03/27/2014 02:50 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

Owning the Achievement Gap in Higher Education

At my community college in suburban Maryland, much of our conversation lately revolves around what students need -- what they need to access college and once here, what they need to succeed and complete. We know education is the key to a better life. That's why the achievement gap is of particular concern.

Both Montgomery College and external data indicate that the primary achievement gap today is between African American and Hispanic/Latino students and the rest of the student population. Unfortunately, educational attainment still remains segregated along demographic lines -- with students typically underrepresented in higher education failing to complete at the same levels as the rest of the students.

So a task force at our college, Montgomery College, set out to answer the question: What do students who experience the achievement gap need? We know the gap exists -- but it's time to own it. Why? Because equity in access must be paired with equity in success.

We are not the only ones concerned with this issue. President Obama recently launched a new campaign, My Brother's Keeper, "a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to build ladders of opportunity and unlock the full potential of boys and young men of color."

I agree with the president, every student can realize his or her full potential. It's important to emphasize this next point: Closing the achievement gap must be about improving the performance of all students, while accelerating the success of low-performing groups. At Montgomery College, our achievement gap task force determined there's no simple, one-size-fits-all solution; rather, narrowing the gap involves a multifaceted, long-term plan. It also requires recognition that what happens outside the classroom can be as powerful as what happens inside the classroom in helping students to succeed.

Here's what our group found. First, if we're to be accountable for our results, it's essential that we have detailed data that truly illuminates how all our students are doing. But to close the gap, we also must go behind the numbers; we must get to know these students on a personal level. So the Montgomery College task force looked at intrusive advising and comprehensive mentoring to specifically address the academic success, retention and completion of African American and Latino students.

We already have successful models in place, like our Boys to Men program, which targets African American male students and is intrusive in their lives outside the classroom to drive up outcomes in the classroom. The black male students who participate in this small program have a 76 percent retention rate, compared to a college-wide rate of 60 percent of other black male students. We've just launched a similar mentoring program for women called The Mentoring Project for Women at MC. The next goal: scaling up.

I often stress that students who feel part of a community will thrive. Our College is looking at ways to build a sense of connectedness, community, and belonging to the College. Feeling part of a community, feeling like there are people who support you, is powerful. Groups outside the College have an instrumental role to play as well. Places of worship, nonprofits and community organizations also can provide a sense of community and the mentoring needed to bolster success in the classroom.

Our College is proud of some of our phenomenal academic partnerships in place that are exposing students typically unrepresented in certain disciplines to those subjects. For instance, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the College has been able to expand the demographic of students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines through a program called On RAMP to STEM. The grant introduces students to fields that most have never heard of, let alone studied.

I'm excited about the work of our task force, which also looked at increasing diversity in our employee ranks and enhancing our understanding of students' cultural experiences. Of course, much hard work lies ahead, but I am optimistic that community colleges -- and most importantly our students -- can make great strides in closing the achievement gap.

After all, our mission as community colleges is to empower the members of our community to
shine and emerge from any shadows that arise from disparity. Race, ethnicity, place of origin, gender, or any other difference should make a student unique, not more or less likely to succeed. And in an increasingly diverse country, it's good not only for individuals, but for our entire economy and country.