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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 December 14 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Plotting a Path to Success

The way Laredo Community College President Juan L. Maldonado sees it, sketching a road map to a four-year college degree for minority and economically disadvantaged students must start early — very early.

“We have a very high illiteracy rate here,” Maldonado said of the city of 230,000 on the north bank of the Rio Grande River. “Many of our residents don’t have a background in higher education. They don’t have the mindset that it is important to go to college. That’s why it is important for us to step in and help them realize that a college degree is within their reach.”

So LCC is a supporter of cap-and-gown ceremonies for children as young as four years old graduating from pre-school programs.

For Maldonado and other leaders at LCC, such ceremonies are more than a dress-up activity for rambunctious children. Instead, they are considered to be an important step in creating an education ethic for families who otherwise might consider college little more than a passing fancy out of their reach

“This is what starts the pipeline for them to go to college,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado, for one, believes that creating a structured academic pathway for students is the most important thing that community colleges can do in ensuring that their students can transfer to a four-year college and earn a degree.

“If you don’t have a clear road map, then all the other innovations will go for naught,” he said.

LCC was one of six Texas community colleges recently cited by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education for devising and promoting practices for successfully transferring students to four year colleges.

The others were Tarrant County College-Southeast Campus, Trinity Valley Community College, Southwest Texas Junior College and Victoria College. They were the study’s focus because they have transfer rates that exceed expectations and outstrip those of other colleges in the Texas.

For Texas, the initiatives provide a way to achieve the goals of “Closing the Gaps,” a statewide initiative to increasing the number of traditionally underrepresented groups attending and graduating from college. For the rest of the country, it might be able to provide a blueprint for action, the report said.

Entitled “Bridging the Gaps to Success: Promising Practices for Promoting Transfer Among Low-Income and First-Generation Students,” the report comes at a critically important time. President Obama has launched an initiative that calls for community colleges to educate an additional 5 million students over the next decade.

“In order to achieve the president’s goal and the goals of so many others, like the Lumina Foundation, you have to
tap into this population,” said Chandra Taylor Smith, director of the Washington-based institute. “Community colleges are a critical component to achieving the goal of educating more people.”

At the same time, the report was issued at a time when the recession-wracked economy is sending record numbers of students back to community colleges, many of them unemployed or underemployed, to retool themselves for a shrunken job market.

While that work long has been a central component of the community college mission, the report asserts that “we must not lose sight of the community college’s academic mission and its role in preparing students for transfer to the university. This is especially important when we place the academic mission and transfer function in the context of the community college’s role as the entry point to postsecondary education for low-income and first-generation college students of all races, including those from historically underrepresented populations. The community college has been, and continues to be, the open door to a better life for students from each of those populations.”

Lofty Aspirations

Community college leaders are well aware that those lofty aspirations too often collide with reality. While thousands of students enroll in community colleges with the goal of earning a four-year degree, the sobering fact is that many of them never do. Instead, they languish in developmental education classes and eventually drop out. About half of community college students drop out before earning a credential, and fewer successfully transfer.

The colleges that the Pell Institute study examined have put in place policies to cultivate a culture intended to ease the economic, cultural and academic barriers that limit the ability of students to transfer to four-year schools.

While each college implemented strategies designed to fit their individual community and needs, they were found to share three common attributes:

  • A structured academic pathway for each student, including strong relationships with four-year institutions; robust dual enrollment programs with local high school districts; and innovative developmental course curriculum.

  • A student-centered culture that emphasizes personal attention, ease of service, collaboration and innovation, flexible scheduling, learning centers and tutoring labs and first-year seminars which go beyond campus tours and focus on things like study skills, test-taking, learning communities and immersion in campus life.

  • Culturally-sensitive leadership that allows administrators and instructors to act as mentors by understanding the lives of their students based on their own experiences.

“Having a faculty member who is also a role model is very important,” said LCC Vice President Fredrico Solis. “I know that if it was not for a counselor who took me by the hand and helped me navigate the waters of higher education, I would not be here today.”

Northeast Texas Community College is nearly 500 miles and a world away from LCC. It has an economy based on agriculture and its minority enrollment is 28 percent, compared to 98 percent at Laredo. But the college shares a commitment to culturally sensitive leadership, said college President Brad Johnson. Johnson said he is keeping that firmly in mind as the college undergoes a transition and recruits new faculty to replace those near retirement.

“We know we won’t have success in the future unless we can sustain this culture,” he said. “The programs will change, but the culture here must remain the same.”

The college also has taken steps to promulgate a strong student-centered culture.

Mary Hearron, a longtime biology and chemistry professor and the college’s division director for natural sciences, said “the faculty is completely and totally engaged in the lives of our students.”

“We place a large premium on students outside the classroom,” she said. “We have faculty members who will take students to transfer days at universities that are three or four hours away.”

“Many of our faculty members are home-grown,” she added. “They understand the rural setting. They come from here. We can show the students what they can do, and convince them that they can change their life.”

In another part of the state, in the populous Dallas-Fort Worth area, Judith Carrier, president of Tarrant County College-Southeast Campus has instituted a policy which dictates that one half of all staff be ethnically diverse and one-half be male, all part of a effort to help students.

“It is important to us that our students see themselves in our faculty and administrators,” she said. “From the time our students step on campus, they are going to see themselves. That is a priority for us.”

Carrier and other administrators at the college also believe the best way to promote their all-important dual enrollment program with local high schools is to bring the college to the schools. That’s why the college occupies portable classrooms at several high schools where students can step into a college classroom, with a college professor, without ever leaving their high school campus.

“We had relatively low enrollment in our dual enrollment program when we started,” said Career Services Director Michael Cinatl. “Unless you were economically advantaged, you could not get to campus. Once we located on the high school campuses, the floodgates opened.”

Students can earn 18 hours of college credit through the dual enrollment program. Carrier said it is built on a strong foundation of relationships in the local community. College and high school administrators meet regularly, swapping ideas and pushing improvements, she said.

“We are more than friends,” she said. “We know each other and we work together.”

The report concludes that other community colleges could learn something from the Texas schools.

“They are committed to engaging, retraining, graduating and transferring students. In fact, all of these faculty, administrators, and staff are working to make the statewide Texas initiative, “Closing the Gaps,” a reality – and one that is not just a Texas dream, but an American dream.”

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