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Moraine Valley Community College has for years offered sections of its required College 101 course exclusively to groups such as athletes and those with special needs. After reviewing student completion data, the college this fall is rolling out two sections restricted to African-American students.

College-readiness courses can be especially impactful for low-income and first-generation students. Administrators at the Illinois college say academic research and experiences at their own institution show that those classes can be particularly effective when students can build support by networks by taking the course with those of a similar background. The college has more than 34,000 credit-seeking and non-credit-seeking students, according to Moraine Valley's website -- and the Education Department says about 10 percent of those students are black.

That new restriction got the attention of a handful of Moraine Valley parents, who reached out to The Chicago Tribune.

Margaret Lehner, the college's vice president for institutional advancement, said Moraine Valley’s curriculum and support services are shaped by data-driven decision making.

“This is not something new for us. We’ve done [courses for] veterans, we’ve done women, we have done Hispanics,” Lehner said. “We find that these particular courses with these particular groups with our mentoring and peer support help them to be more successful than they would be if they did not have this particular experience.”

African-American students are also free to sign up for sections of the course, titled College: Changes, Challenges, Choice, that are open to all students.

Targeting special populations for support services is common at higher ed institutions. Sometimes those efforts are not well received by students of color themselves, as Concordia University St. Paul learned recently. But restricting course sections to a specific racial or ethnic group is not standard. Lehner said this is the first time the course restrictions have received any kind of scrutiny from the public or families of students.

A parent wrote to the Chicago Tribune’s opinion page that their son, a Moraine Valley student, wanted to know “why there are not two sections limited to Asian-American students? How about Native American students?”

Never mind that the college says it has offered course sections specifically for groups like women and Hispanics in the past, Michael A. Olivas, acting president of University of Houston Downtown, said the policy sounded well intentioned but misguided. He said it invited mischief from those who had no interest in the success of minority students. Aggrieved white people tend to fixate on programs that are exclusionary or that even attempt to target minority populations, Olivas said.

Olivas is on leave as director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston. He said he doubted anyone would have standing to sue over the policy but argues that courses and even support services should be opened up to participation by any student who is interested.

“I think it’s ill-advised, arguably subject to legal challenge, and you don’t want to wave the flag in front of the bull,” he said.

The classroom is not the place to address larger institutional issues involving inclusiveness that should be tackled through forms such as a more inclusive admissions process, he said. Olivas also said that limiting course sections to a particular racial or ethnic group could diminish the image of those classes, whereas experiencing other viewpoints and backgrounds improves tolerance among all groups. 

Lehner said politics never factored into the college’s course design and that Moraine Valley sees the course as simply another way to improve student success.

“Because a few people object to it should not be a deciding factor in limiting these opportunities for at-risk students,” she said. “We certainly are not hampering other students also being successful. We have the same courses available to them as well.”

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