Closing the Gap: The New Student Equity and Achievement Program

It is one thing to talk about institutional change, and quite another to actually change institutional culture. However, that’s exactly what the California Community College Chancellor’s Office is trying to do with the new Student Equity and Achievement Program (SEA Program).

“This move captures the essence of Guided Pathways and the drive to close achievement gaps for disproportionately impacted populations,” says Michael Quiaoit, dean of Integration and Guided Pathways for the Chancellor’s Office. “It all begins with equity. If we don’t begin to focus and figure out better ways to help these students, we’re never going to get close to our ultimate goal of closing the achievement gaps and helping them succeed with their educational goals.”

Last fall, the Chancellor’s Office began holding regional workshops to clarify for local colleges what the new program entailed. On a basic level, the Student Equity and Achievement Program consolidates Basic Skills Initiative, Student Equity, and the Student Success and Support Program. The SEA Program is an attempt to make it easier for institutions to fund the programs that these initiatives were trying to encourage.

“All of these programs had the same fundamental purpose, which was to address student equity and the achievement gap as outlined in Chancellor Oakley’s Vision for Success,” explains Quiaoit. “But what we found was that the previous model created inefficiencies that made it harder, not easier, to serve students.”

One of the main problems was that Basic Skills Initiative, Student Equity and Student Success and Support Program funds could not be shared between programs. For example, if a college ran out of Basic Skills Initiative funds, it could not supplement that shortfall with funds allocated to Student Equity, even though they were working towards the same goal.

The new model fixes this in two ways: First, it broadens the expenditure guidelines to include any and all activities related to student equity and achievement. And second, it puts local districts in charge of allocation.

“This broader approach allows for colleges and districts to allocate funds in a way that speaks to their specific needs, whether that means focusing on core matriculation services or student support programs, etc.” says Quiaoit. “More importantly, it encourages colleges and districts to establish benchmarks for success and enter into a dialogue about what is working best.”

For Anissa Heard-Johnson, director of the Offices of Student Life and Student Equity at Irvine Valley College, this dialogue is one of the biggest benefits of the new model.

“It’s wonderful to see the conversations that are happening between staff, administration, faculty and students,” says Heard-Johnson. “People aren’t just talking at each other. They’re listening, respecting each other’s opinions, and most importantly, figuring out how to best accomplish our shared goals. It’s really great to see what’s happening.”

For Heard-Johnson, this new model allows her to be more responsive to the students she is trying to help. She explains: “A few years ago, it wasn’t widely understood that the achievement gap applied to LGBT and ‘housing-insecure’ students just like it does other minorities. However, you can’t just say, ‘this or that population wasn’t identified previously and therefore they don’t qualify.’ You need something more flexible than that.”

“What I appreciate is that this approach frees us from outdated definitions and frees us to address the specific issues that are impacting our regional college communities.”

Despite positive responses like Heard-Johnson’s, the program has met with some resistance from entities who worry that their funding is going to be taken away. However, according to Quiaoit, such concerns are unfounded.

“The purpose of this program is not to take money away,” explains Quiaoit. “In fact, if your program is successful in closing achievement gaps, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t request more money for your particular program from the district, provided you can support your argument with real data. All we’re doing is encouraging colleges and districts to have a more robust conversation about what is working and what is not.”

In the end, what may make this new program special is that it is not just the result of conversations had between campus-bound colleagues, but also the result of ongoing conversations between college stakeholders and the Chancellor’s Office in Sacramento. In being responsive to the “boots on the ground” and listening to what they are saying, the Chancellor’s Office is showing that is willing to talk about what is working and change what is not.

“This is happening because the Chancellor’s Office is listening,” says Heard-Johnson. “They’re actually being responsive to what the people who are doing the work are saying. This is the difference I see from previous chancellors. They’re not afraid to admit that they’re not perfect, and that maybe they had the right idea but not quite the right formula. The important thing is they’re trying to be better and as a result, so are we. I think that’s something we can all learn from.”