In this podcast, Helping Underrepresented Students Succeed with Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart and Dr. Drumm McNaughton, we ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on institutions that serve underrepresented populations. One such institution is Amarillo College in Amarillo, TX. This community college is redefining its efforts to reach and engage its student body, many of whom are non-traditional and underrepresented students.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart is the college’s president. A product of the area, he previously served as a faculty member and associate provost of academic affairs at nearby West Texas A&M University (WTAM) before moving to Amarillo College as vice president of academics. He assumed the college’s presidency in 2014.
Focus on Educational Attainment
While serving as WTAM’s associate provost, Dr. Lowery-Hart was part of a community study on educational attainment in the Amarillo community. The data suggested that the community would be at risk if the educational path for the majority of students did not fundamentally change. The institution that would be most critical in changing that trajectory was Amarillo College, the area’s community college.
With that in mind, Dr. Lowery-Hart applied for the position of Amarillo College’s vice president for academic when the position came open. He wanted to make this move because he understood that the college was going to be the epicenter in changing the community’s economic future.
Dr. Lowery-Hart considers himself an academic at heart so he looks at issues from a faculty perspective. When he came to Amarillo College, he initially looked at the institutional success rates, which were low. Wanting to understand what was happening in the classroom, Dr. Lowery-Hart assumed the answers behind why students were failing so profoundly centered on academics. While that was partially true, students also told him that the biggest barriers to their academic success had nothing to do with what was going on in the classroom; instead, the biggest barriers were child care, health care, transportation, housing, food, utility payments, legal services, and mental health support.
That understanding of the students’ situation changed Dr. Lowery-Hart as a person as well as a professional. He realized that the college’s infrastructure and support services needed to change dramatically in order to prepare students for workforce demands as well as transferring to universities.
Changing Perceptions about Students
Hearing students’ stories highlighted the fact that higher education is often built around a history that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of students that are in the community and on campuses. Institutions often are committed to perpetuating the wrong thinking that they need to serve the students that used attend instead of the student that is here now.
Conversations with students also taught Dr. Lowery-Hart that higher education administrators and faculty need to fall in love with the current students, instead of the students that the institution wishes it has or used to have. This means listening to, acknowledging, and seeing students for who they are, and using their voices to shape the institution’s work. Higher education needs to provide a familial context in order to learn profoundly – students don’t care how much faculty and administrators know until they know how much they care.
To that end, Amarillo College held professional development training as part of a poverty certification. Administrators, faculty, and staff learned that while students who have a nuclear family are enrolled in some form or fashion, generational poverty has changed how many students see themselves, their world, and their own advocacy. Dr. Lowery-Hart said that most institutions are set up to support people like those already in higher education instead of supporting students who come from poverty.
Generational poverty teaches passivity and that hard work isn’t rewarded because people who live in poverty have done hard work without seeing it pay off. This realization caused Amarillo College to rethink its bureaucracy, messaging, and support systems. It also caused the institution to embrace the concept of love, with the idea that love through education can help someone emerge from generational poverty.
Because of this work, Amarillo College used its student enrollment data to create a composite student, which they have named Maria. Maria is 27 years old, a Hispanic female who has real financial needs. She is working two part-time jobs and raising a child while going to college.
This type of student is common in most community colleges and at many universities. Dr. Lowery-Hart noted that the institution needs to design itself around “Maria’s” needs while at the same time being cognizant of keeping male students on a successful pathway.
Improving Student Services
Amarillo College already had numerous innovative student services in place before the pandemic. Dr. Lowery-Hart said that life barriers need to be removed to help students embrace learning. Providing systems of support has fundamentally altered students’ outcomes.
Some of these structures are unique. For example, Dr. Lowery-Hart has hired four social workers to bring robust community support to the college and to case-manage students through their classes and into success while ensuring they have the resources they need to graduate. Amarillo College also expanded the number of available counselors because so many students grew up in generational poverty and are struggling with trauma that many cannot understand. Additionally, there is academic support, through required tutoring, coaching, and mentoring.
The system that Amarillo College put in place, which was instrumental in increasing the college’s completion rate from 19% five years ago to 52% currently, includes:
- Social workers, who are structurally connecting students to support;
- Required tutoring in classes to help students improve their learning;
- A mentor or coach, to help students connect with resources and navigate the bureaucracy; and
- A counseling center to provide emotional support.
Additionally, the poverty training also helped faculty understand their role on the frontline because they have the most robust relationship with these students. Because faculty serve as the glue to help the students get to the proper services when they need it, the college created an early alert system in the faculty’s grade book so they can alert appropriate support staff that they have a student who needs specific assistance.
The training also helped faculty members change their paradigm. Faculty was seeing students who were not coming to class and/or sleeping in class as not being successful. The faculty had been internalizing these situations, thinking that they were not able to engage their students. What the poverty training helped highlight is that faculty cannot assume they automatically understand what the student’s behavior means. Instead, faculty need to ask. For example, students who were sleeping in class were working the night shift at the meat-packing plant in the community. Students who were late to class were delayed by unreliable public transit.
This understanding freed faculty to see that they weren’t the center of student disengagement, but that they could be the center of supporting students in a more effective learning environment. By giving faculty resources and a few key pieces of information, the college has created an important support system for students.
In the Aftermath of COVID
The COVID pandemic highlighted the fact that many students don’t have technology resources, a danger that will disparately affect these students by moving everything online. Therefore, Amarillo College focuses on tech-supported learning, as opposed to online learning. Online learning creates fear for many students because they think they don’t have the skills or ability. Tech support focuses on learning instead of being online (although that is there). Additionally, more counseling, tutoring, and advising sessions are available through tech-supported learning, although the way these are accessed is different.
Amarillo College also had a subset of students who did not have access to technology at home. Dr. Lowery-Hart believed it was important to keep one of the school’s largest computer labs open with every safety protocol imaginable so that these students could access it during the pandemic. The college also moved to the lab’s circle desk and, wearing a mask, Dr. Lowery-Hart pitched in personally by taking students’ temperatures and asking them all the protocol questions. He then connected students to a group of employees who could help students get online or help them access tutoring or advising.
Most students didn’t know it was him doing this as his lower face, including his beard, was covered.
Dr. Lowery-Hart stated that being on the frontlines at this time as important as the president of the institution. He also believed strongly that the college needed to keep those services available because otherwise students would fail or drop out, and the college would never get them back. He also noted that once students realized that the president was the person helping them in the computer lab, they had a stronger understanding of the institution’s commitment to them.
Lessons from the Pandemic
One of the biggest lessons involved in the counseling center. Robust counseling services were available prior to COVID, but half of these appointments were canceled. The college found that moving these appointments to a Google Meets environment resulted in fewer cancellations, while also being able to counsel students more profoundly.
The same thing is happening with advising. Moving forward, Dr. Lowery-Hart believes that much of the advising and counseling services will be offered through an online platform because the college is seeing more students.
The college also is seeing more need as well as more trauma and is working with Heal the City, a free area clinic, in a partnership. That way, college counselors can connect students to a psychologist who can assist them until they can get more robust psychological intervention.
Post-COVID, the college will try to use these new tools that have emerged during the pandemic to serve more students. The counseling and advising centers will remain in a remote environment moving forward because students are accessing these more freely and are being served more effectively.
Changes in Academics
In the breakneck transition to a remote learning environment online, students have given the college a lot of grace, but by the time the fall semester comes around, that grace period ends and the college needs to be experts at it. Faculty are really embracing professional development opportunities that are being offered and incentivized by the college in relation to doing a better job in creating a remote learning environment. When the college comes back in session in the fall term in whatever form, faculty will be extremely effective in whatever modality of learning is used. COVID has expatiated that transformation.
The institution also is assessing which classes are best suited for a remote environment and which should be taught in a hybrid or face-to-face environment. These decisions now can be made using data instead of instructor- or student-comfort level.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders
Dr. Lowery-Hart suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:
- Develop the composite of who your student is, not who you think she is. Make your typical student the center of your re-imagination of your institution in a post-COVID world.
- Use a secret shopper process. Dr. Lowery-Hart each year identifies a handful of students and pays them to be a secret shopper so they can report back on their experiences using school processes. These shoppers help him understand the student experience beyond typical survey data. Each year, the focus is different. In the past, these have included the onboarding process, the tutoring process, the learning experiences, and the advising process.
- You have to understand what your students need on the front line and what your employees on the front line need from you.
- Community and local commuter colleges may be the linchpin in helping communities maintain economic viability in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Higher education leaders need to ask students about the barriers to learning they are facing, rather than relying solely on conjecture or past history.
- The institution’s administrators, faculty, and staff need to fall in love with the students who are at the institution, instead of focusing on a different type of student who is not in attendance. A composite student that is based on enrollment data can help leaders, faculty and staff have a template of what students are facing and the assistance they need.
- Generational poverty is a major factor facing many students. Therefore, it is important for leaders, faculty, and students to get a better understanding of what this means for students and how to develop meaningful services that will help these students succeed.
- Support systems can include social workers, counseling, tutoring, and advising. These systems need to be built with student needs and usage in mind.
- Faculty are the frontline staff members with students, and they need to have a strong understanding of generational poverty and what services are available so they can make appropriate referrals to support students.
- Generational poverty also may mean that students are intimidated by online learning. Therefore, tech-supported learning that provides additional assistance may be the best way to go.
- Some students may not have access to technology to be able to do online learning. Therefore, the college needs to look for innovative ways to make this technology available so that students can succeed.
- The pandemic has increased the need for many services. In addition, many students are facing increased trauma. Consider forming a partnership with a community organization in order to provide the necessary resources to support students.
- Higher education needs to continue to improve its online course offerings through professional development.
- In the wake of the pandemic, it’s important for institutions to use data to determine which courses are best taught online, which need to be hybrid and which work best as face-to-face courses.
- Institutional leaders need to be the face of the institution in times of crisis. By interacting regularly with students, leaders can help underscore how much the institution cares about each student’s issues and success.
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