Community Colleges as Change Agents in the Rural South

If you travel to the rural Ozark Mountains, you may be surprised to find one of the most dynamic postsecondary institutions in the nation. Located in Harrison, Arkansas, North Arkansas Community College, not only offers education beyond high school for an area that has limited postsecondary options, it offers programs that provide career counseling, assistance with accessing government resources such as housing and day care subsidies, and financial literacy and management training to individuals and families across the rural region it serves. NorthArk is just one example of the ways in which community colleges can help build an infrastructure of opportunity in non-metropolitan communities across the South.

Indeed, for many communities in the rural South a two-year college is the only postsecondary institution in geographic proximity to local residents—and as such, it can, or at least should, play a driving force in improving the economic health of a region. Among other activities this can mean preparing a region’s current and future workforce for job opportunities in the area or helping students pursue higher education opportunities elsewhere.

Of course, the challenge, like all those facing rural communities, is daunting. How does a community college fulfill its traditional role of preparing students for work if there is a lack of good jobs in the area? A recent analysis by the Daily Yonder showed that job growth in the nation’s rural communities is anemic compared to its urban counties: “The number of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas (those with a million or more people) increased by about 2 percent, or 1.3 million jobs from June 2016 to June of this year. In all rural counties, however, job growth was a bit more than a tenth of that rate, 0.29 percent, or about 60,000 jobs.” And educational attainment in these counties remains far lower than in urban areas. The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reports that “the share of the rural working-age population (adults ages 25-64) with a college degree [including an associates degree] or higher was 14 percentage points lower than in urban areas.”

But if the South has traditionally held one educational advantage over the rest of the nation is the sheer number of community colleges in each state. In most Southern states, these two-year institutions’ reach is far and wide including in rural areas. Take a look at the counties with the highest poverty rates in each of the 13 states (in every one but Virginia, it is a rural county); in most cases, a community college provides services at a location within a 30 mile drive of the county seat. (Of course, rural transportation can in many cases make even that distance daunting).

Poorest Counties in the Rural South and Access to Community College

Source for poverty rate: US Department of Agriculture

Of course, not all community colleges are created equal and success requires leadership with the foresight and fortitude to respond to difficult challenges. But throughout our work, especially recently as we work with rural places across the South to build an infrastructure of opportunity, we remain convinced that these dynamic institutions at least hold the potential to address some of the biggest challenges facing rural communities.

We see a variety of roles that community colleges can, and in many cases do, play in assisting in improving the economic vitality and potentially increasing the economic mobility of rural communities.

Community colleges prepare individuals along the school-career continuum

The traditional role of preparing individuals, no matter what age (the average of a community college student is 29), for entering the workforce is of course at the core of any postsecondary institution’s mission. And increasingly, an associates degree is required to get a job that requires a family-supporting wage. For example, in a report on the Arkansas labor force commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, we found that 84 percent of openings that pay a family wage will require at least an associates degree compared to only 21 percent that require an high school diploma or less. Effective community colleges prepare students for either the workforce or to transfer to four-year institutions. And increasingly community colleges, including those in rural areas are working with their K-12 systems, to make sure students are prepared for the challenges that students will face when they enter the world of postsecondary education.

Community colleges partner with industry to train new and incumbent workers

Of course, preparing students for a job if there is no job to be found in a community is inherently problematic. Effective community colleges operate in constant contact with local industry to ensure that they are meeting the stated demand for skilled workers. And it is important that industry’s role not just be traditional industry advisory boards that meet once a year to listen to a PowerPoint presentation about programs at colleges. Effective institutions remain in constant contact with industry to understand their current and projected needs, along with getting the data support they need from state systems to understand industry growth patterns to see where new opportunities may rise.

And community colleges not only work with individuals who are entering the workforce. Community colleges can work with existing industry to train or retrain their workers to make sure their skills stay up to date. Again, getting involvement from industry at more than a perfunctory level is vital to ensure that the services offered through the college are meeting the needs of the community at large.

 While the two roles described above could describe the role of any community college regardless of location, you should remember that in rural areas, these colleges are the only post-secondary institutions that serve the area.  The next roles are ones that if not unique to rural community colleges are critical to building an infrastructure of opportunity for these traditionally struggling areas of the South.

Community colleges can be neutral convenors

One of the keys, if not the key to building an infrastructure of opportunity in a community is building effective community partnerships. But to build an effective partnership, a region needs a leader that is generally trusted by the broad community (residents, government, non-profit and private sector) and can have the capacity to rise to the challenge. And in many rural places, community colleges are the only institution that fits the bill.

When MDC rolled out its recent report on economic mobility in North Carolina, we traveled to communities across the state to not only report our findings but to start the conversation on how to create an infrastructure of opportunity. In each rural area we traveled to, we engaged with the local community college to contact a wide variety of individual to attend and participate in a real way in a new effort aimed at community change. An outside entity like MDC or even a less trusted or known local institution would not have commanded the response or participation did our community college partners in places as varied as rural Central North Carolina or the foothills of Appalachia.

Community colleges can provide access to more than educational resources

One of the most important roles that community colleges play in rural areas especially is reaching beyond just the students they serve to provide resources to the surrounding population. And continuing education is just one role that these colleges can play that might be lacking otherwise Let’s just look at two examples: improving a community’s residents fiscal well-being and its health.

Community colleges provide financial management and financial literacy training and support to communities where these services may not be offered. Phillips Community College and several other rural colleges in Arkansas, for instance, provides a wide range of services to both students and the community at large. These services can be as simple as learning to budget already tight finances to steering students and community members to needed public benefits that they otherwise not have been aware.

These institutions can also have a real impact in a region’s quality of life including enhancing health outcomes. For instance, MDC’s Healthy Places NC program through a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, is working with seven community colleges across the state to develop new strategies to improve healthy outcomes across rural North Carolina. Community college projects include offering a telemedicine site in rural McDowell County in the western part of the state and building walking trails on a campus in Beaufort in far Eastern NC campus that can be used by all community residents. In addition, community colleges often host health care navigators who can sign up not just students for health insurance but community residents as a whole.

The above four roles are broad and a lot can fall under these categories. And as stated, not all community colleges are able to provide these services to their residents. Many community colleges that serve rural areas have difficulty attracting the leadership and faculty necessary to meet their full potential. But as with all the challenges facing rural communities, there is great potential to rise to the occasion.

Does your community college meet the needs of rural communities in your portion of the South?  If not, what are the barriers you see?  Are they local or state in nature?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Your Degree, Job, and Chronic Stress: Addressing the Social Determinants of Health

Today is the first post from our 2017-18 Autry Fellow, Rishi Jaswaney. We’re happy to have him at MDC and writing for the State of the South blog!

We’ve all felt it before. That sinking feeling before a big exam, an interview, or when your favorite character on Game of Thrones is “removed from casting” in the throes of battle.

Stress. Side-effects may include: nausea, indigestion, headaches and excessive perspiration.

In limited amounts, stress can motivate us to pursue our personal and professional goals. As stressors pass in and out of our lives, the stress hormone, cortisol, naturally fluctuates, but as challenges persist, cortisol levels remain elevated. When stress is a chronic condition, it can be linked to anxiety, depression, and other developmental and psychological issues. Research documenting income-based patterns in health outcomes—including disparities in who is more likely to experience chronic stress—raises new questions regarding the state of health equity in our nation.

As seen in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chart below, serious psychological distress is associated with severe health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes. Even more concerning is the disproportionate clustering of these conditions in high-poverty communities, as reported by the CDC: “A total of 8.7 percent of adults with income below the federal poverty level had serious psychological distress, compared with 1.2 percent of adults with incomes at or above 400 percent of the poverty level.”

The daily economic, educational, and social challenges facing those in poverty can create barriers to health services and lead to poorer health outcomes. This idea is captured in the Social Determinants of Health framework, which The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined as the “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” The general argument is that people in high poverty communities are more susceptible to certain illnesses, have less access to health care providers, and are frequently forced to delay care or medicine for financial reasons. The proximity of clinics, public transportation options, and the quality of food vendors, all affect one’s ability to address health concerns and seek care. As the social determinants of health concept has taken hold, organizations like Kaiser Family Foundation have adopted more nuanced definitions, incorporating more detailed categories, as shown below.

The WHO and others have emphasized how money, power, and the distribution of resources (through institutional decisions and policy implementation) shape community conditions and drive health outcomes. In places where education, employment, and accessibility are falling behind national averages, health outcomes are trailing along with them. For example, in North Carolina, counties with the lowest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Robeson and Warren counties) also rank poorly on measures of low birthweight, obesity, and diabetes prevalence. Counties with the highest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Wake and Orange counties) have the lowest rates of these indicators.

Source: National County Health Rankings

Source: National County Health Rankings

If education and employment are key drivers of upward economic mobility, then people must be healthy enough to take advantage of these opportunities. There are many narratives about educational attainment as a predictor of health outcomes. Formal education often provides foundational principles of nutrition, healthy behaviors, and general health literacy. Education is also an avenue for insurance benefits through school plans or future employment opportunities.  Lastly, education provides individuals with an intangible set of resources such as social networks, norms, and relationships that can cultivate healthy practices.

It is important to recognize that poorer health outcomes in high poverty areas have been driven by policy that marginalizes low-income communities. The provisions of the Affordable Care Act made strides in addressing issues of healthcare access, but in order to holistically address health equity, we must also consider the underlying environmental, social, and economic factors that enable good health. Improving preventative initiatives, health education, and access to nutritious foods are a few measures that could begin to eliminate these disparities, improve public health, and encourage, rather than hinder, economic mobility. Throughout my Autry year with MDC, I hope to continue shedding light on the social determinants of health that persistently marginalize low-income communities. Stay tuned for more posts on how these issues play out in Southern communities!

Violated Pathways: How Gender-Based & Intimate Partner Abuse Impede Mobility

One of my favorite aspects of our State of the South blog is how this medium provides MDC staff members the opportunity to think through new things we’re learning. This site is where we turn our curiosity to exploration, to analysis, and to asking difficult questions regarding how social, cultural, and economic factors influence the odds of upward economic mobility in the South. In light of our recent community work sessions discussing economic mobility across North Carolina with the John M. Belk Endowment, my “#NCMobilityMatters” radar is on high alert. I’m more attentive than before to the myriad issues and experiences that may keep N.C. residents, and people all across the South, from progressing from foundational education all the way to economic security with a living-wage job.

So when I attended a screening this past fall of the documentary Private Violence, which shines light on the alarming rate of intimate partner violence cases across North Carolina (as well as the barriers to prosecuting such cases), my “mobility radar” went off. I was struck by the enormity of intimate partner violence (which in some form affects one in three women and one in four men) and sexual violence (which affects one in five women and one in 71 men)—the frequency of these crimes and their overarching effects on every aspect of a victim’s life: their ability to take care of their own families, to seek mental and physical healthcare, to save money, and to pursue their educational and career aspirations. I came away from the documentary wanting to know more about how intimate partner violence and sexual violence deter those who are affected by it—most often women—from staying on their chosen path to success and security.

ipv

Source: National Coalition against Domestic Violence

 

Stalled Mobility for Victims

We often hear commentary regarding the long-term effects on perpetrators of being charged with intimate partner violence (also called “domestic abuse”) and gender-based violence. Being convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to time in prison can certainly have enduring effects for perpetrators; for victims, who are disproportionately female, the pain, violation, and trauma of abuse and assault can carry devastating, long-term consequences. When these gender-based and intimate partner violence crimes are perpetrated, the path to opportunity is interrupted for both victim and convicted perpetrator. (However, it should be noted that only one out of four arrested abusers is convicted, and less than half of gender-based violence crimes are reported.) Furthermore, the fear of reporting assault—and the resultant pain when reports fail to lead to just convictions—can compound the trauma that makes it difficult for victims to complete educational and career endeavors.

These crimes are not inevitable parts of our society—the abusive actions that cause interruptions in opportunity can be prevented, so that fewer perpetrators and victims are derailed from pursuit of economic security and rewarding employment. Below are just some examples of how intimate partner violence and gender-based violence impede paths to success for victims, who are disproportionately female:

Nearly 50 years of working to expand opportunity in the South has confirmed MDC’s analysis that clear and accessible pathways leading from education to employment to economic security are crucial for building a more equitable society. So it’s unsettling to see that gender-based violence often inhibits progression and retention along the path to an economically stable future, particularly for women. As Private Violence demonstrates, these forms of abuse are pervasive in North Carolina, presenting further barriers to opportunity where there already is significant stalled upward mobility for those born into the lowest income quintiles. Indeed, the percentage of women in poverty in the state of North Carolina has increased in the last 10 years, and the rate of women victimized by gender-based violence in North Carolina has risen above the national average.

Violence, Mobility, and Belonging

It makes sense that trauma associated with interpersonal violence would have such life-crippling effects. After all, how are you supposed to move along the path from education and training to employment to savings to civic participation if you are being routinely told—physically, verbally, and emotionally—that your body, your power, your dreams are threatened or in someone else’s control?

When we talk about opportunity at MDC, we talk about three particular dimensions that position people on the pathway to success: belonging, thriving, and contributing. We know that when we create a civic narrative in which there is room for everyone to belong, and bodies and lives that are routinely and systemically told they don’t matter are lifted up and reaffirmed as valuable, communities become altogether stronger from a wider sense of communal investment and engagement. But currently, the messages to victims of gender-based and intimate partner violence are shaming or silencing, rather than supportive. The influence of these messages can be seen in the educational attainment and economic security figures cited above.

In order to increase opportunity for both those at risk of being perpetrators and those at risk of being victims, we need more affirming and equity-based messages about power and gender in order to prevent gender-based violence from occurring in the first place. We need to embrace messages that value people over power, and we need to intentionally communicate these messages to our youngest community members. This can happen at home, in schools, in media and in the workplace (e.g. middle school anti-bullying programs or corporate decisions to eliminate outsourcing to sweatshops).  Those messages are a starting point for influencing policies and practices that view every human being worthy of traveling the path to economic security with safety and support.

Men of Color at Community College: Increasing Completion Rates

Race still plays a big part in who gets ahead in this country, and that stratification is very evident in postsecondary education. While improvements in access to education have resulted in increases in enrollment of students of color in recent years, racial disparities in degree completion still exist. And while race and income are commingled in this country, socioeconomic status does not completely explain why students of color are lagging behind their white counterparts. Data from the Department of Education show that 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of blacks and, until very recently, a higher rate for Latinos. When further disaggregating postsecondary data by gender, graduation rates for men of color in higher education lag behind not only those of white male students but also those of women of color. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute:

  • College enrollment among African-American males grew at less than half the rate of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • College enrollment of Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) males declined by 9 percent between 1990 and 2008, while enrollment among their female counterparts rose by 11 percent.
  • College enrollment among Latino males grew at about two-thirds the rate of that of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • In 2013, the percentage of males ages 25-29 who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher was 55 percent for AAPI students, 37 percent for whites, 17 percent for African-Americans and 13 percent for Latinos.

However, the vast majority of men of color persisting towards a postsecondary degree are doing so at community colleges. In “Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges,” the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that while men of color are underrepresented in higher education overall, those who enroll in college are more likely to attend a community college than a baccalaureate institution. The past 20 years of research on men of color tells us that the profile of these students can look a little different from their white counterparts. Men of color often delay enrollment, meaning they’ve been employed or participating in the workforce for a while before attending college, they are a little older when they return to school, and tend to be concentrated in developmental education courses at the start of their educational pathway – often because they have been out in the workforce for many years before returning to school.

In 2011, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) was established to address the role of community colleges in educating men of color. Since so much of the previous research is focused on outcome disparities of men of color at the university level, M2C3’s primary objective is to expand the research on how men of color experience community colleges. In addition, the center is focused on research, tools, and resources to help institutions improve institutional effectiveness through a series of discussions and workshops that use faculty and staff professional development to achieve equitable student outcomes.

M2C3 research reveals that the education of men of color need to go beyond addressing the socioeconomic factors that create barriers to success and must focus on intentional culturally relevant teaching and the development of a positive campus environment that acknowledges both the racial and gender identities of students. Assessments of male students of color and best practice research point to four key relationship strategies that yield successful outcomes for men of color and can be applied to any underserved population:

  1. Build relationships from an anti-deficit perspective. Men of color are seeking postsecondary education for the same reasons as other students. Convey high expectations verbally and non-verbally. Convey mutual respect and avoid unintentional microagressions—for example, assumptions of a lack of intelligence or criminality (i.e. cheating).
  2. Focus on positive messaging that conveys “you belong here” and “you are college material.” College campuses should create an environment that welcomes and engages men of color without singling them out. Praise men of color publically, but critique privately (so as not to reinforce the “you don’t belong here” mentality many students of color feel when attending college.) Validation should be specific to their coursework and work ethic—not personality traits or athleticism.
  3. Practice authentic care. Faculty should connect to students on an individual level and make time for students outside of class. Men of color have better graduation outcomes when they have authentic interactions with faculty on a regular basis.
  4. Implement intrusive interventions. Avoid the “approach me first” mentality. Men of color are less likely to seek out help. Structure help as part of the class by making office hours mandatory for all students. Check-in frequently with students to see if they have questions or concerns and connect them directly to resources or people who can help them in other departments on campus.

While the above strategies for faculty are general and foundational guidelines that have been shown to benefit underserved men of color, M2C3 also designs campus-specific strategies and workshops based on a series of assessments and conversations with all campus stakeholders. You can even contact M2C3 staff for an institutional-level assessment of instructional areas for your campus. Faculty’s scores are compared to scores of exemplar faculty members who have a demonstrated track record of success in teaching men of color. The instrument report highlights areas where professional development activities should be concentrated. In addition, you can also access webinars recordings on educating men of color here. These strategies—and the cultural shifts they require—are essential to make meaningful changes in racial disparities in postsecondary completion rates.

Dispatch from the Road: DREAM 2016

David Dodson asks, “Who’s moving up?”

“Education makes a difference. Our work is an act of liberation.” Yesterday at Achieving the Dream’s Annual Institute of Student Success—DREAM—in Atlanta, MDC President David Dodson spoke about the power of a postsecondary credential to improve upward economic mobility. Sharing some of the data about the “stickiness” in the lower income quintiles and the importance of educational attainment that we’ve discussed here on the blog, he asked the community college practitioners “What is your leadership role in the mobility ecosystem as you work with those stuck at the bottom?” Three MDC staff members were at the conference this week and saw examples of colleges that are leading the way in supporting community college students’ educational success:

From Shun Robertson

Completion by Design. AACC Pathways Project. Complete College America. Achieving the Dream.

If you’ve spent any time in the community college space, you’ve heard of these student success initiatives and several more. These are national initiatives, but there also are ones at other levels: regional (like RGV Focus in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas), statewide (like Virginia’s Developmental Education Redesign), and institutional (like Valencia’s Learning in Community, LinC). Most community colleges participate in overlapping initiatives along the education-to-career pipeline, focusing on topics such as college readiness, developmental education, retention, transfer, or connection to employment.

When Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, decided to map the initiatives they are engaged in, they counted 52(!) student success initiatives. Some initiatives are embedded in course design, some require student self-selection (tutoring, supplemental instruction), and others target specific populations (TRIO). The initiatives were not aligned, each having their own goals and anticipated outcomes. Columbus State created an initiative assessment strategy last year, starting by collecting student-level data on initiative participation. Among their findings, they found that 96 percent of degree-seeking students participated in one or more initiatives. When considering success in coursework (C or better), the success rate for students who participated in only one initiative was 62 percent, compared to 71 percent for those who participated in five or more initiatives. The team plans to do a cluster analysis to figure out which initiatives working together have the highest impact on retention and graduation. The big takeaway from Columbus State’s effort: success interventions, when added together, make an impact on overall success rates.

From Jenna Bryant

Navigating educational pathways can be difficult, especially for first-generation college students. Students transitioning from community colleges to four-year universities—through structured transfer programs or continuing on their own after degree completion—can often feel like just another number, lost in the masses of other students on campus. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are smaller than most predominantly white institutions (PWIs), allow for smaller class sizes and provide all the social groups, extracurricular activities, and sports teams as larger PWIs, but with lower tuition.

Shun Abby Jenna

The MDC contingent at DREAM: Shun Robertson, Abby Parcell, and Jenna Bryant.

At a DREAM session on Wednesday, current and former leaders of community colleges and HBCUs led the audience through a spirited discussion on the benefits of institutional partnerships, including a concrete outreach strategy for HBCUs to enroll community college transfer students. The panelists stressed the importance of going beyond basic articulation agreements by creating spaces on community college campuses for students to learn about four-year institutions, especially HBCUs. Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) designates office space on campus for Kentucky State University (KSU) advisors to meet with potential students to discuss the next step in their education plan. Bluegrass and KSU hold joint activities on the community college campus that involve faculty, advisors, and recruiters to help students think through the challenges they might face as they move on to a bachelor’s degree. This intentional partnership fosters a relationship between the students and KSU, making a careful handoff between the community college and KSU, easing the transition of the student to the new campus culture. More importantly, creating intentional pathways for students to advance along the postsecondary ladder of success takes institutions out of their silos and into a partnership where the students’ successful navigation of the educational system becomes the focal point.

From Abby Parcell

DREAM 2016 also featured the premier of “No Greater Odds,” a documentary that introduces five community college students at the College of Southern Nevada. The stories show the diversity of community college students, following individuals through early college, from a four-year university to the community college and back, and the journey back to college after a decade or more out of school. The production also displays the diversity of community college student skills, with student cinematographers, editors, and musicians. You can watch a trailer and learn about arranging a screening in your community here.