In summary

Every California community college is working to develop the next three-year iteration of its student equity plan. We owe it to our students to develop strategies and actions that can eliminate racial disparities.

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By Eric R. Felix, Special to CalMatters

Eric R. Felix is an assistant professor in the College of Education at San Diego State University.

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the Student Equity Policy, a state-level reform within California’s community colleges focused on improving the conditions and outcomes for students of color. All 116 community colleges in the system and its allies have the chance this fall to craft new three-year plans to deliver on the promise of educational equity. We owe it to our students to develop strategies and actions that can eliminate racial disparities.

In 1992, the reform called out educational inequities experienced by Black and Latinx students and sought to avoid “a permanent underclass of mostly minority, low-skilled workers.” Unique to the policy was a mandate to create a “student equity plan” to identify areas of inequity and spur institutional action to address barriers facing students of color.

The policy, known today as the Student Equity and Achievement Program, has received half-a-billion dollars annually from the state and will receive 5% more in the 2022-23 fiscal year. Despite its promise, however, there is little evidence of its effectiveness or of how it influences more equitable outcomes for students of color across the nation’s largest higher education system. 

A project known as the Student Equity Planning Institute now seeks to produce a better outcome. Our hope is to empower educators to see themselves as agents of change and use their student equity plan as a tool to improve conditions, experiences and outcomes for communities of color.

Traditionally, equity planning is done independently by each institution in the community college system. Through the institute, however, 17 campuses in the Inland Empire region came together to consider regional and systemic issues that impede racial equity. The project used that broader lens to construct the next three-year iteration of the equity plan to address the racial inequities experienced in community college. 

More than 200 educators, students, classified professionals, and faculty administrators from each campus, as well as system-level colleagues, teamed up with equity leaders to envision what a ground-up, race-conscious, community-oriented approach to equity might look like. The beauty of this project is the commitment to identify, disrupt and remove policies, practices, programs and mindsets antithetical to equity. 

We wish to share the insights from this project for others engaged in this work:

1) Invest in the people who lead policy. Build community, develop trust, create a shared language, enhance competencies and provide the capacity to do this work.

2) Humanize and leverage data for action. Conduct deep inquiries that identify root causes of inequity and recognize that equity gaps are not just percentages but actual students with dreams and aspirations.

3) Call in your institutional leaders. Engage senior leaders early and have them actively participate in discussions and decisions on which student groups to prioritize, which strategies to use to address gaps, and what resources are available to accomplish this work. 

4) Heal from institutional trauma. Recognize that your colleagues doing equity work have most likely experienced heavy resistance and endured adverse situations advancing equity efforts, and thus need time and space to process the difficult work of leading change.

5) Organize for collective action. We must see racial equity work as a collective effort that acknowledges that no individual response can address systemic inequity; only systemic responses can get us closer to achieving equity.

Only by working with people in the community will our state get closer to achieving racial equity in community college. It is people coming together to build coalitions that can change systems, organizations and practices. Otherwise, the efforts will devolve into continued criticism of the policy.

As argued three decades ago when the Student Equity Policy first was unveiled, “There simply is no realistic alternative to making student equity the highest priority at the state and local levels.” This is still the case in 2022.

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