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For some, it’s paying for groceries or a babysitter. For others, it’s repurchasing costly textbooks that were stolen from them at a homeless shelter or studying while exhausted and hungry because, despite a long nightshift, dinner didn’t fit into the budget.
These are just some of the challenges that contribute to higher dropout rates among first-generation college students and prevent many of those growing up in poverty from considering college in the first place.
“Invariably, it’s the life issues that happen in (a student’s) world – the childcare issues, the parenting issues, the day-to-day survival issues” that block student success, Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie said at San Antonio College’s (SAC) Aug. 16 convocation. “Helping students overcome those barriers is increasingly important.”
Through an inventive array of new and improved initiatives, SAC is taking bold strides to do just that. With 81% of its students attending classes part-time and 54% categorized as economically disadvantaged, SAC places special emphasis on connecting with the surrounding community and supporting the student, both inside and outside the classroom.
It’s the piece SAC President Robert Vela believes has been missing as the nation increasingly looks to community colleges to compensate for a broken K-12 system, skyrocketing tuition costs, and universities’ failure to meet the diverse needs of students in poverty.
So, what’s SAC’s secret, and can it really be a game-changer for the city and the future of community college?
College Isn’t for Us
To Vela, the SAC community isn’t confined to the 21,000 students enrolled in the school. It reaches into the surrounding region, a medley of historic Monte Vista mansions and neighborhoods plagued by poverty. Targeting the neediest neighborhoods, in the past three years SAC has instituted at least 16 community programs reaching 4,500 elementary, middle, and high school students.
“Oftentimes, colleges and universities wait for the students to come (to them),” Vela told the Rivard Report. “We need to go get them. We need to show them that we’re here and (they can) start with us, regardless of where they want to go.”
Vela created SAC’s community outreach department after a focus group looked at perceptions among poor minority males, a group with low enrollment and graduation rates.
Many participants “never thought they could come to San Antonio College,” Vela explained. “Yet we’re the community college. We’re an open-access institution. We want all students here.”
Vela said that with little exposure to college graduates in their communities, many students have trouble imagining themselves on the SAC campus. Underfunded college guidance programs in many schools create additional barriers of entry, as the burden of navigating college and financial aid applications falls on students.
Through mentoring programs, enrichment camps, parental networks, literacy supports, college visits, and enrollment drives, among other initiatives, Vela aims to connect the SAC community with its neighborhood to “create a college-going community.”
As SAC’s community outreach expands, Vela plans to track the students it affects, hoping it may some day serve as a model for other community colleges as well.
“You’re Not Really in the Classroom”
For SAC Faculty Senate President Lisa Black, teaching at a community college is more than lecturing and assigning papers. It’s also about providing a supportive community that accommodates for stresses of poverty, so students can reach out rather than drop out.
“What folks don’t realize is when you bring that kind of stress and anxiety into the classroom, you’re not really in the classroom,” she told the Rivard Report.
She noticed that, much like herself, many of her colleagues were going out of their way to help students, from buying them breakfast during a rough patch to helping with a public assistance application. Recently, the faculty has teamed up to start the campus’s first anti-poverty initiative.
“Coming to school is not an easy choice,” Black explained. “Once (the students) get here, we have got to do everything we can to keep them here.”
The initiative includes a faculty-run food pantry and clothes closet, public assistance and nonprofit services, and the creation of an emergency assistance program.
SAC also is in the early stages of implementing a faculty-mentor program that will pair students with faculty members to “help ignite their passion and think big about the different ways their career might get expressed,” Black said. This would supplement SAC’s successful freshman seminars, which acclimate students to unfamiliar campus structures, provide financial aid and career guidance, and teach emotional intelligence strategies.
“Kids that come from very poor backgrounds may not feel like this is a place they belong,” Black said. “Helping students feel at home and feel like they understand the context of college is really critical.”
Stepping Stone to Success?
But with SAC’s official year-to-year student persistence rates consistently lagging at around 41% for part-time students and 58% for full-time students, are community colleges like SAC truly a path to opportunity?
Across the nation, many have asked a similar question.
According to Vela, these university-style metrics don’t tell the full story of a community college, because the calculations count students as dropouts when life circumstances force them to put school on pause, even if they end up returning.
“These are not failures. It’s life,” Vela said. “They’re balancing life.”
As Jothany Blackwood, SAC’s vice president of academic success explained, “Community colleges have admission requirements and student bodies that are different than universities, and funding for their different missions is wildly different. So making a one-to-one comparison between the two institutions does not translate well.”
If you add up the percentage of students who left in good academic standing, are still enrolled, transferred, or graduated, the number goes up to 77%. Those who transfer tend to do well, with 83% of students achieving a 2.0 grade point average or higher at UTSA after their first year, 79% at A&M-San Antonio, and 79% at Texas State.
With an awareness that there is much work to be done, SAC still views itself as a solid launch pad. With stackable credentials that allow students to accumulate immediately marketable certificates on their way to an associate degree, SAC helps students pay for school through technical skills without compromising larger ambitions. They also partner with local universities to ensure that every credit students earn counts toward their bachelor’s degree.
To see a list of distinguished SAC alumni, click here.
“Often people misinterpret community college as, ‘Well you’re settling,’” Vela said. “Even if they started with us, and they are talented and want to be engineers or lawyers, they can still get there. … But it’s simply this scaffolding effect, meaning, if I can get a credential so I can put food on the table, that might make better sense than to go off to A&M and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m coming back, I can’t make it.’
“It’s not because they’re not smart. They simply don’t have the support systems and the resources to do it.”
Historically, critics of community college have pointed out lack of support as a major issue. Time will tell whether SAC’s enlarged emphasis on support can truly respond to this challenge. With a 131% increase in degrees and certificates awarded in the past five years, it looks like it’s off to a strong start.
Top image: Harlandale seniors committed to San Antonio College at the city-wide College Signing Day held at the Alamo Convocation Center on May 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of San Antonio College.