How Can Community Colleges Further Equity in Enrollment?

One college has a model.
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Aug. 3, 2022

About an hour from New York City sits the idyllic county of Morris, New Jersey. Full of historic charm, the county is one of the wealthiest in the state. But this wealth hides a disturbing fact. Thirty percent of County Morris households make less than a living wage. And the situation is worse for Black and Latino residents: almost 50 percent of Black and 45 percent of Latino households fall below that threshold.

On a hill sits the County College of Morris (CCM). CCM serves this prosperous community with deep seeded inequity. And that fact was showing up in its enrollment. When Dr. Anthony J. Iacono arrived there as its third president in 2016, he noticed Latino enrollment was below where it should be. And he knew that had to change.

His first step was engaging Dr. Bette Simmons, Vice President of Student Development & Enrollment Management, and starting a listening tour to discover why more Latino residents weren’t enrolling despite the fact that the largest Latino community in Morris County, Dover, is located just two miles from the campus.

They invited small business owners, community leaders who ran housing programs and other basic needs supports, and the Morris County Organization for Hispanic Affairs to come to campus for a conversation about Latino enrollment at CCM. The community leaders told them that Latino students did not see CCM as an inviting place to enroll. They didn’t see themselves reflected on campus. Dr. Simmons said “Our reaction was like, ‘Wow. Ouch. Tell us more.’”

They did and CCM leadership listened. Dr. Simmons and President Iacono held (and continue to hold) regular meetings with community leaders, they spent time in Dover and learned where families went for support and community connection and brought the wider community to campus to learn about CCM and what the college has to offer. The college changed its marketing materials to add more Latino representation and made sure all the information about the college, including the website, was available in Spanish.

During this time, CCM also made its biggest change of all: Creating the Dover College Promise (DCP) program. A group including the CCM staff from the Grants Office, Budget & Finance, the CCM Foundation, the Educational Opportunity Fund program, along with a community partner, The Educational Center (TEC) in Dover, which has over 25 years of experience mentoring Latino youth, came together to design the college readiness program so that it met the needs of the Dover community.

The DCP program started with a two-year $110,000 grant from Impact 100 - Garden State. This seed money launched DCP and the financial commitment from CCM and the CCM Foundation will sustain it.

DCP is a comprehensive, bilingual college readiness program for Dover middle and high school students paired with a guaranteed scholarship from the CCM Foundation to attend college for free after graduation. The program runs out of TEC in the Dover neighborhood, making it accessible to students and their families. The program includes workshops on college processes, academic success strategies, career exploration, professional mentorship, tutoring, and community projects designed to provide students with leadership skills while giving back to their community. The program is staffed by a Coordinator, a part-time Education Specialist, CCM student mentors, a professional tutor, and volunteers from the Dover community.

DCP follows a family approach, where both students and parents learn about going to college. Many DCP students are first-generation, predominantly low-income, and many are English Language Learners, making connections with families critical to working with prospective and current students and fostering their success. Sessions are run during the evenings to be more accessible, both in person and virtually in English and Spanish.

All of these changes were meant to send a message to the community: “We hear you. We care about you. We want you to be more visible on our campus. We want you to take advantage of the experiences that CCM offers.” And it worked. The college hit the initial 25 percent Latino enrollment threshold that makes it eligible for federal designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution.

Now the CCM team is trying to better connect with Black communities in Morristown, about 10 miles from campus. College officials approached a local minister, Pastor Sidney Williams, from Bethel Church of Morristown, who also runs a community food pantry. Pastor Williams connected the CCM team with Morristown High School leaders, and a partnership began.

The college recently brought students from Morristown high school to campus to talk about CCM’s career and technical education programs. The college is working on diversifying the staff on campus and increasing the visibility of Black students in its marketing. It is working to pull together a Morristown College Promise program modeled after the one in Dover.

Dr. Simmons has some recommendations for community colleges leaders who know they have equity work to do in enrolling and serving students that represent their communities:

Take off your armor. When you approach communities that have historically been excluded from your campus, you will hear things about your college that will hurt. Staff has to be able to listen without getting defensive, take that critical input, and change things on campus. This is an iterative process. Not everything will be fixed on the first try or the first conversation, and that’s okay. You must be ready to keep moving in the right direction, taking feedback.

Find the right people. So much of changing how your college interacts with the community depends on having conversations with the right people. If you can engage and convince the right community leaders that will make all the difference in creating lasting change. The right leaders are people who have sway in the community and are willing to authentically engage with the college, sharing hard truths. As Dr. Simmons put it, “You have to identify who the potential partners are that are really going to help move the initiative forward and don't lose them.” To identify the right people, college staff looked at who was providing social services and running businesses in the neighborhoods. They also asked members of the college community who were from Dover and Morristown who they recommended.

Make big changes. When CCM got feedback from the Latino and Black communities, it acted on it. It changed its marketing, diversified its staff, and created Promise Programs with local high schools. College officials also continue to engage with Latino and Black community leaders. With all of this work, CCM is well on its way to meeting President Iacono’s goal of being the community’s college.

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