Essays on how to better serve students from lower-income backgrounds
Last month Inside Higher Ed wrote about how the pandemic and recession were impacting the education and work of eight students from underserved backgrounds. We followed up later with a virtual event featuring three of the students we profiled.
This collection of essays includes commentary from experts on how higher education and policy makers could better serve students who face similar obstacles on their paths to a well-paying job and satisfying careers. It also features an essay by one of the students we profiled, Joshua Christie, and comments from readers.
Intentionally Serving Latino and Other Post-Traditional Students
By Deborah Santiago and Beth Doyle
As leaders in nonprofit organizations focused on “post-traditional students,” specifically Latino and adult students, we saw familiar themes in “Personal Stories From the Pandemic.” While the traditional student profile represents less than 20 percent of students, too often it is the dominant profile when discussing higher education. In comparison, the post-traditional student is the majority and more likely to enroll in a two-year college, delay enrollment, be older, need academic support, work 30 hours or more while enrolled, live off campus, be Latino or another student of color, serve as caretaker for children or other family members, be very worried about debt (that influences college plans) and struggle with having the time and finances to complete a degree.
The health pandemic has revealed more publicly the structural and systemic inequities we knew existed disproportionately for post-traditional students, like those in the stories shared. Excelencia and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning have been working together on a project designed to address some of these inequities as key opportunities for institutional action. Here’s what we know: lower completion rates among Latino students, part-time students and adult students are not caused by a deficit in the students. These lower rates are often due to a lack of intentionality in serving Latino students, especially adult Latino students. A college that knows whom they serve (the strengths and needs of their students) is more likely to adapt its efforts to serve these students well and fulfill the social contract an institution makes when it enrolls a student.
The Latino Adult Student Success (LASS) Academy project provides tools for institutions to examine closely how they are serving their adult Latino students. It also offers support in implementing new policies and practices to improve enrollment, persistence and completion. We have identified four areas in particular that institutions are transforming to more intentionally serve their Latino adult students among the 15 institutions we are working with.
Financial support: In our project, one community college hit hard by the pandemic began doing intentional outreach to their Latino adult students, and upon learning of the financial need, decided to offer microgrants for students to use as emergency funds to cover expenses beyond tuition. They believe this helped retain many more students.
Student coaching: Several institutions in LASS identified the need to provide coaching through the enrollment and advising process and throughout a student’s educational pathway to improve degree completion. They are training enrollment staff and advisers to provide student-centered, adult-friendly, culturally responsive and holistic coaching.
Onboarding events: A community college in LASS decided to build connections based on students’ identified profiles. They staffed their onboarding events with their colleagues from financial aid, counseling, technology support and student associations. This allowed staff members who were welcoming the students to offer them holistic support and provide a warm handoff to the department that could help solve their problem.
Shifting from the traditional focus of the college: One of the greatest challenges of serving post-traditional students is shifting the mind-set of an institution that has always served traditional students. One of the public four-year colleges in LASS is conducting outreach and creating cohorts of adult students who have stopped out and is empowering staff to address barriers with more culturally responsive problem solving to increase success.
When a student enrolls in college, they have established a social contract with the college. Both have a role in helping the student reach their educational goals. Knowing the strengths and needs of the students the college enrolls and providing services to support their educational progression is the “secret sauce” to degree completion.
Deborah Santiago is co-founder and chief executive officer of Excelencia in Education. Beth Doyle is vice president for partner success at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
Beyond the “Plexiglas Promise”: Championing Real Change
By Jo Alice Blondin
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” — Peter Drucker
Our students have faced enormous challenges in the last seven months — a combination of the COVID pandemic, racial injustice, a mental health and addiction crisis as a result of isolation and despair — resulting in a collective trauma that higher education must face. Our students, faculty, staff and boards have all been shaped by these experiences in a short time, and to plan for a return to “normal” at some undetermined time in the future is to neglect the new ways that higher education must serve students now and in the future.
We must move beyond the “Plexiglas Promise” — an invitation and appeal by college leaders to return to a campus that is fundamentally unchanged in its approach to learning and social interaction. Instead, the college has installed Plexiglas and required masks to return students to February 2020, only with these modifications. The Plexiglas Promise wasn’t really a plan as much as an IOU for the status quo. And this approach does a disservice to our students, particularly our most vulnerable populations.
Rather than a return to the past, we must work intentionally and strategically — with a focus on the future and an equity lens — to serve students whose needs and expectations have changed. This approach is a tall order in the best of times, but the colleges that focus on positioning and transforming their institutions will fare better in both the short and long terms through the following practices:
Transparency should be the focus in all communication and actions. My first formal communication to Clark State in early March stated, “At times my communication may be incomplete and at other times I will fail in my communication. Please be patient and flexible during these times.” With every email, video, push notification, town hall meeting and open-door session for students and employees, the Board of Trustees and I have demonstrated repeatedly to the college that we are listening and working with the best possible information, in good faith.
Trauma-informed approaches should be scaled to all aspects of the student experience. Students, employees and community members alike are experiencing a collective trauma. Are the ways that we have traditionally served our populations exacerbating this trauma? Colleges should inventory every student-facing operation and ask, “Is this helping students complete their goal or hindering them?” Clark State is embarking on an ambitious project to use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) concept of trauma and trauma-informed approach framework to overhaul the way we work with students, on both the learning and services sides of our operation.
Test new ideas. Years ago, I banished the phrase “because we have always done it that way” and encouraged our faculty and staff to challenge “the way we have always done it.” Community colleges in particular have built their organizations on the servant leadership of student success. The flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit that we pride ourselves on as we prepare the workforce should translate into unique ways to serve students. A good first step is to gather the data from the student allocation distribution for the federal CARES Act and ask, “Have the needs that students demonstrated from CARES informed current and future practice and services?” Clark State staff made some surprising insights: we assumed most students would request monies for technology, as we thought we were delivering robust wraparound services. It turns out that the majority of our distribution — nearly 90 percent — was for the needs we thought we were meeting, such as food, housing, transportation and childcare. We must double down on serving students even more comprehensively in these areas, and have increased collaborations with nonprofits and Ohio Jobs and Family Services during this time.
Transform the student experience. Now is the perfect time to strengthen and make seamless transfer pathways to universities. Competency-based education must come to scale during this time, and quickly, along with a commitment on the part of every higher education institution to resource prior learning assessments so that students can push deeper into the curriculum and achieve a credential or degree more quickly.
It is also time to address higher education’s conception of time, be it the credit hour, semester or time to (two- and four-year) degree. During my 28 years in higher education, I have questioned the coin of our realm: the credit hour. Will a conversation about revisiting the credit hour finally take place? With every college changing, adjusting and modifying their academic calendars, will we substantially rethink the 16-, 12-, 10-, or eight-week semester? Will we offer our classes such that the two- and four-year degree can be compressed?
We have been hearing about disruption in higher education for years, but during COVID times, our response cannot be “in one year, everything will be back to the way it was.” Everything will never be back to the way it was. Our students, faculty, staff, boards, communities and employers have all changed fundamentally in the past seven months, and more changes are in store for us. Perhaps the famous line from L. P. Hartley has never been more relevant to our work in higher education: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Jo Alice Blondin is president of Clark State Community College.
A Fair Shot at Economic Success and Stability
By Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield
The disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of color and low-income families is a reminder that we urgently need to advance policies to build an economic recovery that is inclusive and equitable. A recovery where success isn’t judged by how much the stock market surges, but is instead determined by how much we invest in those who have been most impacted by this recession and how well we address the structural inequities within our education and workforce policies so that everyone has a fair shot at achieving economic success and stability.
Through the experiences of Charles, Felicia and Heather-Alysia we see the challenges low-income students of color face as they pursue their college dreams. Even before the pandemic, they were swimming upstream in a postsecondary system that has failed to respond to the distinct needs of older students, who are often balancing work, school and family. This unresponsiveness has ramifications. At least one in five students is parenting while pursuing postsecondary education, and degree attainment among student parents is low.
A recent HOPE Center survey found that 68 percent of parenting students were housing insecure in the previous year and 17 percent of parenting students were homeless in 2019. So Charles’s experience of living in his car is, unfortunately, not unique.
In their stories we see students who are trying to move up in the labor market to achieve more economic stability. None of them would be surprised to learn that, during the pandemic, workers with a high school degree or less have been displaced at nearly three times the rate as those with a bachelor’s degree. It’s why they continue to pursue certificates and degrees in demand in the labor market despite the challenges laid before them, whether it be homelessness, student debt or familial responsibilities.
Too often, lower-income working students start postsecondary education with great academic aspirations and skills from both work and life experience, but few financial resources. Current postsecondary policies fall short of addressing students’ multiple roles as parents, workers and students. Moreover, when existing policies do not place equity front and center, they fail to target the systemic barriers holding back students of color. What these students lack is access to essential supports such as high-quality advising, flexible financial aid, childcare subsidies and career pathways that allow them to stack quality credentials leading to better-paying jobs while on their way to a degree.
Most state financial aid programs do not meet the needs of these students, whether because of their age, circumstances or attendance patterns. States should prioritize low-income students and students of color in a conscious manner by designing debt-free college and free college proposals to focus on these students. Short of that, financial aid policies should be more flexible — supporting part-time attendance and those who have to stop out and providing aid to those who delay college entry after high school. This will benefit students of color, part-time students, older and returning students, student parents, and immigrants.
Low-income students need supports beyond financial aid, including means-tested public benefits programs like subsidized childcare, food assistance, housing and health insurance. Yet many income-support policies have work requirements or restrictions on education and training that limit the combining of resources to cover tuition and fees, childcare, adequate food and stable housing. Both federal and state public benefits policies need to be realigned to support low-income students’ postsecondary attendance and completion, so all have more financial resources that offset the need for student loans, and so Charles has stable housing and Heather-Alysia has better support while balancing her and her son’s remote schooling.
Employment is front of mind for all three students. All want better jobs and are building valuable skills along their educational pathways. Policies for an inclusive economic recovery arising from the pandemic must incorporate the needs of businesses so that investments in education and training are tied to labor market demand and leverage best practices, like work-based learning, to train workers for skilled positions.
In Felicia’s story we see the powerful role large employers can play in supporting students’ postsecondary aspirations. The tuition and nontuition supports, like advising, provided by Amazon and Merit America helped her pay for her IT certificate and hone her career goals to ensure they were aligned with labor market demands so she could land a good job as a software support specialist.
The majority of small and medium-size businesses usually do not have the same resources to invest in employees, so it would be wise for future stimulus legislation to include support for college-employer partnerships that better align education and training offerings to support employment demand and offer the supports students need. We also need institutions and states to align course offerings and accelerate the development of articulation agreements that allow all three students to easily stack their credentials to degrees, even if they change institutions.
Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield is a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition.
The Road to the American Dream: Finding Purpose in the Detours
By Joshua Christie
“I waited for this moment my whole life,” my dad said quietly while standing in the doorway of the kitchen. He paused for a moment, looked me in the eye and then shook his head.
My twin brother, Jonathan, and I would be first in our family to graduate from college. We were finally going to walk across the stage and receive our diplomas in business management and finance from Rutgers University, Newark — something my parents had dreamed of since we were little kids.
After all, that’s why my parents immigrated here. Originally from Trinidad and Jamaica, they moved to Newark, N.J., in 1991 and 1994 with little but their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Though from different countries, they had so much in common, like many other immigrants.
My parents immigrated here to break the cycle of poverty that ran in their families. They believed they would have more opportunity and hoped to one day achieve the American dream. That meant someday being homeowners. It meant a better life for themselves and the children they hoped to have one day.
For nearly three decades, they have sacrificed so much to make progress towards these dreams. They each worked two jobs to make ends meet. They sacrificed hours upon hours to provide for my brother, sister and me. And last month, one of their dreams — 21 years in the making — almost came true.
“I’ve had visions, I’ve had dreams
I’ve even held them in my hand
But I never knew they would slip right through
Like they were only grains of sand.”
During these uncertain times, I’ve been reminded of these song lyrics — they encapsulate our present situation. The visions, the dreams, the aspirations and even the goals I had for my last semester were at my fingertips, but who would’ve thought a pandemic would cause them to slip away so quickly?
In March, we moved to online learning because of the pandemic. I missed the dorming experience, meeting new people and spending my last semester with friends.
I also was bummed I didn’t get to study abroad like I had planned. The world is a big place, full of endless opportunities. I was looking forward to growing as an individual by experiencing a new culture. As a photographer, I was excited to learn more about myself creatively and explore new ideas.
Most importantly, I envisioned having a job lined up after college. I didn’t ever think that I’d graduate into a recession. But I know I’m not alone. So many other graduates also are trying to find jobs during a challenging economy.
Despite certain dreams and visions not playing out as I’d imagined, I’m not losing hope. Hope is the kindling for future dreams and visions, and I keep telling myself that “this too shall pass.” The demand for jobs is simply higher than those available right now. Plus, I recognize that I am lucky. I have my own photography business (Purpose Portraits LLC//Joshua Christie Photography) that I can focus on while I seek a full-time creative role in media.
I learned in college — through a program called Braven — the importance of combining my passions and my skills to find my future career. It’s a life goal of mine to turn my photography side hustle into a full-time endeavor. I’ve realized that I have what it takes; I just need to work hard to make it a reality. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to refine my skills as I look for job opportunities. I’m currently teaching myself to edit old photo shoots differently.
There’s the saying that when life throws you lemons, you should make lemonade. I would take it a step further. Use all the lemons, including the skin. Make a pie. Or in this case, use this opportunity to better yourself. Don’t let this chapter be one you skip over. Let it be one you look back on fondly, reminiscing of how much you overcame and grew as a person.
We all have goals we’re working toward, and this is just a speed bump in the road. For me, it’s carrying the family torch — the one passed on to me from my parents so their hard work and efforts are not in vain. One day I will grow my business and buy that house my parents have dreamed of for decades.
Joshua Christie is a recent graduate of Rutgers University, Newark.
Instead of focusing on them picking a major then asking “what can I do with this major,” have students identify their gifts, skills and knowledge to serve others, asking, “what majors fit best with how I want to serve others?” Help students create educational, experiential, employable and entrepreneurial endeavors based on a specific problem they can solve for others. Provide opportunities for students to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, where they can learn how to create opportunities, instead of just waiting for something (like a job) to come along. Be proactive vs. reactive when it comes to their educational goals. — William Johnson
Colleges and universities have not truly appreciated that their collective student populations are not the ‘traditional’ students of the past. Many institutions with a high percentage of undergraduates still message to the students like all are 17 to 18 years old and live at home. Truly understanding their populations will help them better serve the students who are enrolled. For example, this is especially true for nontraditional students who make up a growing percentage of undergraduates across the country. Their needs (financial and support services related) are different in many cases from the student who is attending college straight from high school. The same is true for the first-gen students who may or not be home and food insecure. Colleges need to do better to communicate and support all students. — Patricia Soares
It was interesting to hear the sparse level of support the student panelist experienced at their respective universities. I believe Rocque stated that no one in financial services or other areas was helpful to him in his time of need, and the other panelist made similar comments. The university culture has to be supportive on all levels to assist enrolled students in time of need. It is everyone’s responsibility to assist a student at their university, so it hurt me as a student affairs professional to hear the lack of support these students received to be successful from university faculty and staff members. We have to do a better job of helping not one but all students in their academic journey. — James Yizar
Having academic advisers/mentors who check in on students periodically is critical! This can be done in person/virtually/over text or phone. CBOs that have this as a consistent practice see stronger results in their students. Higher ed needs to do the same if they want to do right by their first-gen, students of color, low-income and nontraditional students. If the ultimate goal is to have students graduate to go on and contribute in their chosen field of study, colleges and universities have to devote people time to students. — Vicky Rivera
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