Amarillo College president Dr. Russell Lowrey-Hart is at the forefront of community colleges providing the social services for indigent students to continue their education. It's just a sign of the times. "We can't build higher education around students we wish we had," he said. "We have to accept them and love them for who they are, not what we wish they were."
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart got a cold slap in the academic face in 2011 when he was a member of the Panhandle 20/20 task force and he saw how poor the numbers were for post-secondary education in parts of the city and how that trend of a brain drain would adversely affect the area.
Shortly after, when he first arrived at Amarillo College as Vice-President of Academic Affairs, discussion among student focus groups and interviews with students just about brought him to his knees. Completion rates at AC were poor. What were the reasons?
"I expected to hear, 'I don't know how to study,' or 'I'm scared of math,' or 'I don't like this book,' or 'I need more tutoring,' those kind of things," Lowery-Hart said. "But what I heard changed who I am professionally and personally."
The responses: lack of transportation, lack of child care, food and housing, utility payments. It had nothing to do with the classroom.
Another student survey last fall brought him to tears. An astonishing 59 percent reported food insecurity within the past year, and 11 percent were homeless for a period during that same year.
"I knew it to be an issue," he said, "but I didn't know how pervasive it was. It really shouldn't have been that much of a surprise since 70 percent of AISD is on the free lunch program, but it still shocked me."
But since Lowery-Hart became AC president in 2014, he has given way more than lip service and wringing of hands to the thorny issue of poverty and higher education. He's on the forefront of removing those social and economic barriers that have caused many to drop out and repeat the cycle of poverty.
More than 100 college administrators from 14 states were at AC on Monday and Tuesday on that very topic, and to take a look at the groundbreaking steps AC is doing.
This is on the heels of a lengthy article in last month's respected Atlantic Magazine, "When A College Takes On American Poverty." And that is on the heels of Lowery-Hart testifying in January in Washington in front of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on what AC and the Amarillo community are doing on this issue.
Lowery-Hart calls it "the college theory of change," and it is this: "If we can remove one life barrier and connect that student to a powerful relationship that can coach, love and support them, they'll actually complete their degree," he said.
At AC, to help remove some of those obstacles is the Advocacy and Resource Center under director Jordan Herrera. It's a lifeline to many students. Symbolically, it's not hidden on campus for some kind of walk of shame, but is renovated behind glass doors on the first floor on the student union building, one floor below Lowery-Hart's office.
At the ARC, Herrera and staff, which includes social work students from West Texas A&M, are able to address issues like help with a utility bill, car repair, monthly rent. There's a food pantry, clothing closet, and a legal aid clinic. Counseling is available. The AC Foundation funds as much as $60,000 of the operation.
If the ARC can't address the need with its myriad of resources, they will connect students to possible community and government programs. Pell grants now only provide 29 percent of the cost of school attendance. One real-world financial crisis can make for dropping out.
Typical student has changed
What puts AC at the forefront is identifying at-risk low-income students early. Last fall, the school flagged 800 students with at least one dependent and a family income of less than $19,600 and alerted them of the services that were available.
"It's about using our data to be proactive rather than reactive," Lowery-Hart said. "We want to use that data to connect to a student before there's a crisis. Once a student is in crisis, multiple things make it difficult. We can help save them, but it's a whole lot easier to avoid a crisis rather than serve them once they're in it."
Community colleges are different than four-year institutions, none more so than the students. At AC, officials have come up with a typical student based on data. With AC at 65 percent female, they call her Maria: she's a first-generation college student, of which 71 percent fit that, a minority, age of 28, works two part-time jobs and has 1.2 children.
The traditional student, recently graduated from high school and perhaps living at home on his way in two years to a university, Lowery-Hart said he loves them and wants more of them, but they are no longer the typical AC student.
"I say this all the time -- we have to love the student we have instead of the student we wish we had," he said. "Higher education is often in love with the student that does not exist. They are love with ideals. We can not build higher education around the students we wish we had."
So why is this important? What happened to the world needs ditch diggers too? Studies show that even a two-year associates degree means an increase of thousands of dollars in future income. A Harvard economist noted that when a city's college degrees increase by 10 percent, per-capita gross metropolitan product increase by 22 percent.
"This isn't about bleeding hearts," said Lowery-Hart of the increased student social services. "It's about economics. With less than 30 percent with a post-secondary education, the Amarillo community is going to pigeon-hole itself economically.
'We'll be focused on low-skill manual labor jobs. Those are important, but they can't be the only sector growth you have. We need to diversify the economy through a higher educated work force."
Graduation rates have improved from 9 percent a few years ago to 23 percent, just off the national community college average of 24 percent. Of students who have received emergency aid, 57 percent are still enrolled a year later compared to 48 percent of the campus population.
As far as certificate completion into the work force or successful transfer, AC is at 45 percent, up from 19 percent a few years ago. The goal is 70 percent. True success, Lowery-Hart said, will be when the ARC is doing half the work needed.
"There are some critics that say we're providing false hope, but I challenge them to tell me what the alternative is," Lowery-Hart said. "We're not giving students false hope to say that you're smart and capable and we're going to give you a little help while you finish your degree.
"If we don't have hope, what do we have? Without hope, what is there?'
Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue.