As graduation rates climb, equity gap grows

Dana Montevideo, Managing Editor

Before Chantel Ross was selected as vice president of the Black Student Union, she felt out of place.

Walking along the halls of Pierce College Puyallup, she saw other students of color but she said she was shy and didn’t know how to connect without being involved in a way where they had a commonality..

Ross now feels grateful to have found her niche in the BSU, one of three clubs on campus primarily for students of color.

To Ross, feeling included in campus activities and being able to relate to other students positively impacts her academic success. She also realizes students of color who can’t find their place on campus may be more susceptible to low graduation rates.

She believes her white counterparts don’t need to find where they belong on campus unlike students of color who need to feel welcome and comfortable at school.

“We were not raised like our white counterparts. We were raised totally different. We’re not raised like a white man in America. We’re not raised like a white woman in America,” Ross said. “We’re raised as a brown or black person in America. If we’re coming to school and we’re learning the way white folks were taught, then we have to catch up.”

Pierce College officials also are concerned about students’ success and track the graduation rates of students of color and white students.

Graduation rates of all Pierce College students have risen from 18.7 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2017, a 103 percent increase.

The graduation rate for white students has climbed steadily while the graduation rate for students of color has varied.

Although the overall graduation rate is at 38 percent, the equity gap was 11.7 percent in 2017.

This means that although students of each demographic are graduating at a higher rate, the gap among them has grown.

These numbers are tracked internally by the Pierce College District officials and combines the Puyallup and Fort Steilacoom campuses. It tracks full- and part-time student graduation rates.

“We’re continuing to see a challenge with regards to the graduation rates of students of color and white students,” Matthew Campbell, vice president of learning and student success, said.

To help with student success, Pierce College participates in a nationwide program, Achieving the Dream, which community colleges use to track and work toward success in students who have low-income or students of color to reach their educational goals. The college has been an ATD member since 2015.

One of the primary focuses of this program is Close the Gap 2020, a goal presented by the College Board to close the equity gap among graduation rates of all students. By 2020, Pierce officials want students graduating at the same rate.

Pierce College is required to report its graduation rate numbers to The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to track student success. IPEDS cohorts are based on full-time students. For IPEDS reporting, Pierce reports Fort Steilacoom and Puyallup data separately.

Tracking student graduation rates is nuanced as Erik Gimness, director of institutional research, says. Many factors need to be considered, such as how many years the college tracks, how it desegregates cohorts and students who move between both campuses.

Pierce reports to the state as a district because of performance funding.  In the state’s performance funding model, the Student Achievement Initiative, colleges receive points when their students hit various milestones, such as reaching the first 15 college-level credits. But if a student took 10 credits at Fort Steilacoom and 5 credits at Puyallup, neither school would get credit. In that case, the district would miss out on the 15-credit milestone points (and associated funding) even though the student met the milestone at Pierce.

“Pierce was basically getting toasted because you know so many of our students were attending both campuses, so we weren’t meeting thresholds even though they were here the whole time and they graduated from one of our campuses,” Gimness said. “So that’s why we report as a district now.”

However, graduation numbers can be split up by campus and race/ethnicity through IPEDS data. See the accompanying graphic on this page.

Ross says the No. 1 reason for the equity gap is due to cultural differences. She says many students of color work and go to school because they need to pick up extra work at home, which can negatively impact performance in classes.

“As an institution of higher education that’s focused on that social justice piece, we want to figure out how to help students overcome any barriers they might have,” Campbell said. “And then we figure out whether that is through financial aid, whether that’s through adapting our curriculum to be more culturally responsive, whether that means thinking about transportation and food.”

Justin Malepe, a Pierce student and Office of Student Life equity, diversity and inclusion senator, says myriad potential reasons exist for low graduation rates among students of color. Malepe has been actively working to organize an equity, diversity and inclusion office for students of color to have resources fit for students of different groups.

Malepe believes that creating a space for students of color to feel included, safe and important will motivate students to be more involved on campus and in their classes.

“They come into this campus and they don’t feel like they’re included, they feel like everyone is different from them, and so they tend to keep to themselves,” Malepe said. “It’s like, ‘what’s the point of coming to school? I’m not doing anything, there’s nothing here for me, so why do I continue to come?’”

Malepe says it is essential to student achievement for them to feel involved and important on campus. If there were more activities, opportunities and understanding between students of color and faculty, Malepe believes graduation rates would go up and the equity gap would close.

However, Malepe notes that a problem faculty sees with an EDI office is the possibility of more seclusion among groups.

Campbell says this is a primary concern for an EDI office. This is not to disclude the possibility of an office like this on campus, but there is a balance between separating students and allowing them to work together to accomplish their goals.

Ross thinks an EDI office would be extremely beneficial, as students of color or anyone who needs a place to be comfortable can work together to understand their classwork.

To close the graduation equity gap, administrators are urging faculty to adapt curriculum that is more responsive to a diverse group of students.

Campbell uses the example of a psychology class. The history of psychology comes from many white male professionals who have shaped that field, or that is how the curriculum is taught to students.

This may lead students to feel uncomfortable and not relate to the course material.

“Changing the textbooks we use, or changing how we present that information even can have a huge impact in helping students, all students, see themselves in that curriculum,” Campbell said. “If the curriculum is white male, then everybody who’s not white male has a barrier to identifying and saying ‘Yes, I can be successful in this field.’”

Cynthia Cowan-Grewe, psychology and sociology professor for Pierce Puyallup, says the administrators ask faculty to consider the equity graduation gap in their classes.

“In sociology, I have changed the curriculum to more directly address topics such as the huge overrepresentation of African-American males in prison, institutionalized racism and microaggressions,” Cowan-Grewe said. “In lifespan psychology, we discuss different parenting styles and child outcomes by family composition and ethnic group.”

Cowan-Grewe is mindful of students from various backgrounds in her class and works to help the curriculum include all students.

She’s open to feedback for how she can improve.

The most recent faculty in-service day featured four students of color who voiced their opinion on the lack of diversity in professors on campus and wanted professors who looked like them, Cowan-Grewe mentioned.

Ross says the lack of diversity in professors and faculty on campus can have a direct correlation on student success and their graduation. Although she likes her professors and thinks they do well at their job, she would like to see more professors and faculty like her.

“The staff, just like the student body, has to match,” Ross said. “If all the staff is white males or females, and the student body is slowly getting more diverse, which it has since the school has opened,  it needs to catch up with what’s happening today.”

Ross credits Faculty Counselor Adviser Vicki Howell-Williams, a faculty member of color, for all the hard work she does with her busy schedule.

Ross mentions that because Howell-Williams is a faculty member of color, students of color will seek her guidance specifically because she can understand their needs on a different level.

Howell-Williams realizes that she is a “friendly supportive face” to some of these students. Howell-Williams recognizes that equity gaps in education are systemic and begin in kindergarten. Students of color may grow up being taught by teachers who do not understand the diverse needs of students, as Howell-Williams might.

Students of color may experience microaggressions in class, they feel like they aren’t seen or they may ask questions that make them feel inadequate or they may not have the privilege of accessing certain resources. All these problems may lead to an equity gap. Howell-Williams recognizes that all students want to do well, and some just need the support.  

“A person of color who does not feel connected and your voice isn’t heard and you’re not seen, students may not have the support to persist,” she said.

Howell-Williams is also the adviser for BSU and the Muslim Association Club as well as taking on many other responsibilities.

Pierce administrators recognize what they need to do to make Pierce College a comfortable place and ensure all students meet their educational goals.

Although the equity gap has increased, graduation rates have been climbing. Campbell says it’s because Pierce is a mission-focused school.

“Creating quality education opportunities for a diverse community of learners to thrive in an evolving world” is Pierce’s mission statement.

Campbell and the rest of Pierce College’s is sure that the college will never stop fighting for equity in education.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

As graduation rates climb, equity gap grows

by Dana Montevideo time to read: 7 min