Grabbing Third Rails: Courageous Responses to Persistent Equity Gaps

Student success efforts often focus on issues related to students’ college-readiness. But the authors of a recent book, Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, challenge higher education professionals to take a different approach. “Just imagine,” they suggest, “if . . . instead of seeking the ideal student, we became the ideal college.”1 The admission of increasingly greater numbers of students from groups traditionally underserved by higher education underscores the urgency of this call to refocus on the readiness of the college or university, rather than on the readiness of the student. Having already faced various academic and nonacademic impediments, underrepresented students come to us for help in fulfilling their educational aspirations. Unfortunately, far too often, a disheartening disjunction persists between our promise to these underrepresented students and our ability to deliver on this promise.2

In response to the call to remake our institutions as student-ready colleges, we focus in this article on three particularly egregious challenges that must be confronted and overcome if equity gaps affecting underserved students are to be closed. Invoking the metaphor of the “third rail,” which refers to the danger inherent to touching the line that supplies electricity to a subway, we refer to the three as “third-rail” challenges. To be sure, no one (we hope) will die as a result of grappling with the challenges we discuss here; however, the educational dreams of many students have died in institutions where educators were unwilling to face, or unable to overcome, them.

Presented interrogatively, the three “third-rail” challenges are as follows: First, in a world where our sincere commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion do not consistently eventuate in results that match our commitments, how might we honestly confront our own implicit biases? Second, in a world where many students’ socioeconomic struggles impede their academic success, how might we work to eradicate student poverty? Third, in a world where faculty enjoy a great deal of autonomy and teaching is not always a high priority, how might we confront forms of pedagogy that adversely affect students, especially those from underserved populations?

The challenge of implicit bias

As even a cursory review of the outcomes of many common institutional practices would reveal, a sincere commitment to diversity often does not yield hoped-for results. Consider, for example, how often our hiring practices result in the appointment of persons who look, think, or otherwise seem like the faculty and staff already employed by our institutions—despite the diversity training received by search committee members, and despite a professed institutional commitment to diversifying the faculty and staff. Or reflect honestly on the extent to which, in meetings, we are less than open to hearing opinions that differ from our own, especially those that might challenge our core beliefs or positions. The message often sent by the practical results of our thinking and behavior can be summed up as follows: “It’s okay to be different, as long as you’re not.”3

This problem can adversely affect our students, too, especially those from traditionally underserved populations. Indeed, despite decades of diversity efforts across higher education, many marginalized students still do not feel welcome on our campuses, do not see themselves reflected in our curricula (or staffing), and lack a sense of well-being. These are hardly conditions of possibility conducive to academic success. Though we need to be careful not to draw facile or reductive conclusions about causality, we should nonetheless consider two potential correlations: first, the extent to which these sorts of “non-academic” factors are, or could be, correlated to persistent equity gaps in course-level success and degree completion for students from underserved populations; and, second, the extent to which this correlation might relate to our own thinking and behavior.

At Lansing Community College (LCC), this problem threatens to undermine a major student success initiative whose goal is nothing short of 100 percent completion for students in certificate, degree, or transfer pathways and whose vision is “100 percent success through 100 percent inclusion.”4 Achieving this goal and realizing this vision will require addressing disparities that affect student success at the course level, as well as disparities in completion rates. This effort, in turn, will require an understanding that, notwithstanding conscious commitments to helping underserved students feel welcome and succeed, the same or similar unconscious attitudes and behaviors that impede efforts to create and sustain a welcoming acceptance of, and respect for, difference among faculty and staff are likely also to play a role in sustaining the equity gaps such initiatives are designed to ameliorate. Thus, it is essential to recognize the extent to which implicit biases might be undermining efforts to help ensure that all students succeed.

Confronting the third-rail challenge of implicit bias is sometimes uncomfortable.5 To help ourselves move beyond this discomfort, we might begin by acknowledging that our nation has long struggled with a history marked by racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar societal ills and that it thus would be nigh impossible for anyone living in the United States to escape the influences and consequences of this history. In short, despite our best intentions and efforts, none of us is immune to implicit bias. For those of us engaged in the initiative at LCC, this crucial acknowledgment has led to the establishment of three key, interrelated agreements: we will not blame and shame each other for our implicit bias vulnerabilities; we commit to lessening the extent to which our own individual implicit biases could adversely affect student success; and, we will support each other in our collective efforts to attenuate these adverse consequences. With these agreements grounding our work, we can keep our eyes on the prize, which is to strengthen inclusion by delivering quality educational experiences to all our students.

To reduce the potential for anxiety among colleagues and, at the same time, obtain expert assistance, LCC brought to campus an impartial and nonjudgmental consultant from Project Implicit, an organization that supports research on implicit social cognition and promotes public education about hidden biases.6 To assist in the establishment of the “train-the-trainer” model at LCC, the consultant held two workshops on campus. The first involved those leading LLC’s participation in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project;7 the second involved advisors, support personnel, and other frontline staff of the college. To prepare for the workshops, individual participants took the Implicit Association Test, which is central to the research in the field.8 Then, during each workshop, the participants took the test as a group, which helped minimize embarrassment and defensiveness. This activity allowed participants to see that they were not alone in having implicit biases, and it reinforced the message that no one is immune to these unconscious and potentially dangerous thoughts and perceptions.

A key lesson of the workshops is that, under pressure, even otherwise fair-minded persons might revert to thoughts and behaviors influenced by their implicit biases. To help us combat this problem, the consultant provided strategies for keeping implicit bias at bay. (It’s unclear whether such biases can ever be eliminated.) These strategies include reducing the “wiggle room” in decision-making processes (those affecting the hiring and promotion of faculty and staff, for example); slowing down one’s thinking; keeping in mind the subtle bias of favoritism, which often results in the hiring or otherwise favoring of those who are similar to oneself; and being humble about one’s biases.

To continue this work, LCC is offering trainings geared specifically to faculty needs and trainings aimed at meeting the needs of other employees. One particularly promising faculty-oriented activity addresses challenges to enrolling students from underserved populations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses and majors. LCC science instructors have begun working with their K-12 colleagues to create a stronger school-to-college pipeline for underrepresented STEM students and to enhance collaboration among faculty at the school and college levels.

One of the most salient points made by the authors of Becoming a Student-Ready College is that, to be student-ready, a college must embrace the idea that all employees are both educators and leaders. The implicit bias awareness training sessions with support staff at LCC are grounded in this view, and the results have not disappointed. Indeed, these sessions have demonstrated the strong commitment of many staff members to student success and the significant contributions they can make to efforts to promote this goal. They want to be asked to help; they want, dare we say it, to be included.

The highest enrollments at LCC are in the Arts and Sciences Division, which means that the division’s frontline staff regularly interact with large numbers of students. For this reason, follow-up trainings were held for these staff members. (Similar sessions will also be held for frontline staff in other areas.) In these nonjudgmental, supportive training sessions, staff explore their own possible implicit biases and then identify ways to address them. For example, after examining possible biases with respect to students’ disabilities, staff requested training to help them better understand mental illness so that, rather than close off to these students, they can help find on-campus counseling assistance for them. In addition, realizing that implicit biases might surface when they work too fast under pressure, several frontline support staff display personal messages at their workstations reminding them to slow down. Staff also display creative messages supporting diversity and respect. They have agreed to serve as a support group for one another, and they have asked to attend (and will be supported to attend) diversity-related conferences to help them learn more about the issues at stake in both implicit and explicit bias. To help ensure that this work continues smoothly and that problems are addressed immediately, a staff member in the Arts and Sciences Division acts as liaison to the provost’s office and is supported to attend relevant national meetings.

Ultimately, the ongoing trainings and concomitant actions meant to attenuate the impact of implicit bias are in the service of both improving institutional policies and practices at LCC and strengthening efforts to close equity gaps for students from underserved populations. With respect to student success, the goal is to move from implicit bias interference to equity-minded practice.

The challenge of student poverty

Amarillo College is strongly committed to student success, and implicit bias is confronted and addressed there at the individual and institutional levels. In 2011, this commitment led to the creation of a systemic effort to address poverty and reduce the barriers it creates for the college’s predominately low-income, first-generation, minority, and part-time students. The mission, values, and goals of the institution were adapted to meet the needs of these students, and the No Excuses Poverty Initiative was launched to connect campus programs, services, and projects designed to support students, boost graduation and transfer, and increase student persistence. As President Lyndon Johnson said, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.”9 These words are the foundation of Amarillo College’s approach to poverty.

Amarillo’s poverty initiative began with the creation of a data profile of its students and community, which showed that both were burdened by debilitating poverty. The profile also revealed a decrease in educational attainment and a significant increase in the number of students living in poverty. This research led to the creation of the No Excuses Poverty Initiative, which was initially focused on removing life barriers to student degree attainment. Today, the initiative underlies a systemic approach to removing poverty-related barriers that hinder students from achieving their educational goals—an approach that relies on the strong commitment of the college’s administration, faculty, and staff, as well as that of community partners and leaders.

Rooted in the belief that the commitment to removing poverty-related barriers to student success must be translated into concrete actions with results at scale, the college launched several culture-changing initiatives. Most significantly, the Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) was built in the center of the campus to serve as the hub of the poverty initiative. Directed by a master’s level social worker, the ARC is home to the college’s social services case management program, which includes coaching, career guidance, counseling, poverty training (for faculty and staff), social service intervention, a 100 percent donation-driven food pantry and clothing closet, early alert, and a field practicum site for a local university’s social work program.

The ARC staff assist students as they navigate campus and community resources, including transportation, childcare, housing, and utility assistance. The staff intentionally guide students who have life barriers preventing their success in and out of the classroom. The ARC is making a significant difference in students’ lives. The three-year graduation rate for the college’s 2012–13 cohort was 31 percent, which marked a remarkable increase from the previous rate of 16.7 percent.

Initially, the food pantries and clothing closets were located in literal closets and in the corners of buildings at the edges of campus. After the initial success of these services became apparent, students were asked for suggestions on how to improve them. One clear theme that emerged from the student feedback concerned the need to unify these services with the college’s broader poverty initiative. In response, the food pantry and clothing closet were pulled out of the shadows and relocated at the heart of the main campus in the most high-profile building. Initially, faculty and staff were concerned that such a public presence might “expose” students who leveraged the services. Yet, the number of students accessing ARC services quadrupled in one semester. As one student said, moving the ARC to a more prominent, central location “took the shame away.” The students knew they struggled to meet their needs; it was the college staff, not the students, who felt shame about those needs.

In addition to the ARC, Amarillo College connects students to services through two other centers and a mentoring program. The college career center connects students with money management guidance, career assessment, and employment counseling. Most notably, to connect students to local job opportunities, the career center partners with a local workforce agency, which places an employee within the center at no cost to the college. The college counseling center, led by a psychology faculty member, helps students cope with the pressures of college, life, and family by providing free group and individual counseling services. The Coaches and Champions program connects graduates of low socioeconomic status high schools with faculty and staff mentors. Students with a “coach” have a persistence rate of 74 percent—fully 25 percent higher than the college average. Finally, using early alert and predictive modeling technology, faculty members connect students who live in the “warzone of poverty” to tutoring services and other campus and community resources.

Linking programs designed to eradicate poverty-related barriers to college completion is critical, as is the involvement of community partners. Amarillo College’s systemic approach to poverty is low cost and high reward. Between 2012 and 2016, the college’s developmental education success rate increased by 20 percent, and the fall-to-fall retention increased by 13 percent. The No Excuses Poverty Initiative is working.

The challenge of ineffective pedagogy

When asked to describe a favorite or especially influential teacher, most students point to the teacher’s human qualities, not his or her subject knowledge. Typically, it is a teachers’ personal investment—caring, compassion, inspiration—that enhances a student’s educational experience. Indeed, unless balanced by such investment, a student’s perception of a teacher as a “finished product,” an expert in the field, can create a barrier between teacher and student, ultimately hindering the student’s learning and success.

In The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, Teaching, and Connecting with Students at Risk, Paul Hernandez recommends “real talk” as a strategy for overcoming this barrier to teacher-student engagement.10 Real talk involves the use of one’s own personal experience to encourage, inspire, engage, and create a sense of belonging. It requires that teachers be honest with their students about their own past experiences of pain, hardship, and feelings of uncertainty. In sharing their own journeys, teachers enable students to view them as “real” and relatable. As the following example shows, real talk fosters trust and builds connections that lead to increased teacher-student engagement.

As part of a first-semester nursing course at Lansing Community College, students had the option of attending support sessions that were specifically tailored to the course content. In designing the sessions, the instructor had focused exclusively on learning outcomes, without also taking into account the needs of at-risk students or those whose first language was not English. Assuming most, if not all, of the students would take advantage of the optional sessions, the instructor was mystified that many struggling students did not.

When the instructor sought help from Hernandez, the college’s chief diversity officer, he responded by asking, “How do you think your students perceive you as their teacher?” In considering this simple question, the instructor immediately became aware of the barrier she had unintentionally created and the urgent need to remove it. The question also led the instructor to reflect on her own educational experience. She realized that, like her students, she had been beset by fears, feelings of inadequacy, and self-doubt.

The following semester, the instructor piloted a “real talk” during the nursing student orientation. In an effort to connect with the students, she told them that, when she was herself a new nursing student, she had experienced overwhelming feelings of uncertainty about her future and could not then have imagined she would one day be a nursing instructor. She concluded the real talk by linking her experience to her understanding of how to help them succeed. That semester, student attendance at the support sessions nearly doubled, student retention rates increased significantly, and a record number of students received a final grade of A for the course.

Conclusion

If we are to live up to our commitment to provide a quality education to all students, then we must find effective ways to close persistent equity gaps. Because the root causes underlying these gaps are endemic and systemic, however, they are especially difficult to confront within higher education institutions. Nonetheless, as the examples presented above show, even third-rail challenges such as implicit bias, student poverty, and ineffective pedagogy can be overcome. Indeed, if we are to live up to our promise to help all our students become highly educated, civically engaged citizens, we have no choice but to make the effort.

Notes

1. Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald, and Thomas Major Jr., Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016), 5.

2. For a trenchant critique of this problem, see Keith Witham, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon, America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universitites, 2015).

3. For a brief analysis of this problem, see Richard J. Prystowsky, “It’s Okay to Be Different, as Long as You’re Not,” Encounter 21, no. 1 (2008): 37–39; for a more extended analysis, see Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, rev. ed. (New York: Bay Back Books, 2008).

4. See Richard J. Prystowsky, Andrew K. Koch, and Christopher A. Baldwin, “Operation 100%, or, Completion by Redesign,” Peer Review 17, no. 4 (2015): 19–22.

5. For more information about the concept of implicit bias, see Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York: Delacorte Press, 2013); Sharon L. Davies, “Driving Campus Diversity One Decision at a Time,” Liberal Education 102, no. 4 (2016): 46–51.

6. For more information about Project Implicit, see http://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit.

7. Launched in 2015 and involving twelve participating institutions, Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success is a two-year project designed to expand the research on equity in student achievement and to identify promising evidence-based interventions for improving student learning and success. For more information about the project, see http://www.aacu.org/committing-to-equity.

8. See http://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

9. Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Remarks at the University of Michigan, May 22, 1964,” Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, accessed March 22, 2017, http://www.lbjlibrary.net/collections/selected-speeches/november-1963-19....

10. Paul Hernandez, The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, Teaching, and Connecting with Students at Risk (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016).

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Richard J. Prystowsky is provost and senior vice president of academic and student affairs at Lansing Community College. Jordan Herrera is director of social services, Cara Crowley is chief of staff, and Russell Lowery-Hart is president—all at Amarillo College. Sherri Fannon is professor of nursing at Lansing Community College. This article is based on the authors’ presentation at the 2017 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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