TLOP. Dissertation Synopsis PT 1

Three years into my PhD program, I find myself now a doctoral candidate preparing for the dissertation phase. My time at USC, specifically within the Center for Urban Education, has focused on understanding the educational inequities in community college and assisting practitioners in understanding their data to make informed-decisions to improve institutional policies, structures, and practices to mitigate educational inequities for students of color. I’ve also explored two state-level policies intended to improve the conditions, experiences, and outcomes for students in community college. My first two years focused on a state-wide transfer reform policy, SB-1440, exploring how it was implemented and the impact it had on transfer success, particularly for students of color. Recently, my research has been dedicated to the Student Equity Policy, a state mandate providing community colleges with funds to address outcome equity gaps on campus. The policy requires individual campuses to develop a student equity plan[1] which includes an equity-audit across five indicators of student success, identifying disproportionately-impacted student groups, proposing goals and activities to address equity gaps for those groups, and strategically using equity funds to achieve them.

A few weeks ago, I defended and passed my qualifying exam. With that milestone achieved, the next step has been to think of the details of my dissertation study and articulate them in a proposal. One-liners at conferences and abstract ideas no longer suffice. It’s time to outline the fine-grained details of my culminating project at USC. Since becoming a candidate, I’ve been overwhelmed with ideas and decisions to make in moving forward. One of which has weighed heavily on me, the choice of chapter- or paper-based dissertation. I’ve spoken with my advisor, mentors, currently dissertating and recently graduated students. I’m still mulling it over, although I shouldn’t dwell on it too much. The end destination is in sight, but with different roads to take, I just need to pick the route that works best for me and drive.

As I prepare for the dissertation phase, I must make the argument that this study is warranted, that I have a theoretically-grounded and methodologically-rigorous approach, that there will be expected results that can contribute towards policy, practice, and scholarship, all the while being feasible within a constrained amount of time. Before going into the dissertation description, I must remind myself that this is a passion project, that both my personal and professional identities are committed to this work. That the dissertation is an extension of who I am, but ultimately is bigger than me.

Two factors prompt this study as a passion project. First, when I came to USC, I didn’t intend to study community colleges, but that is where I found my community. Nearly 70% of all Latinx undergraduates in the state are in community colleges. Many of them have aspirations to transfer or attain a credential or degree, but fail to achieve that goal given a myriad of issues created by institutional policies, structures, and practices. Community colleges are the primary higher education entry point for Latinx[2] students; they serve as institutions of educational promise and that’s where I need to be. Second, my time with CUE and my advisor have ingrained the ideas that research must be socially conscious, that racial equity must be central, and that change must occur within institutions and among practitioners. Observing Estela do work is a strong reminder that theory and research must be used towards emancipatory ends. Meaning that this project is not a task of the mind, but one that attempts to address real problems facing communities of color. So with that said, this a brief synopsis of my dissertation project: what I plan to study, how I plan to study it, and a path to move forward.

California higher education has an equity problem[3]. Students of color are overwhelmingly concentrated in community colleges that are underfunded and overburdened. Despite greater participation in higher education over the years, attendance for students of color has been stratified by institutional type and sector. Furthermore, students of color face major challenges with respect to persistence, transfer, and graduation given high rates of placement in remedial education, low support with educational aspirations, and interaction with institutional policies, structures, and practices that may not be culturally sustaining for these students. These conditions have created unequal conditions through racially-segregated pathways that produce inequities in experiences and educational outcomes (Carnevale & Strohl, 2013). The Master Plan, which once served as the golden example, has shifted from open-access to closed opportunities.

Policies, funding priorities, and academic stratification have created a situation where the least resourced institutions serve the students with the greatest needs (Bastedo & Jacquette, 2011). Over the last forty years, the composition of community colleges have shifted to serve more students of color seeking educational opportunities. Malcom (2013) described community college as the de facto minority-serving sector. In 2014, of all Latino and African American undergraduate students in California more than 68% were enrolled in community colleges. Complicating issues is the inequitable funding provided to community colleges. In 2013-2014, CCCs funding per FTE was $6,442 compared to $13,268 for state-comprehensives and $22,769 for public-research institutions (Legislative Analyst Office, 2016). The Century Foundation (2015) found that public and private research universities spent three and five times, respectively, more per student than community colleges. The inequity in fiscal resources partly contribute to the low success rates found in community college (Belfield, Costra, & Jenkins, 2014; Schudde & Goldrick-Rab, 2014).

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Without adequate fiscal support, community colleges are unable to successfully carry out the many functions (e.g., remedial education, short-term training, transfer preparation) placed upon them. Hence, it is perhaps unsurprising that community colleges have the lowest completion rates of all postsecondary institutions in the nation; only 17 percent of students who begin their education at a community college complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of transferring (CCRC, 2015). Gonzales (2015) argues that differences in fiscal support demonstrate a “de facto segregated system of higher education” that produces disparities in completion rates for students attending less selective institutions such as community colleges. In California’s Community Colleges (CCC) only 47% graduate with a certificate, associate’s degree or transfer after six years. Conversely, the University of California (UC) system, has the highest levels of funding per student and a six year degree completion rate of 84 % (See Table 1).

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What have policymakers done to address educational inequities in community college?

To better support community colleges in the state to address educational inequities, policymakers revised and enacted the Student Equity Policy (SEP) in 2014. The policy was originally adopted in 1992 during a period of affirmative action which encouraged policymakers to draft legislation that addressed historic and current forms of discrimination for different racial and ethnic groups (Gurin, Lehman, & Lewis, 2004). In the 1992-1993 “Guidelines to Developing a Student Equity Plan” the description of the Student Equity Policy was tied to readdressing racial inequities to promote a better future for California. Below I share an underpinning rationale of the plans:

 It matters to our future and to our students… California will not be a pleasant place to live for any of us if a permanent underclass largely composed of those from ethnic minorities has little stake in society and little hope for the future…. If community colleges work successfully in the effort to increase rates of student success, the State just might have a better future. If we fail, it is hard to imagine who else can make up for our failure. (authors’ emphasis, Guichard, 1992, p. 8)

The policy initially required each individual district, now individual college, to develop a student equity plan that a) examined campus data and identified student groups facing disproportionate inequities in the five areas of access, basic skills, course completion, degree/certificate completion, and transfer, b) develop goals to mitigate identified gaps, c) create activities and interventions aligned with articulated goals, d) indicate sources of funding, and e) create a process for evaluation. Unfortunately, the guidelines set by the student equity policy were never actualized during the introductory period. For over twenty years, the Student Equity Policy was overlooked, unfunded, and under-implemented. Ching and Felix (2015) found the policy ineffective and left dormant based on the unstable economic period and affirmative action backlash of the late 1990s.

Under Governor Jerry Brown and recent legislative periods, community colleges have had a more favorable policy climate in California. Community colleges have benefited from policies that expanded student support services (SB-1456) and established new transfer pathways (SB-1440). In 2014, the Student Equity Policy was revised by the state legislature and funded for the first time. As a state-level policy tool, the student equity plan creates an opportunity for California Community Colleges to more seriously examine whether and to what extent inequitable student outcomes exist on their campuses. The funding provided by the Governor’s budget helps ensure that colleges will be able to address the issues uncovered from data analysis and inquiry. Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 fiscal year, $380 million dollars have been allocated towards addressing equity issues in community colleges by the state legislature. Each college is awarded equity funds based on a six-factor formula that includes enrollment size, students’ socioeconomic status, community participation rate, and the poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment rates of each service area. The funding provided helps to achieve the goals, activities, and interventions established in a college’s student equity plan to mitigate identified equity gaps for various student populations.

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Study Significance
California has the largest community college system in the United States with 113 institutions serving over 2.3 million students (American Association of Community Colleges, 2016). Over two-thirds of all first-time black and Latinx undergraduate in the state are enrolled in community college (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2015a, 2015b). The Student Equity Policy dedicated millions in funding for community colleges in the state to identify equity gaps on campus, target groups facing disproportionate impact, and develop strategies and interventions to improve student equity for those groups.

There are very few examples of equity-focused policies in higher education, California’s Student Equity Policy is the only such policy in the nation. To date, there has been little research examining the implementation of the policy across the state (Legislative Analyst Office, 2016; Melguizo et al., 2015). More importantly, there is need to analyze the enactment of the policy and the ways campuses use the development of a student equity plan and funds to address equity gaps faced by students of color as they tend to experience the greatest disparities. Therefore, the goal of this dissertation project is to provide insight into the implementation of the SEP at both a statewide- and institutional-level. Such a study has implications for policymakers looking to develop equity-based higher education policy, practitioners trying to maximize the use of resources to improve outcomes, and researchers seeking to expand the literature on the implementation of community college policies.

So that’s it for PT1. Be on the look out for PT2 describing mah research questions, theoretical framework, and outlines for the three papers to be written.

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[1] Student equity plans can be seen as an accountability mechanism for the policy and the funds distributed campuses.

[2] Latinx is used as a replacement for “Latina/o” to highlight both the border crossing and fluidity of identity within the Latina/o community. The term “Hispanic” is not used interchangeably, but only as a descriptor of formal categories such as “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” Our preference for Latinx is to empower students that are trans* and gender non-conforming, while pushing the binary identity positions in academia

[3] A recent report by the Young Invincibles gave the state an F in attainment equity for having the widest attainment gaps for Latinx in the nation and ranking near the bottom for African American students. More info: http://younginvincibles.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/YI-State-Report-Cards-2016.pdf

[4] Students of color in this table include African American, Latinx, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Multiracial students.

[5] Success Rate is defined as the six-year graduation for each institution type. Data for the table was collected from http://scorecard.cccco.edu/scorecardrates.aspx?CollegeID=000#home, http://graduate.csuprojects.org/home/about/system-and-campus-graduation-targets2, http://accountability.universityofcalifornia.edu/2015/chapters/chapter-3.html.

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