In Pursuit of Universal Education

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Feature by Chris van der Westhuyzen

 

Educational opportunity for all. At the point of its inception in 1960, this was the goal of the “Master Plan for Higher Education in California,” which set out to guarantee all eligible California residents a space in the state’s public higher education system. In accordance with the plan, the state affirmed its commitment to providing resources to ensure that public universities and colleges reflected the demographics of the California population.

Today, the public higher education system remains tied to the provisions of the Master Plan. However, in an era of consistent budget cuts, promoting the plan’s goal of “open access” continues to be a challenge.

The University of California, Santa Cruz has in the past initiated efforts toward realizing the Master Plan’s vision. During the 1970s, Oakes College, formerly known as College Seven, promoted the idea of accommodating underrepresented students from diverse family backgrounds.

Don Rothman, beloved educator and senior lecturer emeritus of writing at Oakes, helped pioneer a writing-tutoring program, which was designed to empower underrepresented students by supporting the development of their writing and communication skills.

“Our mission was to create a level playing field for underrepresented, working class students … for women who wanted to give science another shot and to use writing as a tool to create a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment,” Rothman said.

This writing program was one of several efforts UCSC pursued with the goal of fulfilling the objectives of the Master Plan.

 

The aim: “Hispanic-Serving Institution” status

In an effort to reach the Master Plan’s goals, UCSC also assembled a team of 13 faculty and staff in March 2012 to identify the application requirements necessary to become an Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). Awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the HSI status recognizes that an institution’s total undergraduate enrollment is comprised of at least 25 percent Chicano/Latino students. Additionally, 50 percent of undergraduates must be recipients of financial assistance such as Pell Grants or other forms of federal aid. These requirements must be met for a minimum of two years in order for HSI designation to be awarded.

“Currently, we’re just under that 50 percent mark … so we’re looking to get more students from low-income families and under-resourced high schools, those who would be likely candidates for financial aid,” said Richard Hughey, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

The HSI team seeks to explore ways in which UCSC can improve strategies for recruiting and retaining underrepresented students from low-income communities. Through these efforts, the team aims to increase the university’s “visibility as a pipeline to college — and beyond — for all students from underrepresented groups,” said executive vice chancellor (EVC) Alison Galloway.

Last year, UCSC enrolled 3,539 new freshmen of which 1,025 (28.9 percent) identified as Chicano/Latino. Despite these record-high numbers within the freshmen class, the overall proportion of Chicano/Latino undergraduates still did not meet the 25 percent average, as required for the HSI designation.

“There’s been dramatic increases in the Chicano/Latino share of the frosh … but the earlier cohorts affect the overall average,” said Jonathan Fox, Latin American and Latino Studies chair and co-chair of the HSI team.

HSI status was awarded to UC Riverside in 2008 and UC Merced in 2010. Institutions that have been awarded the designation are eligible to apply for competitive federal grants to expand and support educational opportunities for low-income students, particularly those who identify as Chicano/Latino.

When UC Riverside was designated as a HSI, the university applied for and received a $3.3 million federal grant to fund its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Pathway Project. The project aims to bridge the gap between UCR and its six partner community colleges by bringing more Chicano/Latino and low-income transfer students into the fields of STEM.

Executive vice chancellor Alison Galloway said if UCSC received the HSI designation, the resulting financial opportunities would be pursued with the aim of developing programs that would support all students.

“As much as we would love to use it for anything, given our budget situation, I understand there are pretty tight regulations on what we can do,” Galloway said. “We would have to look at programs that directly benefit primarily Chicano/Latino students in such a way that the services we provide will be accessible to a much larger group of students.”

However, Fox said there was a lot of work to be done before UCSC could become a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

“It’s going to be at least a couple of years before the [UCSC] meets the basic criteria for eligibility for HSI status,” Fox said. “We could do much more in terms of outreach and recruitment.”

 

When dwindling dollars cripple diversity

Since the Master Plan was enacted in 1960, the UC system has struggled to keep up with California’s demographic shifts. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 the Chicano/Latino share of the California population stood at 38.1 percent. Last year, 51.4 percent of students enrolled in K-12 public schools identified as Chicano/Latino. However, the Chicano/Latino share of freshmen across all UC campuses stood at 22.3 percent.

More than 50 years since the enactment of the Master Plan, its goal of equal representation has been challenged partly by economic pressures. According to past California budgets, the state has reduced funding to the UC system by about 35 percent since 2007–08, from $3.7 billion to this year’s $2.4 billion for 2012-13.

Rothman said that with a limited budget, UCSC was straying away from the Master Plan in that it lacked the resources or capacity to accommodate all students who seek to study at the university.

“Now that money is so tight, people are thinking, maybe we should shrink the freshman class and stop inviting so many people in, we can’t educate everybody,” Rothman said.

The ongoing divestment of the state of California from public higher education has forced universities to make due with limited funding. Rothman said UCSC’s ever-tightening budget constraints, which have let to staff layoffs and program cuts, have made it more difficult for the university to remain committed to its Master Plan promise.

“You [have] got to make sure you’re giving students what they need to succeed,” Rothman said. “But for that, you need money to hire people, and everybody knows that.”

Cuts to the UCSC budget have impacted various student support services, including the cultural and ethnic resource centers, which aim to create and maintain a supportive environment for racial diversity on campus.

Carolyn Dunn, managing director of the resource centers, said budget cuts earlier in the year left multiple staff members without a job, increasing the workload for remaining personnel.

“That’s kind of like the norm now … middle-management folks taking on more administrative duties,” Dunn said. “A lot of us wear two or three hats these days.”

Marla Wyche-Hall is the director of the African-American Resource and Cultural Center, which provides support for students in the African/Black community at UCSC. She said the services offered by the resource centers help to ensure students’ academic success, and the university would therefore benefit from increased funding for the centers.

“When students become involved in our programs they feel comfortable and motivated, and they are more likely to stay and eventually graduate,” Wyche-Hall said. “The university should provide more funds for these efforts, because in the end it’s a win-win situation for the UCSC community.”

But the resource centers at UCSC are not the only ones bearing the brunt of budget pressures.

The Educational Partnership Center (EPC), which forms part of the UCSC Undergraduate Education division, hosts several academic support programs to help underrepresented high school students pursue their goals for higher education.

Rafael Granados, EPC interim executive director, said the state’s budget crisis increased competition for federal grants and as a result were seeking alternative sources of funding, prompting a reevaluation of its outreach and recruitment strategies.

“There’s fewer resources, so more people are competing. It’s been challenging, and we know we can’t continue to rely on the state’s support — everyone is looking for other ways to raise funds,” Granados said. “Five or seven years ago, our budget was double what it is today, but since then, we’ve had to become more creative and utilize partnerships with student groups, schools, businesses and community organizations.”

 

Paths towards Diversity (Outreach)

In an effort to strengthen support for diversity on campus, several programs at UCSC are aimed at recruiting students from low-income and urban areas. The cultural and ethnic resource centers work in collaboration with several organizations devoted to promoting college opportunity through outreach programs.

The African/Black Student Alliance is a UCSC student-led organization committed to enhancing  communication and unity among African-American students on campus and beyond. A/BSA co-chair Jocqui Smollett said it was a problem that underrepresented students at UCSC sometimes feel marginalized, and that it is important for the university to support recruitment efforts to address the lack of diversity on campus.

“We are small in numbers, and we are spread out across the 10 colleges around campus,” Smollett said. “So not only are you not seeing people who look like you in class, but you’re not seeing people who look like you in your community or residence. I stay in College Nine, and four black people in a building is a lot to me. That’s a problem in itself.”

The Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) Center at UCSC strives to foster a spirit of unity between students from different backgrounds. CAD director Don Williams said he leads a “little army” of about 45 students who aim to improve campus diversity by regularly embarking on outreach excursions across the state.

“We often go around high schools in Los Angeles and the Bay area,” Williams said. “On our last trip we engaged with over 1,600 students.”

Williams said a diverse campus environment was important, for it helps to “cultivate well-rounded students by allowing them to explore different cultures and ideologies”.

Through it’s partnership with the EPC, UCSC is involved in several outreach efforts in the Santa Cruz area which help to attract prospective students from diverse backgrounds. These include the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA), a nationwide program that encourages educationally disadvantaged youth to excel in the fields of math and science. The EPC employs student interns and teachers who encourage MESA participants in local Santa Cruz high-schools to enter their science projects into annual competitions held on the UCSC campus.

“The students are mostly from poor or underrepresented communities,” Granados said. “The hope is that by participating in the science project competition, they will be motivated to later on apply to study at a university or community college.”

Olga Nájera-Ramírez, a UCSC alumna and faculty advisor of the Mexican folkloric dance group Los Mejicas, said when she applied to UCSC as a student of an underrepresented background, there were no real outreach program to support her throughout the university application process.

“I felt lost, overwhelmed and had no one to turn to for advice,” Nájera-Ramírez said. “I know how intimidating it is for first-generation students to navigate their way through the application process. It’s a daunting task and can be very hard without the proper support.”

In order to provide support for underrepresented students who are preparing for university, EPC works through the partnership program Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP). In collaboration with EPC, GEAR UP joins university students, teachers and counselors from high schools in low-income and under-resourced communities to aid high school students with preparation for higher education.

“We have student interns going down to schools and tutoring kids,” Granados said. “We also help them to construct an academic plan so they know early on what the requirements are to get admitted into UC.”

Nájera-Ramírez said community performances by Los Mejicas often sparked interest among Santa Cruz residents, who tend to visit UCSC afterwards to enquire about the various cultural theatre groups on campus.

“People see the group perform, and immediately they become interested in learning more about Mexican heritage and culture,” Nájera-Ramírez said. “They contact us at the university to find out how they can get involved.”

 

Retention

In order to reach the HSI-required 25 percent mark of Chicano/Latino students, the university must focus on not only recruiting students, but retaining them through providing support throughout their college education.

Rothman said effective retention requires a welcoming environment, one that is conducive to students’ academic success. Without the necessary support structures, he said the university could be diagnosed with the “revolving door syndrome”.

“The Revolving Door Syndrome is when you invite all these minority students in, but you don’t work to retain them and help them graduate,” Rothman said. “Without proper retention strategies, these students drop out feeling defeated and stupid.”

Chicanos and Latinos Educandose (Ch.A.L.E.) is a needs-based retention program at UCSC within the Chicano Latino Resource Center (El Centro) that provides academic support through creating a space for students to network and collaborate with one another.

Monica Cordova, third-year literature major and Ch.A.L.E. retention coordinator, said the organization engages students through hosting both cultural and academic events. However, funding cuts continue to limit the impact of their efforts.

“If we had enough money we could put on big-scale events that would attract more of the community,” Cordova said.

 

The Way Forward

According to federal budget projections for the 2013 fiscal year, more than $200 million in competitive grants will be set aside for HSIs across the United States.

UCSC could benefit from HSI grants in several ways, one being through the Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP), which provide academic and personal support to improve the retention of first-generation college students. EOP director Pablo Reguerin, said he would like to use HSI funding to ensure a seamless transition for students who enter UCSC after coming from underprepared high schools and community colleges.

“We want to provide students with academic support by means of tutoring to improve their achievement in the classroom,” Reguerin said. “We also want to counsel students on how to manage their time and budgets, so they are better equipped to navigate the university system.”

As the demographics of UCSC’s undergraduate class approach the levels required for HSI designation, Hughey said the HSI team had not yet adopted any clear policy that would regulate the allocation of HSI grants.

“Currently, there is no specific plan for how federal HSI grant funds might be spent,” Hughey said. “That will depend on the department or unit of the university that writes the proposal for the grant application.”

However, Smollett said any funds that may result from the HSI designation should be allocated towards improving the experience of underrepresented students on the UCSC campus.

“It’s crucial that the administration dedicate this funding to improve diversity,” Smollett said. “Though these are desperate economic times … we shouldn’t be naive. We must hold our administration accountable and ensure that administrators hold each other accountable.”

With weakening financial support from the state, universities have been challenged with cutting back expenditures while still trying to fulfill the Master Plan by serving all members of an increasingly diverse society.

Rothman said as UCSC works toward the HSI designation, the question of whether the university can remain faithful to its Master Plan duty and serve underrepresented students, will depend on how it allocates its funding.

“Because of the economic crisis we’re in now, we’re facing some big problems,” Rothman said. “The question is, where are you going to put your resources when they’re really limited? Are you going to put it in diversity and work with students who you can help to become honor students? Let’s assume that without any help, without the transition in the first two years, they won’t become honor students — they may even drop out. You’ve got to believe that you’re actually putting the money and the resources in a place where it will make a difference.”