Students on the campus of the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College

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The opportunities of a network

In recent decades, policymakers and advocacy groups highlighted the need to increase the proportion of Americans with a college degree. Still, big gaps remain by race.

Just 40 percent of Black adults 25 and older and only 31 percent of Hispanic adults held an associate’s degree or higher in 2019, according to the Education Data Initiative. Compare that with 56 percent of white adults, and 78 percent of Asian adults.

When it comes to improving degree attainment, some important institutions have been left out of too many conversations, says Yolanda Watson Spiva, the president of Complete College America.

That exclusion has left lingering racial gaps in the landscape of higher education.

So the national advocacy organization is putting a new focus on improving college completion by supporting two types of minority-serving institutions: historically Black colleges and predominantly Black community colleges. Colleges are considered a PBCC if the enrollment reaches 40 percent Black with at least half of the student population considered low-income or first-generation.

Complete College America launched a network earlier this month with the goal of elevating colleges that serve students of color and also addressing the growing needs of the workforce.

The network, made up of 22 colleges, brings institutions together to share resources and expertise. The national organization will work with participants to figure out what barriers are in place for their students, review college practices, and create support systems to meet students’ basic needs.

In the wake of the pandemic’s disruptions, Complete College America also wanted to help universities do more to help students get back on track, says Watson Spiva.

“We started to look at which institutions were the ones that have been left behind in the college completion movement,” says Watson Spiva.

Part of the network’s goal is to also collaborate and share with one another on what is working and what is not. Richard Moss, director of STEM Success at the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College, said the college joined the network knowing that other institutions from similar backgrounds would build a stronger support system.

Colleges can talk to one another about issues of retention, graduation or even location, like being in a more rural area, he said. For example, the college reached out to learn more about hotspots and passing out laptops to help students during the pandemic.

Complete College America is also working with colleges in the network to address workforce needs. The organization will help colleges identify where to focus when it comes to associate degree programs for adult learners of color while helping increase degree completion and career placement rates.

University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College can become an important access point for Black students interested in pursuing higher education, says Moss.

Moss is also in charge of increasing average retention and graduation rates of underrepresented students in majors like science, engineering, technology, and math.

The STEM Success program offers tutoring services and financial literacy workshops and partners with local high schools to bring students on campus in order to build a more sustainable pipeline for STEM programs and jobs in the state.

Among many challenges, lack of visibility is a big one for these colleges. Located near three HBCUs, Moss said he isn’t sure if people in the community are even aware that the college is a predominantly Black institution.

“College is an opportunity. There is one right here in your community. There are students who look like you,” Moss says.

Partnering with other PBCCs, the network can also help increase awareness in their communities that they are an opportunity and a resource.

Open Campus receives funding from Lumina Foundation, which also supports Complete College America’s network initiative.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash.

Stepping away from college

The pandemic has disrupted a number of people’s college plans. But the effects have not been equal across racial groups.

A new report by UCLA found that Asian and white students were least likely to cancel plans to attend colleges for fall 2021.

Even with the recovery in place for many colleges and universities, students of color still changed their plans.

Despite vaccinations and COVID-19 protocols last fall, 43% of Black students, 42% of Latino students and 44% of multiethnic students changed their plans for college by delaying education, not returning or reducing class schedules.

The researchers, Taemin Ahn and Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, examined the structural barriers in place that make it a challenge for students to get back to college. One of the biggest barriers is money.

“Many people lost jobs or lost family income and so that ends up being the most important reason why students didn’t sign up to come back in the fall — even after things reopened,” Ahn says. “We found that those differences are much more intense for multiethnic students, Black students, and Latino students.”

Students who delay college plans are less likely to get their degree and often face more obstacles if they do decide to go back to school.

“Once you’re no longer in the rhythm of attending classes,” Ahn says, “it’s very difficult to rearrange your life in a way that makes it possible to do those things again.”

Recommended Reading

Nicholas Brooks wrote a first-person essay about his friend Danny and their different experiences with college in prison. “Danny is Black and I am white, and we had very different early educations.” Read his story on Open Campus.

How do HBCU students feel about the workforce? Jessica Albert at CBS Baltimore reported on Morgan State University’s students meeting with U.S. Education officials about their program and what efforts need to be made to diversify the workforce.

What is it like to be Black in the academic world? Mariama Diallo, a film director and writer, decided to reflect on her time at Yale through a horror story. Oyin Adedoyin at The Chronicle reported on how the filmmaker’s experience at Yale inspired the movie.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.