The Way Forward: Community Colleges Overcoming Obstacles to Help Underprivileged Students Shine

Article excerpt

As a veteran administrator at A Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College, Dr. Nathaniel Cruz has high hopes for the school's newly-launched Student Success Coaches Unit (SSCU) program. This past school year, the South Bronx-based community college assigned each of the 1,560 first-year students to an individual coach to advise him or her through the duration of the student's enrollment.

Cruz, Hostos' vice president for student development and enrollment management, says the initiative, which will cost between $2 million and $3 million to fully implement by the end of the 2014-15 academic year, will result in every Hostos student assigned a student success coach. As many as 30 full-time employees will serve as coaches, and each coach will be responsible for up to 250 students, explains Cruz.

The meetings, during which students sit down with their coaches, are intended to "address the students' interests, grades, goals and attributes" and "also include interventions to overcome academic challenges or to help the students find ways to maximize their learning experiences," says Dr. Felix Matos Rodriguez, president of Hostos Community College.

Ambitious efforts, such as the Hostos SSCU program, are increasingly being implemented at community colleges to help students improve their educational experiences, increase their chances of graduating with two-year degrees and help them transfer to four-year institutions. However, though 81 percent of students nationally who enter community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor's degree, only 12 percent do so within six years.

As an institution serving a largely low-income and predominantly minority student population, Hostos represents a segment of two-year schools that has come under special attention in a widely-publicized national report on improving community colleges. The report, Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream, produced by the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, calls attention to a "growing economic and racial stratification" in U.S. higher education.

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"The increasing economic and racial stratification of colleges and universities is troubling because largely separate educational systems for mostly rich and White students, and for mostly poor and minority students, are rarely equal," according to the report.

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With community colleges on one side of the divide and four-year nonprofit colleges and universities on the other, the report calls for increased funding of community colleges and for policies that reduce the racial and economic stratification between two- and four-year institutions.

Performing at a high level

Many community college leaders at schools like Hostos have been hard at work demonstrating that, despite struggles with diminished resources to educate poor and largely underrepresented minority students, they can perform at a high level and help their students achieve academic success.

"I think you've got some shining examples of institutions that have large numbers of minority students that are doing well," says Dr. Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. "Leadership makes such a difference when you have challenges. [Overcoming obstacles is] what you're finding our enlightened leaders doing."

Century Foundation task force members cite Dr. Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College and a task force co-chair, as a highly successful community college leader who is guiding an institution with more than 70 percent Latino student enrollment. With an enrollment of 166,000 in 2011-12, Miami Dade College has eight campuses and is one of the largest higher education institutions in the U. …