This weekend in New York City, thousands of community college representatives from across the nation gathered with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), their first in-person convention since the pandemic.
On Monday, two Black community college CEOs shared how they purposefully lead their institutions to create opportunity for those with less, and the president of Lone Star Community College, Kingwood (LSC-K), shared how her institution has completely changed its marketing to recruit, enroll, and retain Latinx students.
“As community college presidents, we have an awesome task, and I’m delighted to have that responsibility,” said Dr. Lawrence Rouse, president and CEO of Pitt Community College in Winterville, NC. “[The pandemic] was the greatest disruptor, in our lives but also in higher education for community colleges. We had to take a step back and look at how we reinvent what we do.”
Since the pandemic, Rouse said that Pitt discovered over 39,000 people in his community who had started a post-secondary credential at an institution but had not completed. Rouse and his colleagues are working to bring those individuals into their fold.
“[Those students] have a lot of things going on with them, food insecurity, childcare, sometimes a fear of coming back to a college environment if you weren’t successful before,” said Rouse.
Pitt converted a tiny house into what Rouse called a “mobile enrollment vehicle,” which is towed around the community to spread the word about Pitt.
“We go to churches, we go everywhere,” said Rouse. “We also have four mobile classrooms to do class on site in the community and give them a taste of, ‘You can do this.’”
Rouse also reached an agreement with his local district attorney in an effort to disrupt the cycle of incarceration facing Black and Brown youth. During trials, a Pitt staffer sits in the back of the courtroom. Defendants are given an option to take classes at the college, which will be taken into consideration by the judge.
Dr. Willie Smith, CEO and chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College, joined with Rouse on the panel as they shared their backgrounds. Both grew up in severe poverty are keen to share the support and opportunity they received through education.
“Coming from that background provided perspective that I must give back and challenge the status quo,” said Smith. “I know many of our students come with baggage, and people see that baggage and don’t want them. We, as a community college, are a reflection of our community—I want to make sure we support and help people achieve the dream.”
Shortly after the pandemic began, Smith said he received an email from one of his students, sharing with him how she had lost her job, had no money or child-care, and was now going hungry. Smith later discovered food-insecure faculty members. Students, faculty, and administrators alike were struggling with no or low-speed internet.
“Those kinds of things floored me. We gave away thousands of gift cards, Visa cards, paid for internet access,” said Smith. “I told my staff, we’re no longer educators—we’re social workers. We have more work to do to make sure food is secure across our colleges. We need to be talking with our policy makers about the challenges of being a student.”
Smith is working to uplift the Baton Rouge community by removing programs and courses that result in low-paying careers. He said this decision may not be popular, but it’s the only one that sits right with his conscious.
“I think everything we do now in this society needs to be intentional,” said Smith. “It doesn’t do me any good if you do a low wage [earning] program, and six or seven years later you come back with no money in your pocket, no house, no American dream.”
Smith urged community college leaders to earn the trust of the surrounding community, something Dr. Melissa N. Gonzalez said is crucial to connecting with and recruiting from Latinx populations.
Gonzalez, president of LSC-K, just northeast of Houston, TX, said when she started the role ten months ago, there was hardly any targeted marketing to the school’s surrounding Latinx communities.
Latinx students might be intimidated by the process of applying to and attending college, as many might be the first in their families to have access to higher education, Gonzalez said. Many families and students only speak Spanish, and some may face pressures from their family to work instead of going to school.
So, through a process of constantly reviewing tangible, data-driven reports of their progress, Gonzalez has seen the Latinx enrollment of her Kingwood campus grow to 44%, up from 25.2% in fall 2012.
“Go into the communities and just be there, listening. Then the next time, say something about the college. Then, the next time, bring them in,” said Gonzalez. “It takes time. It’s so important that they see this is who you are, this is genuine. You really want to know about the community, and you want to help.”
Personal outreach, an ability to understand how each community likes to be contacted, having bilingual staff on hand, and engaging with the leaders and influencers of those communities can help institutions reach the Latinx population.
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].