Q&A: Pam Eddinger, Ph.D., President of Bunker Hill Community College

Dr. Pam Eddinger is the president of Massachusetts’ largest community college. She is also a national advocate for education policies that could change the lives of her students and those like them across the country.

The first thing Eddinger wants people to know about community college students is how different they are from their four-year peers. At Bunker Hill, less than a mile from the historic battle site, 65% of the 12,000 students are part-time and 67% are students of color. The average student age is 26. While 77% of the students across the river at Harvard and MIT are in the upper two quintiles of income, that same percentage of students at Bunker Hill are in the bottom two.

Nowhere have these differences become more obvious than in the fallout from COVID-19. Not only has the pandemic disproportionately affected the lives of community college students, it has, in Eddinger’s words, “cracked the whole system wide open.” As she and her team work to plug holes in service and hang on to students at risk of dropping out, she wonders if this will be a chance to show the world what her students are up against; and the effort that it takes for them to continue their education in any given year.

Since the pandemic, Eddinger has appeared more frequently in the media and on webinars discussing these subjects and calling out a higher ed culture that she believes misunderstands community colleges while at the same time pressures them on performance. The following is a transcript of our conversation in September.

MCF: How has COVID-19 affected your students differently than the average college student in this country?
PE: My students are entirely different from four-year college students in terms of age, income, and a host of life circumstances that have made them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. Almost all of our students work; many of them work full time. Three out of five of them are parents and half of those parents are single moms. The center of their lives are their children, their jobs, their family. Even though they know very clearly that getting a degree is going to raise them in terms of income and potentially break them out of generational poverty, college is the first thing they have to give up.

We worry that, because things are so stressful, if our students drop out, they will never come back. There’s no waiting it out at home or taking a gap year. There is such a stigma around community colleges that folks think there is a low bar to get here. Folks don’t see students leaving a community college as that important. But every time a student walks out that door, it is a loss of human potential.

Students are also suffering right now from the lack of wraparound care we used to deliver. Community colleges have become social service hubs so when COVID hit, and we had to close the physical campus, students lost connection to resources. With the sudden disruption of COVID on campus as well as their personal lives, all the deteriorations are magnified.

MCF: You have been in leadership positions at community colleges throughout your career. Can you tell us more about the “cracks” in the system and what you think the impact of this exposure might be?

PE: I think this is a real inflection point for us and it points to the tension that exists in higher education. I’ll give you an example. We have at least one of our campuses with a large number of English language learners. From the traditional lens, which looks at community colleges as communities of deficit, the common narrative says, “These are English language learners who have all these deficits to fill.” But the more accurate and asset-based narrative is that “These students will be multi-lingual in a couple of years and their language skills bring them a better salary and a steady job.”

So our students are caught in a cycle – being seen as lower performing, therefore less deserving of funding and place at the bottom of college rankings. Traditional higher education doesn’t have the mentality of being “student ready,” to meet the students where they are. Rather, they want the students to be “college ready.” And yet, we have done a poor job in our communities of color and of poverty to ensure that resources and services are available to prepare them. COVID just exposed the results of systemic failures that have been a century in the making.

We have spent a good portion of the post-World War II period saying to our society that higher education is important. My colleague Michael Collins at Jobs for the Future, a national education non-profit based in Boston, explained it to me well. We had the GI Bill, we had the Truman Commission Report, and we had the Higher Education Act. Each one was fundamental to the growth of higher education. But when you look at the results of these legislative actions, you see the GI Bill only served 5% of people of color. The Truman Commission Report allowed us to grow a system of community colleges, but students enrolled without adequate support services that would make them successful. And the Higher Education Act gave us the Pell Grant that was almost immediately outstripped by inflation.

When you look at education policy, none of it acknowledged the fact that you have populations that were previously repressed and underserved. We create a mobility narrative that if you work hard, if you have grit and resilience, you will succeed because we will put a degree in your back pocket, off you go into a good job and prosperity. But that’s not always true, because there are many barriers along that path. The flip side of that narrative is if you happen to fail, then that failure is ascribed to your character. You are a failure. You are morally deficient. The judgment of the poor is simply brutal.

For the last two decades, higher ed has been saying to community colleges, “You are not performing; you’re only graduating 15% of your students in two years.” So we say, “Students can only take three or four classes a semester because most work, so they can rarely finish two years, or even three.” It is not about the students’ ability to learn, or the college’s ability to teach. It is about mismatched expectations.

When our students come to us, 95% are below college level in math; 45% are below level in English. So we spent the last two decades trying to accelerate their learning, but no matter how much acceleration you do, because of all of these other factors, it is often a stop-and-start, stop-and-start. There’s not enough funding for me to say, “I’m going to pay you to come to school full time.”

A decade ago, the State would support 70% of the student’s cost of education. The student pays 30% either out of pocket, or through federal financial aid. Ten years hence, the student is paying 70% and the state is paying 30%. We also struggle with a funding formula within the public higher education model that does not acknowledge the immense work going on at community colleges. We receive a quarter of the funding, but educate 50% of the undergraduates in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. When people say, “It takes a lot of money to do research,” I say, “It takes a lot of money to get someone from 9th grade to college level in a year.” How we fund, how we measure, how we set expectations – we must be sensitive to the work of each higher education sector, and understand that we are all developing human potential, along the same trajectory, but starting in different places.

MCF: What happens next? Are there any new strategies that are coming from your experiences over the last six months?

PE: We are still in the middle of the crisis, but a few things are becoming clear. We will definitely be taking advantage of the fact that we know better how to learn and work online. We can use those skills to build flexibility for our part time students, our student parents, and others. We are also looking into what kind of services we can create to transform the delivery of services. Counseling, tutoring, and other supports are critical to student success.

The big questions that we struggled with before the pandemic were: “Why aren’t students staying and completing? Why is there a gap in the performance between white students and students of color? As a field, we have been laser focused on curricular and pedagogical fixes. But what COVID drove home for me was the critical importance of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of caring that we need to communicate to our students.

It’s hard to explain to people unfamiliar with community colleges the courage it takes for a single mom, with two kids, working two jobs, and trapped in generational poverty, to even walk across our threshold. They are scared but they want to learn and do better for their family. But if you leave her to do this without support, and without genuine care and encouragement, we will lose her. Each one who leaves is a waste of human potential. Each one we allow to leave us is heartbreaking.

Part of this work involves recognizing cultural wealth, the capital our students bring with them that traditional higher education may not recognize. We sometimes hear it labeled as grit or resilience; if we look closer, as scholars like Tara Yosso at the University of California Riverside has done, cultural wealth is a set of abilities developed through lived experiences and can be leveraged to support our students in their academic journey. It is not enough to say we are a diverse college and have mentoring and academic support. We need to realize that one of our systemic failures is routinely seeing students of color, immigrants, first generation students, almost any post-traditional student for that matter, as representations of deficits. If we wish our students to succeed, we have to change this narrative, and treat them and their cultures as assets.

I know this from personal experience as an Asian woman and an immigrant. A first-time college student who went to Barnard and then Columbia. When a non-white person goes to a large university of relative prestige, we are many times flattened into a representation of one particular thing. That objectification and alienation is real. I don’t think we talk about lived experiences and cultural identity enough when we talk about wraparound support services. We must do more to recognize the immense strengths students possess in cultural capital.

Fortunately, we have begun this effort by building the idea of cultural wealth into our pedagogical practices. We developed a Center for Equity Cultural Wealth to support the development of curriculum and teaching practices that are culturally relevant, and community grounded. We are learning that the lived experiences of our students, when reflected back to them as experiences of value and assets, become powerful foundations for them to build an academic identity, and eventual succeed. It is even more powerful when they find community and affinity on their academic journey. Role models, classmates, those who can show them the way and mirror back their successes.

When campus re-opens and we have our physical space once again, we will be more mindful about making these human connections along with restoring academic and basic needs support. The pandemic taught us that place and identity are as basic and necessary as teaching and learning in the classroom.

MCF: Your students are the pipeline for four-year schools who are eager to bring in more students of color, more “first gens.” What can they do to help?

PE: There are many things they can do. The most important is a seamless transfer without credit loss. There is a belief at four-year institutions that our students, when they have graduated, are not prepared. Somehow our English 101 is different from their English 101. We need a straighter path that says, “Okay, if you have an associate degree from a community college, we will accept you as a junior in your field of study.” That’s what California did. I think we’re moving in that direction here in the Commonwealth. I had a student from Vietnam whose English was so bad, they wouldn’t hire him at Stop & Shop. When he left here with his associates degree, he went to MIT and graduated as a bio-chem major. We absolutely should not second-guess human potential, because human potential, when given a chance, always wins.

Dr. Eddinger began her tenure at BHCC in 2013, and previously served as president Moorpark College in Southern California from 2008. Her service in the Community College movement spans more than 25 years, with senior positions in academics and student affairs, communications and policy, and executive leadership. In addition to the chairpersonship of the community college national reform network Achieving the Dream (ATD), Dr. Eddinger serves on a number of boards and commissions. She was honored in 2016 by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College in New York City and her masters and doctorate in Japanese Literature from Columbia University.

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