As each new academic year begins, our college community assembles for a convocation (we call it Fall Focus) to launch a new semester and a new year.  This year’s event was powered by the theme “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Focus.”  Writ large, this title translates into a universal theme “Leading with Equity,” a mantra which transcends a single event, a single semester, a single year.  If, as we say at CCBC, “Every One of Us Counts” . . . and if we believe, as we do, in leadership at every level, then every member of our college community — in the classroom and out of it — must help to lead in that direction, making a priority of “actions that matter.”

But “leading with equity” isn’t just about access; it must also be about success. We have all spent two years ravaged by a pandemic. We’re still ragged and a bit tired.  In that time, our college stayed fully open, as hard as that was to do, because we were committed to serving all of our students, especially those for whom remote learning was not an option. We knew what many others are just discovering:  i.e., two years of remote learning would disadvantage many within the population we serve. But, when you live your mission, and you love your mission, that is what you do.

Embedded in that recognition, however, is a strange irony that suggests that equity lies not in just inviting students into the room, but perfecting strategies to help retain them. Our goal must be to help them finish what they began with so much hope and optimism. Every fall semester we welcome with pride thousands of students as they enter CCBC only to watch 48% of them disappear,Scrabble pieces with the word Equity spelled out many even before the semester ends.

We who serve the most disenfranchised of students know that education is the great leveler and the great lifter.  We are the ones who work at a community college because we believe in its mission because we know that if we do not serve these students, it is likely no one else will.  They come with dreams and ambitions and expectations. How do we let so many of them slip away with no credential in-hand?  Some, of course transfer; some have life’s issues to confront; but, many simply turn away from an experience that proves either too burdensome or too inconsequential.  There is truth in the Langston Hughes phrase: “A dream deferred is a dream denied.”  The irony then is that the college starts all over again the following fall, challenging our Enrollment Management staffs to recruit more students to replace those we lost.  This vicious cycle offers little tangible reward for either college or student.

There is no single solution to this conundrum, except to elevate “retention” efforts to top priority.  At CCBC, we are asking this hard question of ourselves: Are we content to watch far too many students swing through a revolving door each year only to repeat the churn of that cycle next year?  If so, then we need do little more than what we are doing.  If not, we must keep that “open door” firmly ajar, by rebuilding internal support structures implicit to the implementation of a Holistic Student Success model that will provide a safety net once they arrive.

Imbued with this vision in almost a messianic way, we are entering FY 2023 as a promising new era for all of us at CCBC.  We intend to galvanize our efforts to build a new platform of student support.  With strength in our ability to provide access to a broadly diverse student body, we have recommitted ourselves to delivering the second half of that promise by building 21st century support structures.  We must not only invite these 21st century scholars in the door; we must invest resources in them to keep them here.

A recent issue of University Business contained an article that reflected on the dire straits confronting today’s community colleges.  According to the author, “sharp enrollment decline combined with funding compression once stimulus funds expire is staring each of us in the face.”

While enrollment numbers translate into budget gain or deficit each fall, recruitment success in itself is a pyrrhic victory if 48% of each new cohort disappears by the end of the year.

As president of a college that intends to do better, I am pledging more than executive command or commitment to address this reality.  I am pledging resources along with an insistence that all areas of the college lean into this effort to actualize an equity agenda that refocuses our efforts.  We must look at how we teach, how we advise, how we devise academic and administrative policies and practices; and how we must do all of this with an eye on who is sitting in our classrooms today.