3 changes to get racial equity at California community colleges

Estela Bensimon
Estela Bensimon USC Rosssier School of Education

The issue of racial inequality was center stage recently at the Oscars. The tense evening was yet another example of what has been a turbulent yet transformative time that has us thinking about deep-seeded structures that perpetuate racial inequalities.

Many Californians believe we operate in a post-racial state, but we do not. And where education can be the great equalizer, California continues to have racial inequities in college access and success that threaten the state’s future.

California’s public colleges and universities acknowledge gaps for students of color in access and success, and often develop good programs for a few lucky students of color that are successful. But our systems have failed to make a fundamental shift in thinking and approach to equity that is key to closing racial gaps on a large scale.

A well-formulated statewide policy on equity in higher education can be crucial to closing racial gaps, and California might just have one that could work: the Student Equity Policy.

The policy instituted in 1993 by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors requires each of the 113 colleges to develop annual student equity plans documenting inequitable outcomes and proposing strategies to close gaps. The plans were to ensure equity in access, retention and success for ethnic minorities, women and persons with disabilities.

Those who crafted the policy emphasized race, recognizing that one in every two children under the age of 18 is Latino yet only 12 percent of Latino adults have a bachelor’s degree compared to 42 percent of whites. California is projected to be 1.1 million bachelor degrees short of workforce demand by 2030, meaning that an explicit focus on degree completion for Latinos and students of color is critical to meeting the state’s economic needs.

But if the Student Equity Policy is to achieve racial equity at scale, three design flaws must be fixed.

First, colleges are now required to address equity for “all” students instead of focusing on the students experiencing the least success. When a community college discovers inequities for students of color, they are encouraged to develop strategies that help all students, rather than consider why students of color experience varying levels of educational success. All populations are not equal and by ignoring groups with the greatest need for intervention, we set ourselves up for failure.

Second, the policy asks for too little self-assessment by the colleges. Faculty and staff should be asking, “Why are our practices or teaching methods working better for white students than for students of color?” Furthermore, once colleges identify inequities they should not just propose solutions but dig into the root causes of observed inequities. When campuses change the way they serve students of color, a fundamental shift in thinking and approach occurs that gets us closer to equity.

The third flaw is an inconsistent definition of equity. The policy contains three different definitions ranging from cultivating individual potential, focusing on historically underrepresented groups, and equal opportunity and success for all students. The lack of a clear definition with race at the core leads to wide variances in plans that make compliance more of a bureaucratic exercise than a true statewide strategy for eradicating inequities.

Inequity is not a natural disaster, it is not inevitable, and the state’s $225 million commitment to the Student Equity Policy over the last two years might be our best hope for reducing racial inequities in California. But the policy must be strengthened by fixing these three flaws coupled with statewide equity goals tied to funding, because without them the Student Equity Policy is an expensive boat without a rudder.

Estela Bensimon is a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.