Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College is working to hold onto federal workforce development dollars as the state now uses graduation rates as an accountability measure, which the college feels is unfair.
Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.
He took his own life.
Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.
He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.
Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.
Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.
Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.
Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.
Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.
Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.
The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.
Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.
Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.
May Kalief rest in peace.
Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
Gooooood morning, San Antonio! A big Texas “Buenos días!” to all gathered there at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the 95th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges.
A convention hall filled with 1,800 educators? Let’s go Socratic. Questions trump answers.
Raise your hand if you are on food stamps. Nobody? OK, did anyone this morning have an expense-account breakfast or a free breakfast from one of the corporate sponsors? Didn’t the tuition and fees from the nation’s nine million (by President Obama’s count) community college students pay for all the meals here in San Antonio? The plane fares? The hotels?
Question: How many community college students are on food stamps? I don’t know, either. No one seems to. I’ve asked the AACC. I’ve asked the U.S. Department of Education. No luck so far. Raise your hand if students can sign up for food stamps on your campus. Yes, I see a few.
Now, break into groups of two or three. Question: What will you say to one of those students from your community college who is on food stamps? What are you doing here at a convention that doesn’t have questions about hunger -- or the euphemism "food insecurity" -- at least anywhere I could find on the four-day agenda?
Why am I asking? I went to work at a community college to teach College Writing I. I’ve spent as much time, with colleagues, helping students at Bunker Hill Community College sign up for and recertify their food stamps as I have teaching.
Question: What are the big food days at the convention this year? From the schedule I have, it’s a tie -- Sunday, one lunch, nine receptions, and a Latin rhythms dance, and Monday, nine breakfast meetings and a gala dinner.
Discussion question: Does the number of students on federal free and reduced lunch in your feeder high schools let you estimate how many students on your campus might be hungry? If not, why not? Use evidence to support your argument.
Over to the national scene. Question: Did you visit your state’s congressional delegation to support President Obama’s proposal for free community college? Did you propose a better idea? Did you spend more than one hour trying to figure out how to fund the president’s plan at your institution? Did you ask your congressional representatives what they are willing to do for the nine million voters in community college classrooms?
No, no. That’s not me down at the podium. I’m not on the program. I’ve just hacked into the Gonzalez Center's audio-visual system, up here on the Jumbotron, to shout, to scream, to wail the questions every one of you in San Antonio knows must be on the agenda for community college leaders. What do I know? Every one of you is more qualified than I am to give this speech.
Question: Is educating the poor the greatest all-talk, little-action topic in our national public policy?
I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron at the Gonzalez Center to give the keynote address somebody other than me ought to be giving. I’ve hacked into the Jumbotron here at the Gonzalez Center because again the agenda for the AACC annual meeting, sponsored by our students, whose tuition, fees and textbook dollars sponsor the sponsors, ducks the crisis everyone knows our students are in.
Obama’s proposal? Where were we, community colleges? For the third time, President Obama has given community colleges the podium, the microphone and the spotlight. For the third time, where were we? It’s our job, not Obama’s, to find the funding and round up the votes.
Question: Does having Bob Reich, one of the most passionate, most eloquent voices on the dangers of poverty, of inequity, of inadequate education as your invited speaker, podium and Jumbotron, mean that everyone in San Antonio is doing enough for the nine million students? Well, I sent Professor Reich a copy of my speech. Ask Bob what he thinks.
Question: Why do we expect funding to land in our laps? Compare and contrast. For the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory stood on 20 years of targeted previous court victories. Community college leaders in 2015 won’t show up unless a funded plan arrives tied with ribbons and a bow?
I’m going to read to you the opening of “A Talk to Teachers” that James Baldwin gave in 1963 to New York City public school teachers. Listen. Please, please, listen.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.
Everyone is this room is one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen in this country who considers himself as responsible -- and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people -- must be prepared to go for broke. Or, to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.
“A very dangerous time”? Question: We have nine million community college students. Community college professionals agree that no more than 50 percent are likely to complete their degree or certificate. What life in the land of the free and the home of the brave is left to the other 50 percent, to those who don’t complete their degree or certificate? Poverty. That’s 4.5 million human beings in our community colleges today who we know are condemned to poverty.
Crisis? Question: Why does everyone seem to think this 4.5 million is OK, an unfortunate fact of life? Where’s the plan to remedy this?
Look at history books. Half the U.S. went to war to free the four million slaves. What will we do for these 4.5 million? Relative to the wealth, to the potential of everyone there in San Antonio, relative to the wealth and potential of this nation, by the standards of what’s possible in 2015, what does it mean about us that we will let these 4.5 million students slip into a life of poverty?
I’m looking for someone, anyone in the Gonzalez Center this morning who also can’t believe that condemning 4.5 million students to a life of poverty is an inevitable fact of life.
Question: Who said achieving equality and social justice is easy?
Let’s listen again to James Baldwin: “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending this won’t happen.”
Funding? Under our noses. What about the tax policies that subsidize Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Williams students, on financial aid or not, to the tune of $20,000 or more per student, depending on your assumptions? When the most from the federal government for our students is a $5,500 Pell Grant, only if the students and their families have filled out the forms correctly. Will the Pentagon or those colleges give up their funding for our students without a fight? Of course not. Again, we didn’t even try.
Crisis? Question: What exactly are the skill levels community colleges must deliver in reading, in writing, in math? How do those skills compare with those of freshmen and sophomores at Yale, at Harvard, at Princeton, at Williams? Impossible to say? We can’t set national standards! Make my day. We can start.
“A very dangerous time”? Raise your hand if you know that your intro biology course would transfer to Mount Holyoke, Smith or Amherst. Raise your hand if you know that MIT would give credit for your courses in calculus and in differential equations. Of course this doesn’t cover all nine million community college students. It’s a start. If we’re not matching skills with top students, how do we know about the rest?
Question: Could your students with, say, 40 or more college credits write an essay in 40 minutes analyzing the rhetorical strategies President Lincoln used in his second inaugural address to achieve his purpose? (I’m failing here. My students need a week at least and many drafts.) That’s a question on an AP exam in English and Expository Writing.
If you have a better proxy of the skills required for freshman writing at a top college, let me know. If you think community college students deserve only lesser skills in basic thinking and writing for any 21st-century job, if you think community colleges can educate worthy citizens who don’t know, understand, cherish Lincoln’s words, I’d say, “Step outside,” but I’m 1,767 miles away, in Boston.
Time to return your Jumbotron to AACC control. While you’re down there in San Antonio, remember our students who don’t have food waiting at receptions.
What do I know about the 1,800 there in the Gonzalez Center? I know you can do James Baldwin proud, and go for broke. Why are we waiting?
Question: Why not close with President Obama? “Yes, we can.”
Wick Sloane, an end user of a selective-college education, writes “The Devil’s Workshop” for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him @WickSloane.