RALEIGH (Sept. 24, 2020) – As much as it’s about specific policies or strategies, increasing college enrollment is about creating a college-going culture, national education leaders said in a virtual meeting hosted by NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson, who moderated the discussion, noted that higher education is trying to navigate the coronavirus pandemic at the same time it grapples with shifting demographic trends.
“Probably no area of our economy has been impacted (by COVID) as much as education, both K-12 and higher education,’ Woodson said. He added that the number of high-school graduates is projected to at best remain flat for the next few years.
William Serrata, President of the El Paso (TX) County Community College District, which has been recognized nationally for its success in awarding degrees to Hispanic students, said it begins with establishing a college-going culture that expects students to progress beyond high school.
“We really believe that college begins in kindergarten,” Serrata said. He added that research indicates some students decide as early as 2nd or 3rd grade to go to college.
Some 85% of El Paso Community College’s students are Latinx, and 70% are first-generation students. But Serrata pointed out that nearly 70% of El Paso’s faculty are faculty of color.
“Our students are able to see themselves in the face at the front of the classroom,” he said.
The University of California, Riverside has eliminated achievement gaps based on both ethnicity and family income and increased its graduation rate by 16%.
“That’s a huge lift,” said UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox. “But it only happens … in a place where everybody buys into the concept ahead of time.”
Woodson said many NC State students start at North Carolina community colleges, and he asked about easing that transition.
Wilcox said two-thirds of the graduates of the University of California System started at a community college.
“You’ve got to be deliberate,” he said, suggesting that universities and community colleges could share some operations. “There’s a lot more we can do in terms of partnership.”
In terms of social mobility, said Woodson, institutions are too often judged based on the quality of their incoming students “rather than being judged on what you do to transform that person’s life.”
Wilcox boasted that UCR has been ranked No. 1 in the nation in social mobility by U.S. News & World Report for the past two years and named “the most transformative college in America” by Money magazine.
Again, he said, it’s about the culture and a point of pride on campus.
“We’re Number 1,” Wilcox said. “We yell it: ‘We’re No. 1!’”
Serrata said that at El Paso, 37% of students from the lowest income quintile move up at least two quintiles upon completion.
“Many of our students see us in that fashion – they see us as a means to an end. They want a better quality of life,” he said.
All of which led Institute for Emerging Issues Director Leslie Boney to conclude: “If we’re going to meet those goals of North Carolina having 2 million people with a credential beyond high school that’s meaningful by 2030, we’ve got a lot of work to do. And it has to start with us.”
Higher Ed Works, the NC Independent Colleges and Universities and the John M. Belk Endowment co-sponsored the ReCONNECT virtual meeting Impact on Higher Education and the Future of Work.