Colleagues and Friends,
The last two years of the COVID crisis and necessary reckoning on racial injustice have heightened widespread understanding of the systemic barriers too many college students face. And while it is true that we have seen steep drops in community college enrollment and a decrease in FAFSA applications—just two indications of mounting pressures adversely affecting our students—there is a silver lining. Renewed clarity around deep-seated systemic issues in California could allow us to create systems of higher education that support all the interconnected factors that drive student success. At the same time, new partners and financial resources flowing through the state could fuel such changes. Promising efforts are already underway; now is the moment to take them to the next level.
To ensure the success of today’s students, educational leaders need to tackle systemic racism, economic inequity, lack of diversity in faculty and leadership, and unwelcoming campus climates that make students question whether they belong. All of these are major barriers to student success. We need to address these complex issues while also continuing work that restructures the pathways through college to career to make them as friction–free as possible. There is a strong interplay between each of these factors, and improvements in one can resonate across all aspects of a student’s experience and ultimately lead to success. That is the core of what we focus on at College Futures Foundation: students don’t experience all these factors separately, and we can’t think about them in silos.
Just as the factors that support or hinder student success are interconnected, those working to improve the education systems that serve students are part of a movement of leaders who champion racial equity and socio-economic opportunity. As a foundation, we are privileged to work with a group of incredible grantees and partners. We wish to be open about our priorities because we believe such transparency will strengthen our collective efforts.
Our Priorities for 2022
As College Futures’ chief program and strategy officer, I welcome the opportunity to share with you our foundation priorities—where we are deepening our commitments, expanding our work, and exploring new thinking.
In 2022, our core systems change strategy remains focused on several interrelated areas of work that, together, can catalyze the transformation needed to ensure our education system equitably serves California’s diverse students now and into the future—namely, Student-centric Practices, Leadership, Finance & Affordability, and Policy. You can read more about our core strategy here.
Beneath and beyond our core strategy, we are focusing on the following priorities:
Strengthening pathways and improving transitions
Given the challenges of the moment, we are deepening our support for long-term structural work to smooth transitions between educational institutions and pathways through them and into careers. We’re continuing to power statewide and regional Guided Pathways, which require redesigning community colleges to center students’ aspirations, provide structured academic programs and proactive supports to ensure students reach their goals, and embrace equity-centered, data-informed cycles of continuous improvement.
We are also excited to work with partners to scale adoption of dual enrollment. When dual enrollment is designed for high school students who have been historically excluded from opportunity, and linked to effective community college completion strategies, it can be a powerful tool for racial equity by shifting students’ and educators’ mindsets about who is college ready. We are also deepening our focus on student mobility between community colleges and four-year institutions, engaging four-year colleges and universities with incentives to seek out and enroll transfer students.
Reimagining how we see and support student wellbeing
Life doesn’t pause when students enter—or log into—the classroom. To fully take advantage of smoother pathways through higher education and clearer connections to careers, students need a solid foundation of financial security, physical and mental health, and social capital. With that in mind, we are prioritizing a broader view of student support aimed at improving retention by addressing the learner’s needs inside and outside the classroom. We see it as an expansion and integration of our work around college affordability and holistic student support.
The pandemic has laid bare the unmet basic needs of our state’s college students, the insufficiency of current tuition-based financial aid, and the disconnects between our public higher education and social service systems. We believe California’s community colleges and state universities can be engines for social mobility and play a greater role in supporting the holistic wellbeing of students with limited intergenerational wealth and professional networks. Ultimately, we envision public higher education institutions as sites where students do not merely persist, but truly thrive.
Building inclusive institutional cultures of belonging
Building institutional cultures of belonging is an emerging priority for the foundation. Student belonging is a timely focus, as calls for racial justice are coming to the halls of academia. Black and Latinx students, first-generation students, and students impacted by poverty—who represent the vast majority of California’s student body—are speaking up about the impact of not seeing themselves and their experiences reflected in the classroom and on their campuses. We need leaders shaping the systems of education and the agenda for reform who are deeply committed to advancing equity in postsecondary education and are themselves representative of our state’s diversity. Beyond diversity, we need leaders to cultivate cultures of inclusion, so that students feel more connected, comfortable, and capable of completing their degrees.
Leveraging our current work around Leadership within our core strategy, we are embarking on this emerging priority with a learning and partnership mindset. Our initial efforts include research to understand how systemic and racialized barriers shape identification, recruitment, and hiring processes as well as a scan of the racial equity-informed professional learning landscape. We are also taking lessons from courageous leaders who are challenging their institutions to dismantle policies and practices that further systemic racism.
I am excited to share our focus for the year and welcome your thoughts on our priorities as well as the chance to learn more about yours.
These ambitious goals can only be achieved if we work together in partnership to build momentum, implement equitable policies for students, and push ourselves further. With this historic state-level investment, foundations and others who care about student success, inclusive economies, and socioeconomic mobility should double down on commitments to leverage investments in communities. We must remind ourselves to be guided by the voices and experiences of students. Who knows better than students themselves what pushes students off course and what helps them get ahead?
We are challenging ourselves to think differently and always embrace new approaches, and we hope you’ll join us.
Elizabeth González, PhD
Chief Program and Strategy Officer
College Futures Foundation