Mary Rittling: Designing Programs that Promote Equity and Empower the Student Voice

VOICE: to express, vocalize, communicate, articulate, assert.

Words define the power of voice. It is our voice that allows us to share our thoughts, opinions and needs. Yet, there are those among us whose voice is not heard.

As a community college president, I am challenged to be courageous, to be the voice of the voiceless for the students coming to my community college for a brighter future. These students have already faced so many hardships before coming to a community college. And their hardships don’t stop when their first semester starts. In some cases, the hardships intensify once students begin their studies. When this happens, students can feel voiceless, unsure of where to begin or how to seek help.

It is my inherent duty as a president to start conversations with students, to listen to what they are saying and even more importantly what they are not saying, and to build support structures that meet students’ needs and foster student success.

What I have learned through listening is humbling.  My time with students continuously reminds me that our student body is multicultural. As a white baby boomer educated female, my starting point for looking at the world is through that lens. I need to step back and recognize that I, too, have unconscious bias.

If as a leader I intend to create an institutional culture that provides an environment for students to have a voice, I also have to change my institution’s mindset. There needs to be an individual and a collective mindset focused on learning, teachers and teaching, institutional leadership, and the quality of relationships within and outside the organization. My colleagues and I need shared assumptions, values, beliefs, expectations and behaviors around these crucial aspects of higher education to really move the needle toward student success. What’s more, as a leader I need to invite, listen to, and address concerns my colleagues have as we form a collective mindset.

Data on my campus (Davidson County Community College, or DCCC) and nationally show that community colleges are experiencing a demographic shift. With that shift comes an increase in the needs of students from marginalized groups in order to succeed in college. As a result, the equity agenda has become a strategic imperative on my campus in order to give voice to all students.

I embraced our students’ needs and wanted to empower them to be successful. I asked the campus community to look at each student as an individual and understand their perspective. If we are committed to helping our students of marginalized identities, we must walk in their shoes.

What we have learned at DCCC is our student’s financial and personal challenges have become barriers that derail the pursuit of their higher education goals. Nearly 75% of the students at DCCC receive some type of federal, state or local financial aid. Many rely on this assistance not only for college related expenses but also for living expenses. Some of our students find it hard to make financial ends meet, leading them to drop courses, step out of college temporarily or disappear completely.

It is the barriers in life that interfere with the student’s academic goals. It is easy to say that this is a problem we cannot fix. I disagree! I decided to step in and change the trajectory to develop three programs designed to turn financial challenges that students face into positives in ways we can help students succeed. Through my actions and voice, I gave voice to the needs of our students by launching three programs.

The three programs are the College Transition Center (CTC), Single Stop and EX$EL. These programs are designed in interrelated waysto help students develop better financial and academic stability throughout the different stages of their college career, helping them to stay in college, complete their academic programs and succeed in life after college.

College Transition Center: The College Transition Center supports all students who show via testing that they are not academically ready for college level coursework. Started in 2015 the center is designed based on the students learning needs. Students who are engaged in the CTC program fewer than 10% need to retake development math and have a Fall to Spring retention rate of 78% exceeding institutional averages. The Center has become a model that will scale to all 58 North Carolina community colleges in 2020.

Single Stop: Recognizing the barriers student face during college, DCCC partnered with Single Stop, a national initiative that connects students with wraparound social services and financial assistance. Trained professionals help students with housing, transportation, food assistance, child care, food stamps, Medicaid, medical resources, tax services, legal services and financial counseling.

The Single Stop program provides students with access to untapped benefits that can significantly improve the likelihood of progression that will increase economic mobility. During 2017, 91% of the students who were served by the Single Stop program continued to enroll in courses at DCCC. In spring 2017, for example, only 2% of those served by the Single Stop program withdrew from DCCC compared with the average institutional withdrawal within-term rate of 5.3%.

EX$EL: DCCC is also committed to providing students with the tools necessary to succeed once they have completed their studies. DCCC has contracted with another national program, EX$EL an on line financial literacy and repayment success solution. Counselors help students who have college loans to learn how to manage their debt and repayment obligations. DCCC is using EX$EL to encourage and assist student planning, budgeting, and responsible borrowing. As a result, borrowers in default at DCCC dropped from 22% to 18% between 2011-2015.

Students have lives outside the classroom. Navigating life’s challenges can be difficult especially for first generation and marginalized students. As community college leaders, I believe we must listen and assess how well campus support services promote equity and student success. We must be courageous in our actions and take courageous risks. Our commitment to each and every student is to be their voice while helping them develop their own.

Mary Rittling is President of Davidson County Community College (Lexington, NC).

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