Practices that Promote Equity in Basic Skills in California Community Colleges

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This paper discusses the importance of institutionalizing practices that promote equitable outcomes for all students within the vast California Community College (CCC) system. The CCC system, which annually provides educational opportunities for almost three million students, exists at the heart of the state economy and future labor pool. Because the CCC system is the most diverse higher education system in the world, providing open access and post-secondary opportunities for large numbers of students of color, it represents an immeasurable opportunity to identify effective practices that can enhance success and increase equitable educational outcomes. The disproportionate representation of students of color in credit and non-credit basic skills, combined with the unique Basic Skills Initiative focus that began in 2005, translates into a powerful epicenter for advancing equity among diverse Californians. While the colleges have done a remarkable job providing access to educational opportunity, access alone does not ensure success. This paper explores how student success is the result of a concentrated, integrated effort where classroom, program, and institution work together to articulate clear pathways to promote success for our varied and diverse student population.

This paper describes three important equity considerations: Equity-Mindedness, Cultural Competence, and Universal Design for Learning as a means to enhance success for all students. Equity-mindedness is an evidence-based practice that identifies and alleviates barriers to student success. Cultural Competence, as applied to education, is an effort to understand the role of culture in equitable outcomes. Finally, Universal Design for Learning looks at the everyday practices in the student services and the classrooms that not only create accessibility but provide access to the course content, student support services, and other integral components of student success. To that end, the paper provides examples of evidence-based practices and interventions from the institutional level to programmatic levels in instruction and student services, concluding with course level practices that have been substantiated through research as tools of equitable student outcomes. The paper explores examples specific to community, institutional, and programmatic efforts that have made progress toward fostering student success, increasing retention rates, strengthening employability, and goal attainment of students who take part in the CCC system. The paper concludes with concrete classroom practices that promote equitable outcomes for students within the CCC system.

The demographics of California Community College credit and noncredit basic skills students already represent the diverse demographics predicted for the state’s future population in 2050. These millions of students represent California’s economic health and academic wealth. Never has there been a more critical time to focus on practices that will enable equitable outcomes for these Californians. Failure to address California’s well-documented future needs for an educated workforce have been described by many educational, economic, and social researchers. This paper presents some effective strategies to tackle some of the well-described problems; it represents a key to a new future and hope for our current students and coming generations. This paper and its related publication, the ASCCC paper describing Student Equity Planning called Student Equity: From Dialog and Access to Action, describe viable, locally-driven practices to promote equity among diverse students in the community colleges.


The purpose of this paper is to provide a review of effective educational practices that promote equity in the California community colleges. While most community colleges in the United States are seen as an access point to higher education for the traditionally underserved populations, California community colleges, with their low cost tuition (currently at its highest yet still only $26 per unit, but still lowest in the nation) and widespread geographic reach (112 colleges with many more additional centers), are the epitome of open access. The involvement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) in the recent Basic Skills Initiative, with an emphasis on student success within basic skills, clearly demonstrated that access alone does not promote equity. This paper, in conjunction with a new ASCCC paper describing strategies for developing mandated student equity plans called Student Equity: From Dialog and Access to Action, seeks to promote active engagement in equity issues and action. While access, as a first step in opening doors to students, is clearly important, open access resulting in failure rates of 50% or more does not promote equity nor provide what our students need to succeed. Equitable practices include access coupled with support and guidance that promotes equitable outcomes regardless of the ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic background.

For the purpose of this paper, the Academic Senate describes equitable practices as beginning with a fundamental frame of mind, an equity-mindedness. Related to this, the paper describes evidence-based equity practices from the classroom level to the institutional level that address those inequitable outcomes which pervade all of higher education. Underlying these practices is the belief that every person can learn and meet a potential that benefits the individual and society if given access, support, and opportunity for success. This paper concludes that equitable outcomes and support for those students with traditionally low success rates, and not solely equitable access, need to be the focus to ensure California’s future. Disparate success rates of various groups of students have been documented nationally for decades, and they are not improving. Substantial research describes disproportionately low success rates in student populations from diverse ethnic, immigrant, and socioeconomic backgrounds (Achieve, 2010; Child Trends DataBank, 2008; Bensimon, 2005 & 2007; NCES, 2006; NCHEMS, n.d.; Ornelas & Solórzano, 2004). California community colleges, particularly credit and noncredit basic skills, are an epicenter of opportunity to address the problem because the majority of students served here are those students with the traditionally lowest success rates. The Basic Skills Initiative data clearly painted a picture of student demographics, concentrated in Basic Skills and ESL, that represents the focal point of diversity and equity issues within our system but more importantly in California’s future. Currently the diversity of credit and noncredit basic skills and ESL students is indistinguishable from what the majority of Californians will look like in 2050. The colleges are a time machine, imaging the state’s future and serving the majority of California’s future workforce (as shown in Table 1 below and displayed in Appendix A). Local academic senates and the California community college system must recognize the potential to invest in California’s future diverse ethnic populations now—through noncredit and credit basic skills and ESL—to ensure California’s economic health.

Table 1 – Comparison of the CCC General, Credit and Noncredit Student Population Ethnicity 2008-2009 to California Today (2010) and in the Future (2050)


% Total Enrollment

% Total Credit Basic Skills/ESL

% Total Noncredit Basic Skills/ESL

California Population


California Population Ethnicity Projection 2050






































These percentages do not add up to one hundred percent because the data collection is different. The CCC data disaggregates Filipino, other non-white and unknown populations whereas the California data does not include these groups separately but does include multi-race while the CCC data does not. Data sources: CCCCO ARCC Basic Skills Supplemental Report (2009) and the California Department of Finance Population Projections (2007).

In addition to the ethnic data above, we know that credit and noncredit basic skills courses and programs are home to many students that are typically underserved and find themselves as adults without the level of academic and workplace skills necessary to support themselves. These courses and programs may be the last chance for those adults who did not complete high school requirements, lost their jobs, are single parents, are immigrants, are in need of job skills, or are impoverished and have no other means to link to the training they need to become productive citizens. Credit and noncredit basic skills represent a door to the future that, if shut, will seal the fate of these student populations forever and remove them as contributors to a healthy California.

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