Our country is facing an unprecedented challenge as it prepares for the future. It must succeed in a global marketplace and an increasingly hostile and divided world. In the past, our successes have been founded on a wealth of innovation and ideas, coupled with an educated and skilled workforce and a commitment to the common good. Our nation has thrived in a culture of democratic values, of citizens exchanging ideas to get the best services and government possible. Yet today we see widespread evidence that our citizens are succeeding at starkly disparate rates. Children from poor communities, youth from racially-isolated communities and urban environments, and adults who immigrate from other countries do not enjoy access to and achievement in our schools and institutions of higher education. Unless we address the root causes of these disparities through well-researched and proven programs, we run the risk of failing to create the educational and social platform from which all Americans can strive for success. Worse, we could create a more deeply divided society that will fray our social fabric and potentially unravel the measure of social integration and cohesion that made America strong.

Our goal in this paper is to outline the foundations of programs and practices we are implementing in Minnesota that have implications for communities all across the country. These programs are based on knowledge gleaned from research in a variety of areas, all of which points to a need for active, long-term collaboration between K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and community organizations to ensure that those of our most vulnerable citizens who choose to attend our urban institutions in Minneapolis and St. Paul have optimal opportunities for access and success in school, in college, and in life. As our mission statements indicate, we seek to implement our "unwavering commitment to civic engagement" by developing collaborative initiatives that combine the strengths of our institutions of higher education to promote the common good for all members of our community.

Research Studies That Define Issues, Problems, and Practices

The problems we face are not new. Disparate levels of access to and success in school, higher education, and society have been recognized instances of inequality for decades. African Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups have experienced far less economic and academic success than the majority population for as long as researchers have tracked the data. While almost everyone expresses an interest in closing the gaps in achievement, income disparity, and high school and college graduation, society can point to only relatively modest improvements in the forty years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. In our own state of Minnesota, recent research reveals that high school graduation rates for Caucasians average 79%, while the rate for African American students is 44% (Swanson, 2006). The graduation rates for Hispanics and American Indians are similarly low. This scenario is repeated with only local variations in every urban center and every state in the country.

The good news is that we know what causes these disparities, and even better, we know how to correct them. To implement the necessary remedies, we need the political will, the institutional leadership, and the social awareness to put into practice policies and programs that will truly make a difference.

A recent report on dropouts, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, describes the world as seen from the perspective of those who leave high school. In The Silent Epidemic (Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Morison; 2006) we learn that almost half of students left school because classes "were not interesting (p. 3)." A majority (88%) had passing grades and 74% would have stayed in school if they had it to do over again. More importantly, the report tells us that students would have stayed in school if they "had courses and programs that provided opportunities for real-world learning, such as service-learning, vocational education, and internships." The notion of relevance and meaningful study is as important today as it was 30 years ago when much of the educational establishment promoted vocational education and civic curricula that connected young people with the community for career education, democratic knowledge and practice, and life-long learning.

Other studies, such as a report by national dropout expert Russell Rumberger, indicate that the issues of dropouts are complicated, and that academic achievement scores are not the only way to judge success in school (Rumberger and Palardy, 2005). They found that schools that are "effective in promoting learning (growth in achievement) may not necessarily be as effective in reducing dropouts or transfer rates (p.3)." Thus, programs designed to help youth achieve must also be equally concerned about preventing students from dropping out and about creating environments of stability and personal connection as they are about improving academic performance.

Still another major study, The Toolbox Revisited (Adelman, 2006), which follows a cohort of students from high school through postsecondary education, suggests there are aspects of their educational experience that can predict success in college matriculation. Several factors, including improved communication and outreach between postsecondary institutions and high schools, hold real potential for increasing success rates. Significant first-year credit generation (of 20 credits or more), high thresholds for course withdrawals (coupled with academic support), use of summer terms, avoiding delayed entry, and a high school curriculum of "academic resources" all help to ensure greater potential for graduation (p. xxv-xxvi). Yet, the report indicates, "despite increased participation of minority students in postsecondary education over the past quarter century, the gap in bachelor's degree completion between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and Latinos and African Americans, on the other, remains wide (p. xxv).

Finally, a special report in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Schools and Colleges" (March 10, 2006) provides much information about the challenge of preparing high school students for success in college and the programs and practices that seem to be making a difference. In many ways, this report captures the recommendations for practices from all the above mentioned studies that ensure that high school students are not only prepared for college, but they have a good chance of successfully graduating from institutions of higher education. Such suggestions include:

  • More rigorous academic preparation, including sufficient math, science, and language arts courses to ensure college level functioning;
  • More dual enrollment programs, through which high school students earn college credit while in high school and enter college with credits toward graduation;
  • More effective teachers, who can promote high-quality learning in an interesting, relevant, and engaging manner;
  • More opportunities for individualized instruction and support for struggling students, including tutoring, mentoring, and counseling;
  • More engaged, interesting curricula and programs that instill motivation and meaning in the high school and undergraduate experiences.

Creating Programs That Matter

Metropolitan State University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) have attended to this body of research as they have developed policies and programs that address the needs of their Minneapolis-St. Paul and suburban communities. This research tells us that policies, to be effective, must sustain long-term collaborative relationships with schools and communities (Haycock, March 2006); must provide opportunities for the university and college to work on teacher preparation and educational development; must provide courses and programs that support tutoring, mentoring, and other initiatives that help K-12 students and teachers; must endorse programs and practices that combine resources from higher education with schools and community groups; and must open doors and financial resources to support access to and success in higher education institutions. All of these programs come with the endorsement and blessing of the university and college presidents and faculty and ensure that personnel, financial resources, and vision will work continuously toward goals of improving the educational climate and outcomes for all our community members. The goals of social justice and meaningful civic engagement are not mere slogans, but guidelines for practice.

A few examples will illustrate what we mean. When it comes to long-term collaborations around educational issues, both Metropolitan State and MCTC are heavily involved in higher education/school/community connections. Support for area youth occurs through school programs such as College for Kids, Achieving Higher Education and Dreams (AHEAD), YOUniversity at Metropolitan State, and Career Pathway Day, Public Achievement Program, and summer career exploration camps at MCTC. These programs directly involve higher education faculty, staff, and students in programs that affect children and youth in the schools. Designed as enrichment efforts, these programs engage youth in fun, educational activities on college campuses. Designed to impact elementary and middle school youth, direct classroom instruction and field trips expand their educational horizons, supporting skill, knowledge, and attitudinal development.

In addition, Metropolitan State and MCTC support Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), a state program that allows high school students to participate in dual enrollment programs, taking college courses, often in their local high schools, and taught by college faculty, to both develop college level knowledge and skills and to provide them with early college credits so important to both access and success in higher education.

Metropolitan State and MCTC also support on-campus centers for service-learning and civic engagement. Such centers have been shown to be the single most important element on college campuses to ensure high-quality courses and programming (Bowley, 2003).

The Center for Community Based Learning (CCBL) at Metropolitan State (in its tenth year) and the newly developed Center for Civic Engagement at MCTC are working to develop courses and programs that continuously connect faculty, students, and resources with schools and community organizations for educational achievement and community development. Faculty workshops, coordination of AmeriCorps and VISTA personnel, and continuous communication with these groups ensure that higher education is an active partner in improving the education and quality of life for all our community members. These centers also represent strong commitments by the administrations to sustain infrastructures that support high-quality civic engagement initiatives.

As for teacher training and education, MCTC and Metropolitan State have created a fully-integrated initiative that supports teacher development from the beginning of college through the baccalaureate. MCTC's Urban Teacher Program is designed to attract students from under-represented minority and ethnic groups to engage in schools, to learn about urban schools and urban learners, and to prepare for careers in education. These students are involved in urban schools, working with students as tutors, mentors or coaches, and assisting teachers to instill innovative practices in their classrooms. Urban Teacher Program students are encouraged to continue their preparation at Metropolitan State and to matriculate into the Urban Teacher Education program, to become practicing teachers in our urban schools. In these programs, potential teachers learn of the importance of active learning, challenging curricula, personal connection, and meaningful, relevant educational programming for academic and personal success. These efforts provide a pipeline for individuals to learn, understand, actively engage, and make a difference in the education delivered in our inner cities.

Metropolitan State has taken the notion of community connections seriously by conducting a University-wide civic engagement audit in 2003. Surveying all stakeholders in the university, from the president, to faculty, to department chairs, to students, the MSU audit sought to determine the "level of penetration of civic connections" at the university. This resulted in discovering that almost 20% of our courses had community connections, and that some departments (Social Work, for example) were truly engaged departments (Shumer, 2003; Kesckces, 2006). A similar audit of MCTC revealed that 35% of faculty required service learning or other community-based activities. These audits, based on some of the great work produced by Campus Compact (Holland, Saltmarsh, and Zlotkowski, 2002; O'Meara and Kilmer, 1999), have laid a foundation for us to track the growth and expansion of civic engagement as an institutional phenomenon. We expect the model will be useful for other universities that are looking for auditing practices to show growth from simple connections to transformative outcomes.

The university has also entered into a rich community/higher education collaboration through its university-community library initiative. Working with community planning and advisory groups in St. Paul for more than a decade, the university was able to develop resources to build a library on its campus that combines the resources of Metropolitan State with the St. Paul Public Library system. The result has been a true partnership through which efforts are directed at engaging the entire community to improve educational and cultural programs. From the Homework Help Center, to the inclusion of library knowledge and skills in the AHEAD and College for Kids programs, to developing field trips for schools and community groups that serve minority/ethnic/cultural groups, to providing special English and second language learning for children and adults, to connecting faculty, teens, and the American Library Association through the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) project, this partnership is providing significant gains for our community in improving educational offerings for individuals of all ages.

MCTC also has promoted similar community initiatives, involving both public schools and community organizations. Several hundred Minneapolis high school students complete college readiness testing at the tenth or eleventh grade, early enough so they can address their college readiness issues before leaving high school. College instructors have regular meetings with Minneapolis high school teachers focused on alignment of curriculum, college readiness, and peer observations of teaching. In addition, MCTC staff members have regular assignments in all of the Minneapolis high schools, providing the opportunity for building relationships with students and staff that extends throughout the students' high school years. The Urban Teacher Program and manufacturing and construction trades career programs provide summer camps and after school career exploration programs for middle and high school students, targeting Latino, African American, and American Indian youth.

Community connections are enhanced through MCTC multicultural advisors who have weekly office hours at community centers in Hispanic, African American, and American Indian communities, reaching out not only to young people but also to adults and parents with information and advising about college-going. Community partnerships that have supported outreach to K-12 students include YMCA, African American Family Services, NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, Hospitality House Youth Directions, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Circle of Discipline, and Achieve!Minneapolis. The Urban Teacher and the Urban Park, Recreation and Youth Programs sponsor Front Porch community forums with community citizens and leaders where issues of the urban community are discussed and leadership training is provided.

In order to better address issues of access to and support for higher education, Metropolitan State University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College have initiated a new program, "The Power of You," to encourage and support high school youth to prepare for and enter postsecondary education. This program is designed to give high school students who meet appropriate criteria an incentive to prepare through the guarantee of free tuition and fees for the first two years of college. In addition, students who participate in the Power of You benefit from "reach-back" programs — tutoring and mentoring from college students. Such collaborations provide the human resources and the motivation to help both types of students achieve. Research has shown (Takahashi, 1991; Gallegos and Finkelstein, in press) that engagement in tutoring at the high school level can produce general success in grades and content knowledge for college students. In addition, the Power of You eliminates the significant and growing barrier that college costs now constitute for low income students and their families.


Providing broad access to and success in higher education is a foremost challenge to American society and particularly to its institutions of higher education, especially if we are to address the disparities between minority and majority populations in our inner cities and rural communities in achieving financial security and influence in society. A country cannot call itself socially just when it affords one group disproportionate access to educational opportunities that ultimately lead to better-paying jobs, increased indicators of personal and social success, and greater access to positions of power in government, in business, and in society as a whole. Neither is a society just when one group consistently achieves these goals at a rate significantly below another.

Institutions of higher education that have explicit missions of serving the populations in their immediate communities, especially those in urban centers, are making a difference by changing this social fabric. Institutions such as Metropolitan State University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College, by committing to long-term collaborative relationships with schools and community organizations (including government) and by supplying the policies, programs, and practices that support the personal and educational foundations of learning; that inspire young and old to achieve at levels important to adult success; that work with young people to enhance and improve their academic and social competence; that assist K-12 school systems to provide more active, engaged, and meaningful learning programs; and that provide the leadership and resources to ensure that access and success is a reality for all members of society, are fulfilling their roles as places where higher education serves the needs of all our citizens. While our society's widespread denial of equal educational access and subsequent academic and personal success has not yet been resolved, we believe that we are on our way to reaching this goal in the 21st century.

The authors are pleased to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Lois Bollman, Robert Shumer, and Susan Spring Shumer to the development of this paper.


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