State budget offers ‘epic opportunity’ for California community colleges

Richard Duran and Brad PhillipsJuly 2, 2015Richard Duran recently retired as president of Oxnard College after eight yearsThe budget deal agreed to by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature last month has record increases for education, particularly community colleges. Some call it a windfall. Others call it catch up from deep budget slashing during the recession.
We call it an epic opportunity.
The infusion of money combined with untenable economic and racial inequity provides an extraordinary opportunity to slay some sacred cows and status quo thinking.
With the clarity and liberty of retirement and experience helping colleges use data to improve student success, we have some suggestions to maximize each dollar:
Don’t assume your college knows what to do to improve student success. Even eight years of leading Oxnard College as its president wasn’t enough to clearly identify where students struggled and how to fix it. We didn’t know what we didn’t know
Do closely examine student data. Oxnard leaders and faculty had our eyes opened to specific bottlenecks, such as those affecting students taking remedial or basic skills courses. Even though we had implemented several interventions that were promising, more needed to be done. We needed to redesign and scale up using a student-centered approach to remedial education so that students could effectively move to credit-earning work without losing precious time and money. By embedding tutoring into math and English basic skills classes, we created the intensive support students needed, when they needed it. Requiring students with jobs and families to seek out extra help outside of class is not a student-centered approach.
Brad Phillips, president and CEO of the Institute for Evidenced-Based Change.Do realize that the student population looks significantly different than it did just 10 years ago. One in two children under the age of 18 in California is Latino. The oldest graduate from Oxnard College class of 2015 was 67 years old; the youngest was 19. Our state’s greatest strength has always been the diversity of our people. Embracing the asset of diversity means focusing on cultural competencies and culturally relevant teaching.
Don’t just write checks to comply with the dictate from the state to spend the increased allocation for student success and student equity. The increased funding of $471 million spanning two years is a whopping increase. But large amounts of money alone aren’t going to advance student completion and small, non-scalable programs won’t move the big needle.
Do focus on research-based policies and practices, such as embedding tutoring through all remedial/basic skills courses and not letting students enroll after classes have started, which increases the risk of their falling behind.
Do engage students on their terms. Start where they are. More students than ever arrive on campus unprepared for college-level work. With such variation in demographics and education experience, one-size-fits-all support programs will not work in every setting or with every group of students.
Don’t cave to pressures to protect programs and practices that don’t contribute to students completing degrees. Use the data to make these determinations and be willing to make some hard choices, always focusing on implementing with fidelity the policies and practices needed to improve student success and equity.
Do listen to the data. The data showed Oxnard staff that basic skills students were not successful in completing the required sequence of courses. We restructured basic skills courses and created an entire division of transitional studies (basic skills), building a multidisciplinary foundation (including ESL, English composition, reading, and mathematics, and study skills) from which students can succeed at college-level learning, and began to follow up with students and identify what they needed to stay on track. This re-structure was met with resistance from some who wanted to keep things the same and not upset the current structure.
Do roll up your sleeves and lead by example. Engage faculty and staff at all levels to collaboratively set goals and make reviewing data and progress toward benchmarks an organizational habit. Hold everyone accountable for monitoring student progress and intervening quickly when they go off track.
Do scale one or two interventions in ways that engage each student early and often, such as a freshman year experience program that brings small groups of students together with faculty or staff on a regular basis, and teach students how to do college. When faculty and staff make a connection with a student, understand her story, his needs, and how to best meet those needs – that is the true meaning of equity.
Do exponentially expand culturally responsive teaching practices that research indicates can contribute to the academic achievement of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching connects students’ cultures, prior experiences and learning styles to college-level work in ways that appreciate and work with what students already know and can relate to.
Don’t assume you know what students need. Talk to the students and gather the student voice about their experiences and their engagement with your institution. Learn from them.
Do use mobile technology to ask students directly what they are thinking and need to be successful. You may be surprised to learn that lower-income and diverse students are the most cell-phone dependent. For even the lowest income students, cell phones are often their only source of Internet access and communication with jobs and school. Use this technology to integrate the student voice, gathering insights about their thinking and experiences in your campus communication. If we don’t seek the student voice, who will?
Do match the budget decisions and interventions such as scaling up academic support, including library services, to keep on track those working towards a degree and preparing for transfer to a four year institution.
We applaud Gov. Brown and the Chancellor’s office for recognizing that the current system is struggling to support many of our students’ needs and for proposing this historic investment in community colleges. How we choose to use the new money will test our commitment to students and doing what’s right.
Our institutions can be key to job and economic growth in the state – helping unemployed, underemployed and high school students access affordable, valuable degrees and certificates that open doors to rewarding careers and transfer to the university system.
As college leaders in charge of the campuses receiving this much-needed funding to serve 2.3 million students every year, let’s use it wisely. We have an opportunity to build a more effective state community college system that truly delivers equity and opportunity in the Golden State. But only if we stop assuming we know what’s best for students, do the research to determine their needs and take time to connect with each and every student in ways that have never been done before.  Let’s get to work.
Richard Duran recently retired after eight years as  president of Oxnard College. He is also a former president of the National Community College Hispanic Council. Brad C. Phillips is president and CEO of the Institute for Evidenced-Based Change.
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