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Making College Accessible to Everyone: A Q&A with Russell Lowery-Hart, President Amarillo College

Amarillo College President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, a partner in MDC’s Partners for Postsecondary Success initiative, is becoming a national model for how to infuse a community college’s culture with the understanding that poverty is a major barrier to student completion and success.

The Atlantic featured Russell Lowery-Hart, a key player in MDC’s Partners for Postsecondary Success program, for his efforts to battle the effects of poverty on campus.Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart isn’t just the president of Amarillo College, a community college in the Texas panhandle that serves more than 10,000 students.

He’s becoming a national model for how to infuse a community college’s culture with the understanding that poverty is a major barrier to student completion and success.

One of the places that he says started him on that realization was MDC’s Partners for Postsecondary Success (PPS) initiative, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that was designed to bring all parts of the community together to improve postsecondary completion in Amarillo. That partnership, along with the concurrent “Panhandle Twenty/20” program, became the city’s “No Limits, No Excuses” initiative that’s still at work there.

Lowery-Hart’s work—and, importantly, the work of the entire college—was highlighted recently in an article in The Atlantic, “Colleges Are No Match for American Poverty.” It chronicles the ways the college has moved to have all its of its faculty and staff recognize the factors in a student’s life that make completion difficult and address them as strongly as they would academic issues. As a result, the college made it easier to get money from an emergency fund, brought on more social workers, created a legal-aid clinic, offers free mental-health counseling, and started a day-care center, among other sweeping changes.

The college’s graduation rate for first-time, full-time students has jumped to 23 percent, up from 9 percent when Lowery-Hart became president, though direct results from the poverty agenda hasn’t been shown to be the cause. Nevertheless, “The school and Lowery-Hart are being watched by college leaders all over the country,” the article says, “because finding realistic solutions for student poverty could be transformative for the U.S. higher-education system.”

We spoke recently with President Lowery-Hart about his work and how PPS helped get him get started.

What role did Partners for Postsecondary Success play in forming your perspective on the relationship between poverty and educational attainment?

PPS gave us a framework for connecting data to the student-lived experience. The data helps us inform the kind of questions we need to be asking. That was the genesis for this work—we saw the retention data, the graduation data, and asked students what was the biggest barrier to completing your degree.

Guiding us thru the PPS planning process, we talked a lot about the missing voices. I had always talked to students, but I had missed the most important part of the student voice—the lived experience of what they brought into the classroom. I went into the conversations expecting to hear academic solutions—that, hey, I need more tutoring, which they do, or that they were afraid of math, which they are. I was expecting the reasons for their struggles to be academic in nature. And the top 10 things they told us had nothing to do with the classroom. I went in expecting academic interventions and came out realizing we needed to redesign the entire approach to remove these barriers to their lives so they could be successful in the classroom.

MDC asked what the education community’s response was to what we’d learned about poverty, and I hadn’t thought there were education responses. I thought that was the community’s job. So, I went back to the students to see what they needed to be successful in the classroom, and we got those responses.

Through the PPS planning process, and then the development of the partnership, we learned how to identify what the missing voices were and then how to engage those missing voices. We actually had training on those things. A lot of the conversations around the missing voices had previously centered around ethnicity. But I realized, at AC, we had become a majority-minority school [45 percent White, 55 percent Non-White], but one of the missing voices was the voice of poverty. We had focused on the Hispanic and African-American voice, but hadn’t given those voices the ability to have a full-throated response because we weren’t engaging with the poverty barriers they brought with them as well, and in some cases might have shaped them more than their ethnicity.

I learned thru PPS and Twenty/20 that our nonprofits saw poverty from the point of view of their specific mission, so if it was helping low-income families pay utility bills, they only looked at poverty through a utility bill. No one was looking at how we could use these interventions to move families out of poverty and not just the problem they were looking at at that moment.

What we came to understand was that the services exist, but we did not have institutional cultures that embraced connecting our students to them. What makes our work so powerful for me is that it is truly integrated into the culture of the college, and the expectation is for every employee to address it. It is not a service, a pullout set aside, it is part of the institutional purpose.

The student responses fundamentally changed who I am, my perspective on my work, my personal mission, and it broadened my understanding of what I perceive as my calling. I talk about myself as a recovering faculty member. All I ever wanted to do was teach, and I think students helped me understand that my mission, personally and professionally, had to expand and change dramatically.

How are changes you made reflected on the campus?

Faculty are on the front lines with students, so before having poverty training with Donna Beegle [an advocate for anti-poverty programs], the faculty assumed students were sleeping in class because they weren’t interested. Now, all faculty have received a poverty certification, and 70 employees have gone on to be coaches. Poverty training is continually integrated into our new employee orientations, our leadership development programs, and the student success certifications that we require of every employee.

We close the college two times a year to talk about it. We go through data, services, learn what everyone’s doing, what’s working, what’s not. We do team challenges and get everyone on a team to brainstorm a solution to a problem for a semester. In the spring, finalists come back and present solutions. We give the winning team a $10,000 bonus to share, the second-place team gets $3,000, and the third-place team gets $2,000. What we’re trying to do is use this as a team-building activity. Teams include faculty and staff from different departments, trying to build relationships across the college and empower employees to recognize problems they’re facing every day. The first team that won proposed having our foundation, scholarship office, and financial aid office share data, meaning students wouldn’t have to submit two applications. And it didn’t cost us anything.

For faculty sitting in their class, rather than make assumptions about laziness, they know those behaviors represent a lot of things, not just a reflection on millennials. Maybe they’re homeless, and these early alerts allow faculty to say I’m not a social worker, but I know this student needs to talk to one. Or if it’s mental health, the mental health advisor, or advising. If allows all our employees to engage in helping students, even if the outcome isn’t their primary purpose—same as I had thought that’s not my job, that’s the nonprofits’ job. Now every employee knows it’s their job.

How did PPS add to the work you’d started with the Panhandle 20/Twenty program?

We did a year of planning with Panhandle 20/Twenty, but until we went through the PPS process, we didn’t know how to focus on a systemic response within higher ed. Through the work of 20/Twenty, we met Donna Beegle and did opportunity conferences, targeting families in poverty. But until we went through the PPS process, I had not understood how interconnected things were, and how to integrate that poverty work into our educational mission.

The other thing that MDC did was a community timeline, when we had to map out the history of Amarillo. What was so fascinating to me, and really a call to action for me, was that every time the community faced a crisis, whether it was the Great Depression or losing the Air Force base, the community had massive responses, but none of them were integrated. So out of those responses to every crisis, there were a plethora of nonprofits to solve the problem, but no integrated systemic response. That’s the nature of our region—we’re individualistic, we can solve our problems—but we weren’t working together to solve them.

Poverty is an issue, but if we we’re going to address it, I don’t have to wait for these nonprofits to do it; the college could be the conduit to solving these problems, to building systems around these problems rather than simply assuming that all these nonprofits knew the problems existed and how they could help solve them.

PPS was very intentional about developing partnerships that represent all aspects of the community—education, business, community-based organizations, funders, government, etc. How are you using the idea of cross-sector and cross-institutional partnerships as you build your approach at AC? What have been the outcomes of that?

PPS aimed at “systems change”—getting at the root cause of issues and structuring responses that changed fundamental things about how organizations work internally and how they relate to each other in order to pave the way for a more seamless system for students moving from high-school towards a postsecondary credential.

There are several outcomes. We’re developing relationships with students before they ever graduate high school. In the high schools, we have organizational fairs for students, so before they graduate, they’re already signing up for organizations in the college that demystify college and make college less fearful.

Another is that we’re actually improving college readiness from K-12 to higher ed. We are tackling poverty throughout the system. We have social workers in schools who are working with families, and a lot of times what those social workers are doing is connecting students with us for a GED, or ESL classes, or enrolling in programs that lead to living wage work. So, our students are coming into higher ed better prepared and are more successful because of these systems we put in place.

What are recent outcomes of the No Excuses partnership? What are you proudest of?

What I’m proudest of for the partnership is building an internship program so the high schools and colleges and universities are engaging our business partners, training them on the power of internships and what their outcomes should be. And we’re started to scale that.

I’m proud of the true social services systems we’ve developed that are helping students in K-12 and in higher ed. And at Amarillo College, it’s working. Our completion rates were in the teens and now our three-year completion rate is 45 percent. Our goal is to be at 70 percent by 2020. And when we started, we were in the low teens.