Successfully Supporting Diverse Students at Community Colleges

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In this month’s Higher Ed Careers interview, Andrew Hibel talks with Dr. Edward F. Martinez, NASPA’s National Community College Division Director and Dr. Magdalena H. de la Teja, past president of the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE) and founding president of ACC TACHE and TCC TACHE. They break down how community colleges can support diverse student populations and what it takes to be a student affairs professional at these institutions.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: According to a recent 5 Things NASPA brief, “Community Colleges in the United States enroll 38 percent of all postsecondary students, with about half of all Latinx/a/o students starting their higher education journeys in a community college.” Supporting the success of these students is crucial. One area that was suggested is in the area of social justice and inclusion competency. Can you explain what is meant by this?

Dr. Magdalena H. de la Teja: Social justice and inclusion (SJI) is one of the several professional competency areas intended by NASPA and ACPA “…to define the broad professional knowledge, skills, and, in some cases, attitudes expected of student affairs professionals.” As noted in the 5 Things NASPA brief authored by Dr. Ignacio Hernandez, Dr. Susana Hernandez, and myself, social justice and inclusion is fundamental in the work of student affairs professionals in serving Latinx/a/o and other historically underrepresented students. In our work as student affairs educators, it is incumbent upon us to understand our own sense of agency and responsibility to be cognizant of our institutional practices. We must ask who is using our services and who is not and why; are there gaps in student access and success and, if so, why; and what are we doing to close those gaps? It is through this critical inquiry that student affairs professionals can become leaders who act to eliminate issues of inequality, oppression, and racism at our institutions of higher education.

Hibel: Again, referencing the report, “definitions of student success are often shaped by institutional success on outcome measures, like transfer and graduation.” Do you think there are other ways to define success and, if so, what are they and how can institutions offer support to students in order to achieve different successes?

Dr. Edward F. Martinez: Student success is a personal and fluid marker. Some students enter community college to complete a course, others come for a certificate, some to complete remedial/general education classes, and of course, others intend to persist and graduate. If a student completes their original goal, is that not student success? Amongst other publications, student success was discussed in a chapter I co-authored with Dr. Ignacio Hernandez titled: “Latinx/a/o Students and Community Colleges” in Latinx/a/os in Higher Education: Exploring Identity, Pathways, and Success. In this chapter, we specifically discussed the role community colleges play in developing access and success for Latinx/a/o students.

Community colleges can help define success by capturing students’ initial intent, categorizing these “reasons” for college entry, and measuring them accordingly. In fact, providing inclusive and diverse programming, building a students’ sense of belonging, and inviting students to be part of decision-making opportunities are critical for institutions in their support of student success.

Further, hiring qualified professionals from underrepresented groups, through representation, can also assist with developing a student’s sense of belonging; thereby contributing to student success. Recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented faculty and staff remains, as research has indicated, paramount to balance the discrepancies between brown and black students and their faculty and staff.

Hibel: From a College Board report, more than two-thirds of community college students work while attending college. This is a large number of students who have a lot to balance. What do community colleges do to make the balancing act a little easier?

de la Teja: The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) advocates, through its guided pathways initiative, that community colleges help students identify an academic/career path from the start of college and support them to maintain balance while staying on that path. AACC emphasizes the need to assess the financial needs of students and to extend as much assistance as possible to make the balancing act easier. The AACC Pathways Project is intended to assist community colleges in structuring support services that help working students in attendance better balance their multiple roles as students, workers, parents, etc. “Understanding The Working College Student” (2010) edited by Laura W. Perna provides many suggestions for community colleges, four-year universities, and governmental policymakers to consider in restructuring financial aid work-study programs and federal, state, and local financial assistance to boost the success of students.

Many historically underrepresented students attending community colleges are first-generation and come from low-income households. These factors compound the challenges of achieving balance while attending college and often negatively impact completion as noted in the College Board report. Wise community college leaders will continue outreach to historically underrepresented communities, including those who are undocumented, to help them learn about Financial Aid 101 and guide them throughout the process of college, from onboarding through completion, offering as much financial aid as possible. Philanthropic organizations and governmental policymakers will need to continue to support community colleges by offering scholarships and other innovative sources of financial incentives and by funding partnerships that offer wraparound services for students to begin and complete their certificates/degrees.

Hibel: A recent study showed that only five percent of black men and Latinos attending community colleges earn degrees or certificates within three years, compared with 32 percent of white men. “The issue is not that these students are not capable of doing college-level work,” the report says. “It is that too many of them have not, for myriad reasons, had the kinds of educational experiences that would effectively maximize those capabilities.” What are some suggestions on how community colleges can maximize those capabilities for diverse students to help the completion rate increase?

Martinez: While it’s still a widely contested issue, college placement testing remains a concern at community colleges. Thinking you’re beginning classes in your intended (possible) major only to be informed you tested into remedial/developmental courses can take a psychological and emotional toll on a student. For some, these first interactions and big decisions with college life begin a downward spiral where students go from excitement to indifference, worse yet, boredom. Indeed, data has shown some historically underrepresented students have endured lackluster educational prior experiences, but education and colleges can be an equalizer. Using disaggregated data, institutions can make informed decisions based on gender and race to scale up programming, identify opportunities to increase support systems, and to conduct a campus landscape analysis for data-rich resolutions. Additionally, institutions should employ a multitude of qualitative methodologies to gain a better appreciation and understanding on the lived experiences for our Black and Latinx male students. By doing so, we begin to acknowledge historically underrepresented students’ (actual) voices in an effort to provide depth and breadth alongside other institutional data points.

Further, offering continuous front-line staff training and developing culturally competent professionals will be necessary to assist students. Institutions should become more intentional with professional development funds and possibly require faculty/staff to participate in at least one session (if attending a conference), on diversity/multiculturalism/inclusivity programs. In an ever-changing world, keeping current on promising and best practices is not only smart — it’s essential to our work and student success.

Hibel: As mentioned in the Minority Report, “community colleges serve as important access points to higher education for many low-income and minority students. Thus, the fact that minority and low-income students at community colleges lag so significantly behind their non-minority and higher-income peers points to a racial and socioeconomic divide that does not sit well with those who advocate for racial and economic equality. For both moral and economic reasons, the educational achievement gap that affects minority and low-income community college students affects us all.” What are your thoughts on this statement?

de la Teja: Per Pew, there is a shift in focus from millennials (born 1981-1996) to Gen Z (1997 onward) in culture, the workplace, and the economy. Americans under 25 are the most diverse generation ever with almost half being non-white, compared to 39% of millennials and 18% of boomers. And, Latinx/a/os are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. For years, my work has focused on increasing access and success for historically underrepresented and low-income students, and specifically for Latinx/a/os who have been projected for years to continue to grow in population yet lag in college completion. (See my chapter in “Effective Leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions” (2018) edited by Robert T. Palmer, et. al.) The Texas Observer stated, “For nearly three decades, demographer Steve Murdock has been delivering a message — a warning, really — to Texas legislators: ‘By 2050, Texas will be much younger and more diverse than the rest of the country. More than half of the state’s residents will be Hispanic; one-third or fewer will be white. If elected officials want to ensure that the Lone Star economy is sound and that society is functional, they must invest in the rapidly growing Hispanic population and close gaps in educational achievement between Latino students and their white peers.’ Mr. Murdock was also quoted in the Texas Tribune as stating, “The Texas of Today is the U.S. of Tomorrow.” Based on a lifetime career in higher education, I wholeheartedly agree with these statements. We must continue to vigorously work toward closing the achievement gap between historically underrepresented students and others for the well-being of all.

Hibel: The report also states “low-income and minority students are ‘overrepresented in terms of enrollment’ in community colleges but ‘underrepresented among completers’ of community college.” What does a community college have to do differently than a traditional four-year university to help the overall success rate in terms of students completing degrees?

de la Teja: Community colleges, unlike traditional four-year universities, admit 100 percent of those who apply since they are “open-door” enrollment higher education institutions. Although access to college remains important for historically underrepresented students, community colleges must attend to the completion agenda as a high priority. Community college leaders need to advocate for federal and state policymakers to innovatively increase funding for these two-year institutions at the same time as they pledge to improve student outcomes. More attention is being given by philanthropists and community college advocates for partnerships with four-year universities as well as business and industry to prepare students for a changing world of work due to technology disruption. Innovative funding could be provided for these partnerships to offer more work opportunities for students (apprenticeships, internships, newly designed work-study jobs) while they earn certificates that can be stackable credentials toward associate’s/bachelor’s degrees.

Historically underrepresented students often do not enroll in college or drop out, not because course content is too difficult, but rather because of financial pressures. Providing students a living wage for work while in college that opens up viable employment opportunities in the future enhances student motivation and the probability of completion. It is also important to offer students adequate wraparound support services, including access to community resources, while they are earning a certificate or degree. Additionally, due to the disruption of increased technology in the future of work and the potential loss of jobs, especially for historically underrepresented people, community colleges are recognized as institutions that can offer newly designed lifelong learning opportunities for the workers of the future. Again, for this to be a reality, we must make changes in the work of the future and in funding sources as recommended by MIT Work of the Future Task Force (2019) [link removed no longer active] and by the Aspen Institute (2019).

Hibel: Community colleges are excellent choices for many students because of affordability, they often have smaller campuses or class sizes, can offer easier transition from high school, provide networking opportunities for students/graduates within the community to name just a few. What else would you add to the list of why community colleges are gems in the world of academia?

Martinez: Since the beginning of the 20th century, community colleges have opened doors to the underrepresented, marginalized, and socio-economically challenged student. As mentioned earlier, education is the great equalizer, and with cost being so low compared to private and four-year institutions, not only do I believe community colleges are the gems of academia, I’d say, they are the diamonds that sit above all others. With its open-access policy, highly skilled faculty, many of whom still work in their field of study, and top-notch student affairs staff, students receive a premier education, without significant loan debt. Moreover, community colleges offer students the opportunity for workforce development and is a main component why community colleges exist. Additionally, community colleges assist with increasing the number of American college graduates. Without community colleges, the United States of America would fall even further behind other nations’ college attendance/completion rate.

Hibel: What is the importance, in regard to student success, in recruiting and retaining qualified and diverse student affairs professionals and other staff and faculty to work on the community college campus?

de la Teja: As discussed in the 5 Things NASPA brief — inspired by the NASPA Community Colleges Division Latinx/a/o Task Force — it is important for community college leaders to actively recruit and retain qualified and diverse student affairs professionals because of the significant work done by them to recruit and retain students. We state in this publication, “Table 2 shows Latinx/a/o professionals comprising roughly 7 percent of all community college employees and less than 5 percent of faculty since the late 1990s. Table 1 shows that while 23 percent of community college students are Latinx/a/o, nearly one in every two Latinx/a/o college students is enrolled in a community college. Those proportions juxtaposed with the data presented in Table 2 have significant implications for community college leaders, since Latinx/a/o individuals are the fastest-growing racial group and college-age population in the United States (Ennis, Rios-Vargas, & Albert, 2011; Valverde, 2003). This rapid growth notwithstanding, a critical mass of the population does not possess a representative sample in faculty or in administrators of their respective colleges (Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2009; McCurtis, Jackson, & O’Callaghan, 2009).”

In addition to the importance of recruiting and retaining qualified and diverse student affairs professionals, other staff, and faculty, it is imperative that all student affairs professionals recognize themselves as agents of change and participate in professional development designed to help them learn about effective institutional practices in serving historically underrepresented populations. One opportunity for senior student affairs officers (SSAO) committed to serving Latinx/a/o students is to become part of the NASPA Community Colleges Division Latinx/a/o Task Force SSAO Initiative. Also see “Effective Leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions” (2018) for multiple perspectives on what leadership is needed to serve historically underrepresented populations more effectively.

Hibel: The Placement Exchange, which is typically an on-site interviewing event for Student Affairs candidates was transitioned to virtual interviewing this year. What are your suggestions for someone preparing to work in student affairs on a community college campus?

Martinez: Doing research on the general mission and purpose of community colleges would be extremely important when seeking work in this sector. Community colleges probably have one of the most diverse campus populations ranging from high numbers of underrepresented and non-traditional students to those who are academically and socioeconomically challenged. As a result, appreciating an open-access policy, working with diverse students, and seeing small victories as triumphs would be essential while working at community colleges. Positions, titles, and leadership structures at community colleges tend to look different from their four-year counterparts. Obviously, each community college would have a different configuration, but it’s not uncommon for departments such as admissions, financial aid, and registrar to fall under student affairs. Therefore, having a willingness to work in areas that may not be typical student affairs functions at four-year institutions is important.

Community colleges are also notorious for seeking employees with prior “community college experience.” If you do not have prior community college experience and want, or need, to bolster your resume/CV during a job search, here are a few things to consider: partner with a colleague to co-present at a conference, write an article on or about community colleges, or attend specific workshops or conferences such as NASPA’s Community College Institute. These efforts will help separate you from other candidates with no or minimal prior community college experience and give you an opportunity to “sell yourself” as a viable candidate in your cover letter.

Hibel: Please briefly explain your background and your passion for working in the community college sector of higher education?

Martinez: Having worked at five different types of institutions over 25 years, it’s the community college sector where I found my true and complete professional voice. As a proud Puerto Rican from Bronx, NY, I acknowledge my educational capital privilege and recognized an opportunity to assist minority students. Armed with the knowledge that about half of Latinx/a/o students begin their educational journeys at community college, I wanted to give back. However, to my surprise, it was me who ended up receiving the benefits. I’ve never worked with a more dedicated faculty and staff, opportunities to serve community colleges at a regional and national level came my way, and, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my professional career.

Today, I serve as NASPA’s -Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education — National Community College Division Director and advocate for students and professionals working in the community college sector. Representation matters, showing up matters, being present matters, and championing a cause matters. Therefore, becoming an active and engaged member of NASPA — my professional development home — was paramount. Serving as a faculty member for the 2018 NASPA Escaleras Institute, as well as, presenting and publishing about community colleges are some of the ways I try to “show up” for community colleges. In the end, I want to be a part of developing students’ sense of belonging, and my first step in reaching that goal is to be represented within the sector where so many historically underrepresented students begin their college voyage.

de la Teja: My commitment to the success of historically underrepresented students, but in particular Latinx/a/o students, began after I enrolled at a research university and realized as a student leader that we were woefully underrepresented in college. Through my social capital and privilege as a college student, I advocated for increased recruitment of historically underrepresented students and volunteered time. I read literature about America’s history of discrimination, took courses, wrote papers on the topic for classes, and attended forums related to these topics to learn more. My research and involvement led me to an understanding that demographic projections indicated Latinx/a/o and other historically underrepresented, low-income students would be enrolling in large numbers in community colleges, and so I got to those spaces as fast as I could as a student affairs director, dean, then vice president. I noted previously in this interview that I have a published chapter in “Effective Leadership at Minority-Serving Institutions” (2018) edited by Robert T. Palmer, et. al. that describes some of my story. In that chapter, I give a shout out to a book that is inspirational: “Culturally Responsive Leadership in Higher Education: Promoting Access, Equity, and Improvement” (2016) edited by Santamaria and Santamaria.

To this day, I continue my advocacy as a past president of the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE) by mentoring student affairs professionals. In February 2020, I served as faculty for both the inaugural 2020 TACHE Career and Leadership Development Institute and previously for the inaugural NASPA Escaleras Institute that is described in the 5 Things NASPA brief. NASPA has been my national home and TACHE my state home as a student affairs professional advocate for historically underrepresented, low-income students, especially Latinx/a/o students and educators since that is my lived experience. Dr. Eddie Martinez and I met at a NASPA Latinx/a/o Knowledge Community Awards event in 2014 and have been allies ever since on many initiatives related to community colleges. Recently, I was interviewed by Dr. Michelle Espino for her Latinx Intelligentsia Podcast and discussed my passion and journey.”Sí se puede!”

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