Dr. Brice W. Harris is chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, the largest higher education system in the nation.
Q: With regard to the high percentages of first-generation college students, what is the priority level to ensure those students are not only well represented on your campus, but how they matriculate and what services are available to them especially when they come from largely underrepresented groups?
A: For our institutions we have chartered a new pathway for student success. Part of the important first step is to get the data that shows how our students are doing, so for the first time we have what’s called College by College Accountability that disaggregates those data so we can look at how are students are doing by race and ethnicity, by age and gender and we find some very troubling performance gaps. So for us, it’s not only about all of our students succeeding at higher rates, it’s also about closing those gaps.
Q: With those gaps in mind, minority students have been known to do better academically when faculty, staff and administration reflect the student body. What does your system do in the form of diversity recruitment of faculty and staff to mirror the students that the California Community Colleges are serving?
A: There have been improvements over the last couple of the decades but there is room for more. The challenge that a lot of our colleges face, as it relates to recruiting faculty, the old way of doing it suggested that candidates have 45 percent based on academic credentials, 45 percent on their experience and the last 10 percent was working for a diverse student body. We need to change the equation to move away from 45, 45 and 10 to a third, a third and a third evenly, then I think you begin to see results in the form of diversity.
Q: Since many community college students transfer into the California State and University of California systems, what policy issues in the wake of the passage of California’s Proposition 30, are on the horizon to ensure diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity if all three systems are collaborating and not competing for funding?
A: For the first time in many years, our budget priorities used to just be cost of living increases and capacity for student growth. Those historically were the two driving forces for our budget. Now a third leg to that is the Student Success Initiative, where we are focusing on improving orientation, student support, and automating the education planning and counseling.
Last year $50 million went to that and for this year a minimum of $100 million will go to this initiative. More importantly, we are seeing institutional changes where colleges are addressing basic skills and education planning differently, also taking into account what first-generation students bring to our colleges, low economic backgrounds and students of color.
We are a group of institutions who constantly get berated because our success numbers are not high enough, yet if students are college-ready when we get them, [they] are succeeding in excess of 70 percent of the time, which is comparable to many selective institutions. The challenge is only one in four are in that category so should quit whining that three out of four students are not ready and do what is necessary to get them up to college-level work. We have to do a better job of assessment, work down in the high schools. Those are the kind of things that are going to make poor students, disadvantaged students and students of color successful.
Q: The Obama Administration through the U.S. Department of Education is set to release a higher education rating system for implementation scheduled for the 2015 academic year with metrics that are yet to be ironed out. How will this rating system impact the California Community College system in terms of administration, faculty and its diverse student body?
A: I don’t know that it is going to have a dramatic impact in California because our funding system is still demand-based and not outcome-based and we’ve succeeded in convincing the legislature that they are better off telling us what they want and let us do that rather than fund solely on outcomes which therefore cause institutions to change and abandon the students that need us the most. The greatest risk of outcome-based funding is that our colleges will say that if all you’re going fund is outcome-based, we’re sure not going to serve all these students who are not ready for college, which would leave a whole generation of California students behind.
Through legislature, we are going to rely on our own scorecard which does look at transfer students, career and technical education completion, basic skills and remediation, all of these critical factors helping all of our students succeed. Right now we just have to stay focused on restoring access to these colleges and helping students succeed. We cannot have African-American and Latino students succeeding at half the rate of everyone else. It is unacceptable.
Q: Retention, matriculation and graduation numbers are low for minority students at public institutions in California, especially for African-Americans, according to the recent report released by the Campaign for College Opportunity. What can be done to form the policy on a federal level, if the rating system might not be the answer for California?
A: Elected officials at all levels need to put more attention on what they want our institutions to produce and less attention on prescribing to us professional educators. When I get money, that says, “With this money, comes your responsibility to meet these challenges,” and if I have not done that, then maybe they need to get somebody else to do my job. That is accountability.
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