At the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, Bensimon partnered with the mathematics chair to help the school meet a state goal of increasing the number of Latinos who have earned postsecondary degrees and certificates. Bensimon says the approach showed that the math chair had not hired a black math faculty member in a decade; she argues that a diverse faculty is important. “Faculty are the majority of the budget at institutions of higher education, faculty are the ones that create the culture of institutions mostly, and they are the ones that through their practices, create or don’t create success for the students,” she said.
Among the adjustments the equity approach prompted at the college was an overhaul of how the college hires new faculty. The college also began monitoring how well students of various racial backgrounds perform in select classrooms and using that data to coach the instructors on how to improve the academic lot of their non-white students. Early signs show that the achievement gap between white, black, and Latino students is almost closed at Aurora, Bensimon said.
California State University Dominguez Hills, a state university near Los Angeles with a large population of first-generation students that has partnered with Bensimon before, has in the past three years lifted its graduation rate for full-time students from around 29 percent to what’s expected to be 40 percent at the end of this year.
The university’s vice president of student affairs, William Franklin, said the academic improvement can be attributed to a major rethinking of how the campus serves its students. A few years ago, the university introduced a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen whose test scores suggested they could use a tune up in math and English. The two-month summer session is free for those who qualify, reviews some of the “hidden-curriculum” concepts, introduces the campus’s many useful facilities, and helps to forge important relationships with peers and mentors. The university also spent nearly two years revising its student-mentoring program, creating a data tracker that monitors student performance and allows advisers to recommend more relevant coursework and support.
A change in culture matters, too, Franklin said. Because most of the university’s students are either low-income, black, or Hispanic, it’s tempting to “problematize [the] students, their communities, their families,” said Franklin. “‘Oh, they didn’t make it, well let’s just mystify it and bring in a larger class next time and continue doing the same thing we’ve done, and getting the same results.’”
In his view, more campus leaders should be asking, “Is the university ready for the student?”
As Cal State Dominguez Hills continues to fine-tune its mentoring and academic systems, more students are completing their first and second years of college. In 2008, before these reforms took place, the university lost 53 percent of its students who started school in 2006. Since 2010, the first-year retention levels have risen from 78 percent to nearly 82 percent.