When Black learners thrive, our communities thrive

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Last month, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation released the State of Higher Education: Black Learners report. It revealed concrete data on an issue I already knew to be true: we need to take better care of our black learners, and it needs to happen now. If we want a thriving economy that everyone can participate in, we need to ensure that black students enroll and complete post-secondary education.

As President/CEO of Compton College, I spend much of my time fighting for the success of black students. Some of this work includes serving on committees such as the National Panel on Black Student Enrollment and the University of Southern California Racial Equity Taskforce in Guided Pathways Commission. I also advocate for Compton College students and make sure they have a clear path to achieve their goals. To achieve this, I show myself every day as the authentic me: an uncompromising leader committed to student success while breaking down racial barriers and long-standing institutional racism. I have devoted my entire career to education and am fully committed to the success of all students, including black learners. But, according to new findings from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, more of us need to do similar things to help black students thrive.

Unfortunately, Black learners often experience obstacles that contribute to declines in college enrollment and graduation. Racial discrimination, competing demands at home and work, and the high cost of higher education render many black learners unable to see the value of attending college. This has contributed to a massive decline in the number of black students who enroll in post-secondary programs and are successful.

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More than 1 in 5 enrolled Black students at all post-secondary institutions feel discriminated against in their program “often” or “sometimes” (21%), versus 15% of all other students. About a third (32%) of black students in short-term certification programs — including certificates and professional certifications — feel discriminated against at least occasionally. A third of Black students in for-profit private schools (33%) say they often or occasionally experience discrimination, compared to 23% of students in private, non-profit institutions and 17% in public universities.

At Compton College, 63% of our students are Latinx and 22% are African American. We make a concerted effort to address their specific needs and the general needs of all students. We believe that every student is a success story. With this framework at the forefront, it’s imperative for me as a leader to keep in mind who my students are. All who they are. They are ethnically diverse, eclectic, transcending gender, orientation, and age. As human beings they are diverse and it is up to us as education leaders not to sweep differences under the rug but to honor and include that diversity so that they do not feel discriminated against by fellow students, peers and educators due to ignorance.

These differences within our students often bring competing factors that can become barriers to completing their studies. Here it is in the report:

Black students are about twice as likely as other undergraduate students to have additional responsibilities as nurses or full-time employees — 35% versus 18%.

Overall, 23% of black students have caring responsibilities versus 11% of other students. 15% of Black students are carers for adult family members or friends, versus 8% of other students. 11% of Black students are parents or guardians of children under 18, vs 7% of other students 20% of Black students are employed full-time, vs 11% of other students

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What does this mean for us as educational leaders? This means that we have to meet our students where they are. Not only because they deserve our support, but because otherwise our economy and society simply cannot function. In higher education, our students do not need false guidance; They need authentic, sincere and, above all, uncompromising leaders who fight and are committed to their success.

As leaders, we can begin to ask questions that address injustice. How can we offer flexibility in schedules? How can we continue to offer distance learning for those who need it? How do we address the basic needs of students? How are we strengthening our online student support services for students? How do we manage better financial support opportunities? Does the representation of our faculty and staff reflect the demographics of our community? Being willing to ask and answer these questions could mean the difference between a student’s success and failure rate when it comes to community colleges. The impact of this loss goes beyond enrollment. It’s bigger than the impact on funding. When a student drops out of higher education, our entire community is affected.

I’ve served at Compton College — and the Compton Community College District — for nearly 18 years. I have met and worked with countless students. I’ve also sat with countless CEOs and other community leaders. I know that when we do more to help Black learners thrive, we help our entire community thrive. This important work cannot wait.

It is my hope that more college presidents, policymakers, and education advocates will think forward-thinking and fight uncompromisingly for the success of black learners. If you don’t know where to start, download this report. It will help interested parties understand the importance of reducing injustice and changing the landscape so that Black learners, and by extension all communities, thrive.

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Keith Curry, Ed.D., is the President/Chief Executive Officer of the Compton Community College District and an uncompromising leader committed to student success. For more information on the ongoing work to support Black learners, visit https://www.community4blacklearnerexcellence.com/.


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