My recent visit to El Centro College (part of the Dallas County Community College District) stood in sharp contrast to the sweltering 113-degree temperature reflected on my rental car thermometer. The El Centro visit – which included a campus tour and a College Affordability Summit – reinforced three key themes within the President and the Department of Education’s post-secondary educational agenda: (1) college affordability; (2) career readiness and educational opportunity linked to employability; and (3) vulnerable student success, including America’s returning Veterans who pursue further education.
Paul McCarthy, El Centro College’s president since 2008, took me on a campus tour before the actual Summit launched. I walked through the College’s newly renovated building dedicated to the health professions that included state-of-the-art simulation laboratories. I saw a group of students learning to be highly employable invasive cardiovascular technologists. I observed the Food and Hospitality Institute where students learn to design and cook meals and bake; they also run a small restaurant on campus that can be frequented at low cost by the campus and wider Dallas community. This tour punctuated the College’s effort – similar to that on a growing number of campuses — to provide a meaningful set of engaged educational opportunities for their growing student population through degrees and certificates that can lead to employment.
One key initiative at the College is a program to facilitate travel to and from the College. With a diverse population of low-income students and no College provided parking on the main campus, the College provides each student registered for at least six credits with a free DART card that enables that student to use the Dallas area rapid transportation system to get to/from campus. Students can also use the card to get to and from work and for personal travel including evenings and weekends. While the College pays for these cards (at discounted rates from the city transportation authority), the benefits to students vastly outweigh the costs, and this program helps students who might otherwise not be able to pursue or continue their education to progress to and through college affordably. A similar benefit is offered, with positive results, in the ASAP initiative within the CUNY system.
One other topic explored in depth at the Summit was the College’s effort to provide educational opportunities that will meet the needs of their growing Veteran population. The conversation demonstrated how the Senior Leaders are deeply aware of the challenges Veterans face when they return to civilian life; the College is engaged in efforts to provide added support systems and faculty and staff training opportunities to foster Veteran success at El Centro. Two of the College’s leaders will be participating in the upcoming August 1st convening to be held at the Department of Education on best practices for Veteran students on America’s campuses, based on the lessons learned from the Department’s Veteran Center of Excellence FIPSE grantees.
In short, the Dallas June day’s soaring heat was well matched by soaring efforts in support of the President’s 2020 goal of getting more and more Americans to progress to and through post-secondary education.
Karen Gross is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education