Estela Bensimon, a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, says that “policy often gets undermined when it gets down to the implementation stage.”
LOS ANGELES — Despite the emergence of favorable policies meant to bring about more equity for Black and Latino college students, policies alone are not enough to do the job.
That was the heart of the message that Estela Bensimon, a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, delivered during a weekend seminar on college readiness.
“Many studies have shown that policy often gets undermined when it gets down to the implementation stage, not because practitioners are willful in resisting the change but mostly because policymakers tend to assume that a policy on paper is a policy implemented,” Bensimon said. “And the fact is that’s not the case.”
Bensimon commended the rise of performance-based funding schemes that incentivize the cutting of equity gaps — that is, disparities in graduation rates between Black and Latino students and their White counterparts — and efforts to encourage and track the progress that various programs are making in closing gaps along racial and ethnic lines.
But despite whatever policies or programs might exist to bring about more equity, change will not occur unless institutions of higher education change the way they operate.
“In order to create equitable outcomes, we need to change institutional structure,” Bensimon said.
Bensimon made her remarks Saturday at an Education Writers Association seminar titled, College Readiness: What Does It Mean for Higher Ed?
Speakers touched on a variety of topics that ranged from the pros and cons of college admissions examinations — namely the ACT and the SAT — to arguments for and against the use of race-based affirmative action in higher education.
One panel focused on whether Advanced Placement courses truly make students better prepared for college.
James Montoya, senior vice president of higher education and international programs at the College Board — the not-for-profit organization behind the AP classes, which offers students the chance to earn college credit while still in high school if they score a 3 or higher out of a possible 5 points on the AP exam — says that, while not all students who take AP classes necessarily graduate earlier, some do. He also said many AP course-takers are “taking advantage of their undergraduate years to move deeper into some academic areas and to either double-major or at least have a significant minor.”
Montoya also said that the classes “make a difference” in the ability of low-income families to cover the cost of college.
However, Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia, said that an analysis he did showed that many students who scored a 5 on the AP exam still took the introductory course in the given subject in college and didn’t always do as well as their AP exam score would suggest.
Tai’s work has primarily focused on the connection between high school AP program participation and introductory college course performance in science and math.
“Students who got 5’s [on the AP exam] didn’t always get A’s,” Tai said, citing a finding that 25 percent of the sample fell into this category.
“In fact, some got C’s and B’s,” Tai said. “That’s a surprise, a huge surprise to us.
“Unless they’re absolutely not paying attention, why would they do so poorly?” Tai asked. “Those are questions that remain largely unanswered.”
Bensimon said that colleges and universities must scrap old and rigid hiring practices in order to diversity their faculties to better reflect their student bodies.
Bensimon said that, while many institutions of higher education have become minority-serving or Hispanic-serving, their faculties remain largely White.
“So the student bodies have changed but [the institutions] themselves have not changed at the same rate,” Bensimon said.
Bensimon said that, while having diverse faculty members is important so students can “see faculty who are like themselves and can identify with them and their experiences,” it’s also important to hire faculty who have a deep understanding of the root causes of inequities — that is, the disparities in academic success and ultimately graduation along racial and ethnic lines.
“We need faculty who come not only with content knowledge but understand that inequities in higher education are caused not by the students and their families but inequities are caused by structures, by structural racism,” Bensimon said.
“You have to think differently about students,” Bensimon said. “You cannot think about students as being a mass of deficits as faculty often think of them.”
Bensimon made many of her remarks in reference to the California Community Colleges system. For instance, she cited statistics that show that, while 40 percent of the students in the system are Hispanic and 29 percent are White, only 14 percent of the faculty are Hispanic while 63 percent are White.
“I’m not suggesting that the 63 percent of White faculty are not as good instructors as the 14 percent Hispanic,” Bensimon said. “But the point I’m trying to make is this is what creates the culture of our institutions of higher education.”
Faculty members “are the ones that through their practice create or don’t create success for the students that I’m speaking about,” Bensimon said.
Bensimon said that many faculty within the system are “older and unprepared to teach the students.” She also blamed the lack of diversity among faculty on “extremely rigid” hiring practices that limit the pool of candidates that can be considered by requiring them to have credentials that have no direct bearing on their jobs.
Bensimon complained that common refrains among faculty are that students come unprepared, lack “college knowledge,” don’t meet with faculty and fail to take advantage of the resources that colleges make available for them to be successful.
“That’s typically the discourse in colleges and universities as to why students are not successful,” Bensimon said. “We’re really good at writing reports about unequal outcomes. Probably there’s a report almost every single week documenting it and we’re also good at justifying why we have inequities.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.