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Creating equitable social mobility for community college students

News & Updates
March 19, 2021

On Monday, March 8, ATD’s president and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout participated in a virtual panel discussion hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Creating Social Mobility for Today’s Students. Dr. Stout joined Kimberly Joy Dixon, director of employer engagement and diversity recruitment at Stony Brook University, and Dr. Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, in an engaging discussion on the role that colleges play in propelling students to sustaining careers — and the challenges facing institutions of higher education as they work equitably support their diverse communities.

Central to this conversation was the perspective of Yaritza Rodriguez, a student at North Central College in North Carolina, who shared her experiences with the panel. As a first-generation college student, she spoke to the heavy financial burden her family has taken on, and said that while she knew it would pay off long-term, the experience hasn’t been without challenges. When she had to travel nearly 30 miles every day for her teaching practicum, unreliable transportation caused logistical issues as well as strain on her mental well-being. Support from her peers and professors, she said, including a surprise cash gift from one of her mentors, has contributed to her persistence and success.

It is critical for colleges to prioritize equity and access when working to meet the needs of students. When asked about how to tackle barriers that disproportionately affect under-served students, Dr. Stout stressed the importance of not just analyzing information, but also of disaggregating data to see how college policies affect students in different ways. “Getting that student voice in the middle of the room is really important,” she added. “It gives a voice to the data.”

Data can help us identify problems and solve them

In Fall 2020, community colleges experienced a steep decline in enrollments nationwide, following the cascading crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic recession. Dr. Stout discussed how this trend changed the conversations at Achieving the Dream. “We needed to be thinking differently about our access agenda. We were leaving too many students behind.”

She went on to explain that community colleges are not innately discoverable by potential students and members of the community. “We have to go to the students.” She stressed how important it will be for colleges to leverage their localness and act as partners in the community to ensure no student gets left behind. At DREAM 2021 last month, Broward College President Gregory Adam Haile shared his college’s strategy to “smother the community with opportunity.” It is that level of intentional outreach and community involvement that colleges should be reaching for, Dr. Stout said.

Equity has to be at the center

Focus on equity, particularly racial equity, remained central to the panel. Responding to a question from an audience member, Dr. Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, discussed whether “race-neutral” policies are effective at promoting equitable access and community engagement in higher education — in the firm negative. “Raceless or race-neutral policies play a major part in the cyclical reproduction of racism,” he said. Instead, colleges have a responsibility to scrutinize the systems that have perpetrated racial inequality on their campuses, and actively deploy “race-salient” corrections that will dismantle those systems and make room for equitable access, growth, and student success.

Dr. Harper also talked about the Achieving the Dream and USC Race and Equity Center Racial Equity Leadership Academy (RELA), a joint initiative designed to support ten college teams in their development of bold, actionable racial equity programs. RELA is a unique professional learning opportunity for these college teams to learn with, alongside, and from each other about how they can dismantle longstanding structures that have created barriers for racially minoritized students.

Looking forward

Community colleges have always played an important role in creating pathways to meaningful, sustaining careers for millions of America’s learners. The past year, however, has laid bare the challenges facing many of these institutions as they aim create equitable opportunities for their students, serve the diverse needs of learners and their families, and act as engines for economic mobility in their communities.

Achieving the Dream is committed to giving colleges the tools they need to lead the way, and we are proud of the work already taking place across the country as ATD Network colleges implement the transformational change needed to bring equitable access and opportunity to the students they serve. As Dr. Stout concluded in the panel, community colleges are uniquely situated to meet this moment. They have to be at the center of our thinking for policies, programs, and practices that champion students and lift up communities.

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