Connecticut community college: Dumbing down diversity in the name of college success
“Policy: College and Career Success 101” requires all students in the new Connecticut State Community College to take a three- credit college success course starting in fall 2023. This course requirement from the Board of Regents was passed despite widespread opposition from faculty who have noted that while they support the motivation behind the course, its primary focus on career-pathways/exploration lacks rigor for academic credit, and its learning outcomes are so broad that it may be impossible for faculty to determine whether students have learned them. Additionally, the policy offers little guidance as to the depth of skill building required or the extent of training required of faculty who would teach it.
While these concerns are important, the version of the proposal passed by the board was actually never shared with faculty, so we are only now getting a chance to weigh in on important aspects of the policy. Of particular concern is how the College Success course is mandated to fulfill a diversity requirement, and purported to advance equity and reduce achievement gaps.
The Board of Regents policy mandates that the new College Success course fulfills a diversity requirement, which means any student completing the course can check off the diversity requirement needed for their degree. However, the diversity requirement has yet to be defined by the faculty and staff across the community colleges. Mandating any course fulfill a competency that has yet to be defined is academically incoherent. But much more importantly, this action by the Board of Regents diminishes the diversity requirement and embodies the type of tokenism a serious commitment to diversity would prevent.
In terms of addressing achievement gaps, the proposal states, “The gap between college academic standards and student’s level of preparation is greatest for those who attended less resourced and effective elementary, middle, and high schools.” The proposal argues that students from these ineffective institutions must “model new behaviors that are specific to the culture of higher education” and that these “‘proper’ behavior[s] are rooted in White, middle-class norms (Rendon et al., 2000; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Tierney, 1999); thus they can be especially difficult to perform for students who did not grow up in that culture or have family members who attended college (Collier & Morgan, 2008; Falcon, 2015; Karp & Bork, 2012, O’Gara et al., 2009).”
The documentation of research sources, taken completely out of context, distracts from the way this work is being misused. If we apply the sort of critical thinking that the College Success course proposes to teach/develop to the document itself, we can see that the proposal is simultaneously claiming that higher education suffers from the same kind of institutionalized racism, denoted by the primacy of “proper” “White, middle-class norms,” that infects all other aspects of American culture and that the solution is not to change higher education, not to end the racist expectations inherent in the system, but to change the culturally impoverished students.
Rather than celebrating non-White cultures and creating a campus home where all students can learn, the Board of Regents, by approving this policy, is suggesting students are on foreign ground and that they must renounce their identities and cultures to embrace academic Whiteness. Ironically, the proposal also claims to help students “feel a greater sense of belonging,” so this uninviting message may not be intentional, and we hope that a rigorous review of the course proposal will lead to changes.
However well intentioned, the assimilationist lens in this proposal is sad and disturbing. Research exists on ways to improve academic outcomes for non-white students by embracing the cultures they bring to campus rather than indoctrinating them. For example, a March 2019 article from INSIGHT into Diversity “the oldest and largest diversity magazine and website in higher education today,” describes “Promising preliminary data from three universities show[ing] African American male students earn better grades and graduate at higher rates if they participate in peer-support programs.” The article quotes “Sam Gutierrez, president of the Brother 2 Brother program at Central Washington University (CWU)”: “Somewhere along the line someone convinced you [the students in his program] that you didn’t have a voice . . . . My life’s work at this point is to convince you otherwise.”
Likewise, Harold Woodard at the University of North Texas runs a program called the “Male Alliance for a Rigorous, Transformative and Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning.” His students take a course that “focuses on the history and culture of African American men in the United States through the lens of music . . . . Woodard says. ‘My focus . . . is to try to focus on what people did for themselves and less what was done to them.’”
At Central Washington University, Andre Dickerson, “director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement” runs the Brother 2 Brother program which helps students “find confidence and a sense of belonging.” As he tells his men, “You have to break through these theories and models to believe not only do you belong here, but you have value.”
Finally, Johnny Young, associate vice president for Student Engagement and Enrollment Services at Old Dominion University, recognizes the importance of representative leadership: “It’s seeing people who look like you with similar backgrounds who are progressing, doing well, and overcoming obstacles that makes a peer group I can . . . depend on.” The University President and other administrators participate in the program’s activities to show non-white students that they are intrinsically valuable to the community.
Any and all of these activities would be more successful if implemented in the Connecticut community college system than the mandated College Success course. Each of these programs are targeted interventions designed specifically for the student populations whose success rates they seek to improve. These activities also involve prioritizing and committing financial and human resources to the college campuses where students reside. The design and implementation of these activities are the opposite of the one-size-fits all curriculum and slapdash policy proposed by the Board of Regents.
Authors: Lois Aime, Norwalk Community College; Stephen Adair, Central Connecticut State University; Saulo Colón, Housatonic Community College; Seth Freeman, Capital Community College; Lauren Doninger, Gateway Community College; Diba Khan-Bureau, Three Rivers Community College; Estela Lopez, former Provost, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities; Eric Maroney, Gateway Community College; Lillian Maisfehlt, Gateway Community College; Ron Picard, Naugatuck Valley Community College; Colena Sesanker, Gateway Community College.
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