Connecticut State Community College: Eradication of systemic inequities in higher education
Connecticut State Community College, Connecticut’s single community college, is currently being designed to be in place by 2023. This single institution, made up of the 12 community colleges that currently exist in the state, is a completely reimagined college. It is being built to focus on the success of all students, based on best practices that are working around the country and that result in more students graduating in a timely manner and securing jobs that pay family sustaining wages.
Connecticut State Community College is committed to help all students succeed, but is particularly committed to erasing barriers to success that exist today for many Black and Latinx students.
Three years ago, we began looking at our student success data differently. Inspired by other states who had begun doing so, we disaggregated our data by race, allowing us to review how our Black and Latinx students were doing compared to our white students. What we found was that white students were passing mathematics and English more frequently, earning credits more often, progressing through their programs more rapidly, and completing their credentials at higher rates. This was often double-digit percentage points of increased success when compared to our Black and Latinx students.
This inequity exists today, despite many local efforts from our dedicated faculty and staff to close the gap. This gap exists at most community colleges in the United States, and it is beginning to close only at the institutions that have begun dramatic reform work to overhaul how they educate students and close the gap.
The last decade has seen a shift in the focus of community colleges, from institutions that promise access, to institutions that not only provide access but also fully support success. Supporting success for all students means meeting students where they are, being intentionally attentive to their needs, and providing supports that meet those needs so that they can be successful in reaching the goals that bring them to college in the first place.
Because of a commitment to open admissions, community colleges dedicate themselves to serving students from all backgrounds, including first generation and under-served students. Even before these students set foot on a campus, they must often overcome many obstacles when applying for admission to college. These unfair disadvantages continue once they arrive, as many students find that they are required to adjust to unfamiliar college norms and expectations.
If students do not have a family member or peer who has attended college and can help to introduce them to college expectations, students can become discouraged and at times unsure whether they belong in college at all. The reimagined Connecticut State Community College is built on the idea that we must honestly discuss and directly address inequities in success experienced by these students.
Three years ago, we began dramatic reform work to close the equity gap in Connecticut. The Board of Regents supported our faculty, staff, and administrators in building critical infrastructure through a series of antiracist policies – those policies that are designed to drive Connecticut State Community College toward equitable outcomes for Black and Latinx students.
The changes we are making are likely beyond what our predecessors could have imagined, but in today’s climate they are imperative. These equity-minded changes, conscious of racialized experiences of students of color, include a free and streamlined application process, aligning and organizing programs so students can make informed decisions about what they’d like to study and start anywhere in the state, assigning each student a Guided Pathways advisor who will work alongside them from beginning to end and support their personal and academic success, and beginning to reimagine how we teach mathematics and English, which are obstacles for so many of our students.
Colleges across the country are implementing similar reforms with dramatic success in improving student retention and completion and reducing equity gaps in attainment.
As one critical part of this full set of reforms, we are adding a new class required for all students, College and Career Success 101. As at most higher education institutions, we want to ensure that each student, regardless of race or background, is afforded the opportunity in an introductory course to learn about the expectations of college, explore why they are in college, where they would like to head, and how they will get there.
In addition, the course, in conjunction with our redesign of advising, will provide the information we need to provide each student with the necessary supports to succeed. Importantly, a component of this course will be to introduce students to diversity topics, which are critical to consider at the beginning of a college education.
Diversity education in this course alone is not enough. The diversity of our students is our most important asset! The College and Career Success course will allow for all to hear the voices of our Black and Latinx students so that all of our students can develop a shared understanding of racial oppression. College and Career Success is not the only way in which a diversity requirement can be fulfilled; it simply provides a foundation for learning to be included in other courses. In fact, the College and Career Success policy approved by our board includes specific language that “diversity topics should be embedded throughout the general education core and across the curriculum.”
We pledge to continue working to this end, as we know our faculty will as well, because it is crucial for the education of our students, and the future of our state.
This is our promise to Black and Latinx students. Connecticut State Community College is being built for you. A college designed for your success. A college that will serve to change Connecticut generation by generation.
Merle Harris is a member of the CSCU Board of Regents of Higher Education. Jane Gates is CSCU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. David Levinson is the CT State Community College Interim President.
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