Barbara Clinton refuses to yield to the inequities facing community college students in the United States. As she told me in an interview, “As a nation, we cannot afford to have this artificial stratification. This is treatable, and it’s not expensive, and we can make a difference.”
For ten years, Barbara has led the Honors Program at Des Moines, Washington’s Highline Community College: a program combining mentorship, a higher education “boot camp,” and opportunities for advanced credit courses. The program is a microcosm of the diversity at Highline: one third refugee, two thirds people of color, and largely low-income, first-generation students. Despite the many difficulties students face along lines of race and class-based inequity, the program has produced astonishing results: 90 percent of students in the introductory Honors Program course finish their community college degree and over 89 percent continue on to a four-year university.
The program has a transformational impact on students’ lives. Isaac Cameron, a student from the small town of Burien, Washington, encountered numerous life challenges throughout his K-12 academic career. He moved through four high schools, maintaining the minimum 2.0 GPA necessary to play sports. To his teachers and peers, he felt written off as “a danger or a threat.” A few short years later, however, he was en route to a degree at Amherst College and a career as a software engineer in Chicago. “I’m one of the few who made it,” he explains.
Like hundreds of other mentees over the past decade, Isaac attributes his success to the pivotal role Barbara and the Highline Honors Program played in cultivating his academic identity. “The beautiful thing about Barbara,” Isaac told me in an interview, “is that she thinks and believes that her students can go anywhere in the world. She shatters the paradigm.”
Yet the future of Highline’s Honors Program is now uncertain. Barbara has decided to retire two years earlier than she originally planned, citing difficulty in garnering support from Highline for the continuation of the program after her departure. In her struggle to keep the program alive, Barbara has encountered two challenges. First, ironically, Barbara’s leadership has been so effective that few think anyone else could recreate her success. Secondly, Highline—like other community colleges—faces budgetary restrictions that make it difficult to sustain full-time staff.
As The Century Foundation’s Bridging the Higher Education Divide reports, community colleges face unprecedented budgetary challenges, receiving fewer resources each year to educate a growing population of students. These fiscal constraints contribute, in turn, to a growing racial and economic divide between the students of two-year and four-year colleges. Given these trends, colleges should be expanding programs that help eliminate socioeconomic stratification. Instead, promising success stories like Barbara’s face an unclear future as colleges make difficult budgetary choices.
The Honors Program’s success no doubt emerged from Barbara Clinton’s brilliance. But that does not mean that her insights cannot be replicated. In fact, the challenges facing the community college system demand that policymakers and college administrators learn from Barbara’s example. Three components of the program—its emphasis on “playing the game,” its attention to inequity, and its use of available human resources—all could be adapted to other community college campuses. Moreover, Barbara’s talents, though remarkable, do not have to remain unique. Beginning with funding for full-time faculty, policymakers can do more to help community colleges recruit visionaries like Barbara with a sense of possibility for students.
Teaching Students to “Play the Game”
In the United States, the two strongest predictors of whether a child will graduate from college are their family’s income level and whether their parents have college degrees. The household narratives that shape children’s lives emerge from these family histories. Barbara’s father had a college degree. For this reason, she told me, “If you were born into my family, part of your birthright was the expectation of a college degree.” This simply is not the case for a great many students born into challenging life circumstances. Barbara places these issues at the center of her program: “Let’s teach people why it is that my ten year old grandson can name more four-year schools in thirty seconds than any student coming into Highline.”
To remedy the difficulties faced by first-generation college students, the heart of the Honors Program is the “Boot Camp” course: a semester-long study in which students learn to market themselves and navigate higher education. The primary emphasis of the course is narrative writing: “You have to be able to write strong essays about yourself,” she explains. For example, Thu Trinh, one of Barbara’s students, wrote a Common Application essay threading together her experiences as an immigrant to the United States from Vietnam, her perseverance as an English language learner, and her dedication to computer science. Developing this skill of self-advocacy, Barbara told me, is key: “They have to take stock on paper: what do you look like? Colleges aren’t really going to pay attention to Burgermaster. They value service to community, GPA, what you say about yourself, and what you think.”
The rubric for the Boot Camp course also assesses students for learning the underlying rules of the game in higher education. Students receive grades not just for their compositional skills and academic outcomes, but also for taking the time to visit the instructor during office hours and writing thank you notes for letters of recommendation. By explicitly teaching students the concrete steps they can take to access four-year institutions, their eyes become open to new possibilities.
“We have so many bright students in community colleges and they just don’t understand how the four-year system works,” Barbara argued in our interview. “You can’t gain access if you don’t know. You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules. That’s what I start with: It’s all about playing a game, and we’re going to win.”
Talking Authentically about Issues of Inequity
When I asked what differentiates the Honors Program from less successful programs at other institutions, Isaac provided a three-word reply: “It was real.”
Colleges cannot just adopt the structures of the Honors Program without also embracing its attitude. Many college programs attempt to teach “career skills” in a way that patronizes students rather than empowering them. When I spoke to Highline President Jack Bermingham, he put matters bluntly: “The public discourse tends to diminish, in a pejorative way, immigrants or refugees—then you add poverty. Our society focuses on them as deficit-based.”
To escape this deficit-based thinking, the Highline Honors Program encourages larger conversations about systemic disadvantage and social inequalities. “Given that you’re at Highline,” Isaac says, “you’re probably at a disadvantage.” The course makes these disadvantages explicit, but without diminishing the strengths that come with them. The key, Isaac explained to me, is to frankly address inequalities while pushing the discussion further: “life isn’t fair, but what do you have to do?”
At the structural level, this focus on challenging systemic inequity drives Barbara’s work. “Nationwide, there is this stereotype that if you have a first-class brain, you go to a four-year college. And if you have a second-class brain, you go to a community college.” This faulty attitude has contributed, for decades, to the growing economic and racial stratification between community colleges and four-year institutions. In trying to correct this disparity through Honors Programs, schools often inadvertently contribute to it by creating two “tracks” within their campuses—one honors, one not.
To prevent these inequities from emerging in her program, Barbara proactively incorporates structures to prevent tracking. For example, even with GPAs too low to enter the Honors Program, students can still enroll in individual Honors Option classes, working with faculty mentors to develop advanced projects. As Bermingham informed me, “Honors Option allows students to find a little passion and open that door”—even if their previous academic track record would otherwise work against them. Moreover, Barbara accommodates students with lower GPAs who can argue they have changed course. “If you can prove, ‘That was then, this is now,’ even though your GPA is a 2.8, you can get into the Boot Camp course.”
Taking Advantage of Available Human Resources
Barbara has found considerable support from Highline’s faculty. “When I started the program, I was told I would never get faculty to work on these honors options projects,” she expressed in our conversation. “They were dead wrong! Faculty members loved the idea that they get to work with these bright students.” Most community college instructors have advanced degrees in a specialized field, and most entered the teaching profession to inspire students. By tapping into her colleagues’ enthusiasm, Barbara made it possible for students to supplement their existing courses with in-depth supplemental projects for additional credit.
The program’s largest asset, however, is its extensive cohort of alumni. Barbara maintains contact with over 570 former students who respond to bi-annual survey questions and provide guidance to currently-enrolled students. Because community college students take pride in their origins, Barbara explains, they eagerly reach out to help. She rattled off an impressive list of alumni, telling me, “We have students at Boston, American, Drexel, the Air Force Academy, an engineer at Amazon, an IT specialist from Princeton, internships at Microsoft, somebody at Boeing”—all of whom “love to help their peers get access to the same places.”
Each semester, she holds alumni colloquia for Honors Program students, inviting success stories back to the campus to speak. According to Bermingham, a pivotal aspect of the program is its elevation of role models who transitioned to prestigious four-year universities after attending Highline. “You point to students who come out of this community,” he explains, “to create a larger sense of what’s possible for students.”
Barbara’s students remember a mantra after they move on from Highline: “to whom much is given much is expected.” They jump at the opportunity to share their insights with fellow students. An Honors Program blog, started in Fall 2012 by an alum of the program, is populated by life advice and stories of personal transformation. One student, Steven Simpkins, discusses how his vague plans to enter nursing school grew into an ambitious desire to become a professor. Another student, Sidhu Apneet, discusses her road from Highline to an internship at the White House. By building a community around shared stories of success, Barbara has established a strong alumni network that lifts the barriers community college students too often impose on themselves.
Finding More Barbara Clintons
Barbara lobbied Highline for a mentee to train as a successor to her program, to no avail. As she expressed in her resignation letter to her administration, “If the college has no plans to hire anyone to whom I can pass on the program’s process before I retire, nor identify anyone whom I can mentor to ensure that the program continues to serve HCC students with the same vision and a growing success rate, it leaves me no reason to stay.”
In our interview, Bermingham told me that Highline deeply respects Barbara’s work, intends to keep the Honors Program, and has hired one of its former alums as a Program Manager. But Barbara told me the administrators have not thought about the hard questions to ensure an effective transition. “Who’s going to be in charge? What pieces are you going to continue?” These questions will be impossible for the school to answer, she says, “because there isn’t someone on campus who knows what the pieces are.”
As the creator of the program, Barbara Clinton assumes enormous responsibility for its operation. She handles public relations, advises and mentors students, promotes ideas for Honors Option projects, hosts colloquia, connects with college admissions officers, coordinates three teaching assistants, teaches core courses, grades portfolios, maintains a database of student information, and organizes alumni outreach.
In a sense, it becomes hard to fathom how the program could be duplicated by anyone else by themselves. “All of this is replicable,” Bermingham told me in our conversation. “But it doesn’t usually come in one human being.” Bermingham attributes part of the challenge of maintaining the program in future years to the Honors Program’s relative isolation. “If more people own the program,” he explains, it can be sustained over the longer term.”
The truism that Barbara dedicates tremendous effort to the program has led to the unfortunate perception that Barbara alone is responsible for its success. During a panel discussion a few years ago, a California community college administrator posed a question to Barbara and a group of her alumni: “Is it replicable? Or is it based on Dr. Clinton?” A former student quickly rejoined: “We love Barbara, but it isn’t based on Barbara. This program could happen anywhere you have faculty who care.”
Barbara is not a uniquely-anointed individual. Her talents and experiences did not simply appear in her head one day. Unlike a growing number of community college faculty, she has a PhD—and more specifically, a PhD in Communication Development and Instructional Communication. Her theoretical research infuses every level of her program design at Highline. She sprinkled our interview with references to the theoretical knowledge that undergirds her curricular work. As a full-time, tenure-track faculty member, Highline blessed her with the opportunity to carry her expertise as far as it would go.
Unfortunately, colleges like Highline now hire fewer and fewer people with Barbara’s expertise to serve in full-time positions. Strapped with a budgetary crisis demanding community colleges to do more with fewer resources, schools have begun turning toward more adjunct faculty to perform tasks once handled by tenure-track faculty. According to an American Federation of Teachers Report from 2009, as of 2007, only 17.5 percent of community college faculty members were full-time, tenure track positions—a decline from 20.6 percent in 1997. Meanwhile, the percentage of part-time, adjunct faculty members grew from 64.7 to 68.5 percent.
While these trends impact all of higher education, community colleges struggle with a smaller percentage of full-time faculty than any other type of institution. As a result, fewer community college staff members have the time, the commitment, and the expertise that Barbara brought with her to Highline. Instead, adjunct faculty members struggle to work multiple jobs without benefits, while full-time instructors take on larger course loads that prevent them from creating innovative programs. Highline and other colleges strive to give students a hands-on experience; but, as Bermingham laments, “The hands-on approach requires a number of hands.”
While attending Amherst College, Isaac posed a series of questions to his classmates: “How can such a disproportionate group of our students come from such a small pool? Is it just that they have a monopoly on all the talents and all the skills and all the intellect in the world? Or is it just that we still have an education system that’s greatly tilted toward the few?”
While community colleges can focus on replicating the strengths of Highline’s Honors Program, policymakers must begin providing the necessary resources to community colleges so they can afford to find—and employ—visionaries like Barbara. Only then can higher education be tilted toward the many.