up networks of peer advisors” who can support all underrepresented populations on campus.
“We think it’s important that we’re also making sure that we’re providing supports on transitions to college,” he continued.
Something as small as “‘Hey I’m enrolling in school, but I didn’t actually know where to enroll in my classes for college’” can be a reason a student drops out, Smith said, because it reinforces to the student that he doesn’t belong in college or isn’t good enough to complete.
Chaffey College and Pasadena City College both have a version of a mentoring program to support first- and second-year young men of color with faculty who have undergone training around culturally-sensitive curriculum. The program is intended to help make course content more relatable to students, while promoting research experiences. At the same time, it focuses on shepherding students through the administrative side of college at to help foster that sense of belonging on campus. And at Cal State University, Long Beach, a partnership with Long Beach Unified School District is helping to close gaps in math education before students even arrive on campus while fostering key relationships and building a level of comfort and familiarity with the college for these students before they even enroll.
“Unfortunately, you can imagine many young men of color already face obstacles as it relates to the perception that they’re criminals and not scholar,” he continued. “Given the political landscape and climate, we often talk about the deficits of young men of color, but we never talk about how to build upon their assets. Our report shows that these young men see themselves as scholars. Now it is up to us to support their dream to graduate with a degree and a career.”
Sharing the burden
However, it’s not all on the local institutions. “All of these institutions report to local education boards. These boards are responding to the needs of the community,” Oakley said. At a minimum, there’s an “economic incentive of needing to grow the tax base.”
Oakley also said there’s a difference between “the institution versus the systems that institution belongs to.”
“Institutions respond to incentives that the system creates,” he said, adding, “The way we finance college is a system issue.”
“California’s done a tremendous job of financing access,” continued Oakley. “We now have to look at our finance system to figure out how do we incentivize completion. We’re not talking about a full performance model like Ohio, [but] re-structuring our course-taking pattern” to ensure clearer pathways to completion, he said.
Oakley explained that traditionally, most of the aid coming in went to partner four-year institutions, which have helped incentivize full-time enrollment. However, across the state, it's still clear that many students are still attending less than full-time. He says there is a need to restructure incentives in aid policies to encourage enrollment at any level.
“This isn’t just for a job for colleges, it’s a job for all of education and the communities they serve,” he continued.
“We’re beyond the point of just saying it,” Oakley said, “now we need to create the right systemic incentives. … Direct assistance is important, but we also need to inform and educate the voters” to galvanize public support for the industry.
“We have all these reforms, but if there’s not a public support of public education, there’s still going to be a failure to educate the most needy students.”