Equity’s Bar is High

Like all worthy goals, equity sets a demanding bar. For higher ed, equity poses special challenges. Community colleges shoulder much of the burden of access. Most the millions who study in community college students enroll with needs and demands that extend well beyond the classroom. Two year students are poorer and more likely to have received a weaker K-12 education.

The burden of success is picked up mostly by four-year institutions. As one moves up the ladder of reputation, so, too, do completion rates. For those familiar with rankings and the making up cultural capital in academia, we know that their relationship is complex. High graduation rates do not always assure excellence, which can take place at institutions with poor reputations. No surefire way exists to measure the value added of an education. We have to remember that excellence means making sure that not only to students complete, but that students learn, that they develop, and that innovation happens regularly.

Urgency of NowThese and related questions drive The Urgency of Now: Equity and Excellence, a new book of essays from the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). Samuel Cargile, a key member of the team who developed Achieving the Dream and now an advisor to the Lumina Foundation, penned the introduction and stresses the urgency of Goal 2025. It is Lumina’s BHAG to see 60% of all Americans with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. We are not yet at 40%. The only way that this can happen, he argues, is if higher education become increasingly focused on students. Figuring out what student-centered higher education looks like is a surprisingly difficult endeavor. The book would have been stronger if more authors picked up this challenge and addressed it systematically.

Lynn E. Priddy, provost at National American University, writes about accreditation and the accountable institution. She highlights many of the problems stemming from increased regulation and compliance, which work against change and experimentation. Priddy lays out the dysfunctional closed loop of accreditation and assurance. Neglected in this environment is learning, which she emphasizes should be at the center of any educational enterprise.

The many forms of competency based education are the focus of Laurie Dodge’s chapter. She is the vice-provost at Brandman University. She envisions a future where more and more learning breaks free of the tyranny of the Carnegie contact hour. Community colleges are at the fore in thinking through different models of competency based education and can do more, she writes.

The director of learning outcomes at Arundel Community College in Maryland, Nassim Ebrahimi, writes about the value and importance of integrated learning outcomes assessment. Marcus M. Kolb, AVP at Ivy Tech Community College, adds a chapter on engaging faculty.

So what, then, of being student-centered and the challenge of equity and excellence? These essays, read collectively, demonstrate that ongoing innovation, reflection and change do not necessarily lead to improved student outcomes. They also do not lead to an education that inherently focuses on students. Instead, organizational, cultural, institutional and historical pressures make urgent reform all the more difficult. We know that there is no silver bullet. The shifts examined here are valuable. Meaningful and small-bore improvements at individual institutions can help groups of students.

The problem, though, is that the larger question of large-scare access, equity and excellence in terms of outcomes remains. We have developed institutions and policies that promise open enrollment, but we have not followed through with an equity-minded commitment to see that those that try complete their higher education degrees across institutions. It is expensive, difficult, and can often demand choices that counter many of our more fundamental academic instincts. Putting students at the center shifts the focus away from those who work in higher education and even from institutions of higher education. It requires new thinking.

The kind of transformational change alluded to in the Urgency of Now asks for work and for new thinking. Pleas, though, and claims resting on moral suasion – we should and we ought – are not enough. If we are going to take part in meaningful progress, it has to be a sustainable goal, supported and reinforced, that resonates to those that work and study within higher education.

David Potash

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