The state Department of High Education more than a year ago applied for grants with a goal of pursuing equity and racial justice across public colleges and universities.
Now, the department has announced that it has been awarded more than $1.2 million in grant dollars to do that work, which comes as the country is in the midst of tense conversations about race and the treatment of Black and Brown people in America. Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago said the dollars will help transform the system of public higher education.
The funding is from Lumina Foundation’s Talent, Innovation, Equity initiative grant and its Equity Institution grant. The dollars will help statewide and will also go to six institutions. Campuses receiving the grants are Holyoke Community College, Bridgewater State University, Bunker Hill Community College, Greenfield Community College, UMass Boston and Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
“We need change and we need it now. We need to stop talking about the disparities without doing anything about them,” Santiago said Thursday during a virtual event to announce the funding.
The purpose of the grant is to promote and pursue equity and racial justice across public colleges and universities. Education officials see achievement gaps for students who are Black and Latinx. The Boston Foundation will also participate in the work through Success Boston, which is Boston’s citywide college completion initiative, also a Lumina Foundation Talent Hub.
With the funding, the Department of Higher Education will complete a department-wide policy audit; expand data dashboards to measure progress and include baseline projections and benchmarks of Massachusetts public higher education enrollment through 2030; reimagine the undergraduate experience to dismantle systemic barriers, recognize students’ cultural wealth and advance racial equity; and develop a 10-year statewide plan focused on achieving racial justice, among other efforts.
Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, people across the country have started to put questions about racial disparities at the forefront. In the world of education, these conversations have started to examine how to break down systemic barriers that leave students of color obtaining degrees at the same rate as their white peers.
In higher education in Massachusetts, one of the most pronounced gaps is between women and Latino students. The college graduation rate for white women is about 65%, while for Latino men it stands around 22%, according to the department.
Rather than pinning success rates on students themselves, these grants will put the focus on institutions and what they are doing to maximize student success, officials said.
Yves Salomon-Fernández and Christina Royal, the presidents of Greenfield and Holyoke community colleges, respectively, both said Thursday that the colleges have been asking Black students to share stories about their experiences and backgrounds as equity efforts continue.
“Our perception is that we need to bring everyone together. We need to acknowledge everyone’s experiences, approach this work with humility, and understand that we are all striving toward the same goal,” Salomon-Fernández said. “We will make mistakes but we will learn from those mistakes and support one another.”
With this funding, Massachusetts is the fifth state to receive Lumina’s talent innovation and equity partnership grant, said Danette Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer.
“We believe Massachusetts represents a major opportunity to show other states what it truly means to put equity first,” Howard said. “We already see real commitment to both racial equity and justice by leaders at all levels who are willing to do the necessary work, and evidence that higher education institutions are taking the right steps to eliminate bias from their classrooms and their campuses.”
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley noted during the virtual event that while Massachusetts is among the most educated states in the country, education gaps persist for students of color. Pressley said institutions must ensure Black and Latinx students not only can gain access to post-secondary education, but succeed once they arrive and not slip through the cracks.
“While this moment may be a national wake up call for many, for our Black and Brown students, for our undocumented and indigenous students, these calls are not new,” said Pressley, who represents the state’s 7th congressional district.
Officials noted that the higher education system as it is constructed now contains roadblocks for Black and Brown students. James Peyser, the secretary of education in Massachusetts, said that education gaps for students of color exist despite the fact that the state is number one for K-12 education, with grade-level proficiency on state and national assessments is sometimes as high as two to one.
Peyser noted that the state’s early college program is one effort that is working to close the gap.
“Across this country, the fight for social racial and economic justice has reached a new threshold as we also fight to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 180,000 Americans and we can’t ignore the racist violence that has killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others we must all commit ourselves to change, especially those of us who are responsible for education,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a video recorded for the virtual event.