Broad Data Categories Undermine California Community Colleges’ Commitment to Student Success

August 18, 2016
California State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, author of The Ahead Act (AB1726) which would expand data disaggregation for AAPIs in California, speaks to supporters at a rally earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Twitter)
California State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, author of The Ahead Act (AB1726) which would expand data disaggregation for AAPIs in California, speaks to supporters at a rally earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Twitter)

By Guest Contributor: Ryan Khamkongsay, Institutional Researcher

If knowledge is power, then accurate data is the foundation of empowerment. We live in a world that is completely data driven—good data is crucial for doctors to make accurate diagnoses, for teachers to know what’s working in a classroom, for epidemiologists to stop global pandemics, and for policymakers to design effective solutions.

As an Institutional Researcher in the California Community College (CCC) system, I know that the lack of disaggregated data is a major barrier to strengthening the evidence-based practices for promoting access and equity in higher education. California Community Colleges are the quintessential “open access” college system serving the most diverse population in the nation. CCC’s are the gateway to higher education for nearly 2.6 million students annually within the 112 college campus and 71 off-campus centers. As researchers in the CCC system, we are tasked with identifying achievement and access gaps within our diverse student body, but the overly broad aggregate racial and ethnic categories that are currently used continue to mask dramatic disparities across ethnic sub-communities making them invisible to us. I also know this as a second-generation Laotian American and a California native who entered higher education through the community college system. Southeast Asian Americans, like my family, entered this country as refugees of war or genocide and have struggled with much lower than average incomes, English proficiency levels, and educational attainment. The community college system can be a gateway for Southeast Asian Americans and other low-income communities of color into both higher education and high-skilled jobs. But if researchers and policymakers are not able to “see” our community’s students, then they will not know how to adequately support them.

We must ask: Are higher education institutions using the best methodologies to properly measure equity and identify achievement gaps within our diverse student populations?

In 2012, Governor Brown signed the Student Success Act (SB1456), a legislative bill designed to improve educational outcomes for students and better prepare the workforce for California’s changing economy. This bill reaffirmed the value of focusing on student equity in the effort to improve student success in community colleges. The CCC system established a Task Force comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators to lead the Student Success Initiative. This initiative aimed to improve accountability and equity in the higher education system by analyzing data on students of color and other subgroups of students at the community college level to evaluate strategies and identify promising interventions to improve student success.

The Task Force recommended that the CCC system collect and report progress and outcome measures in each community college to identify certain student subgroups more vulnerable to “disproportionate impact”– a condition where access to key resources and support may be hampered by inequitable practices or policies. The results of the analysis may assist the system in understanding how each institution is performing in educating historically disadvantaged populations whose academic success is vital to the future of the state.

To assess equity across racial subgroups, colleges analyzed ethnicity data available from two sources: the CCCCO Data Mart and Data on Demand, which provide aggregate data for American Indians or Alaskan natives, Asians or Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites. Using overly broad definitions of race/ethnicity are likely to capture an inaccurate measurement of disproportionate impact of its student population, particularly for diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students. The lack of disaggregated data for AAPIs throws into question the ability of the CCC system to accurately identify some high-need student populations, like Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander students, that would benefit from targeted outreach and assistance.

The Student Success Initiative is built on an affirmative premise of promoting success for all students, regardless of race, gender, age, disability, or economic circumstances. But if the CCC system continues to use overly broad racial/ethnic guidelines to assess education equity, it will continue to ignore the needs of certain AAPI student subgroups, while reinforcing the barriers that prevent them from succeeding. Only by disaggregating data on these subgroups are CCC administrators able to see these important patterns and devise interventions to promote student achievement. If institutional researchers, administrators, policymakers are to serve racially diverse college student populations effectively, then they must truly evaluate and address the diverse needs within those populations as our country’s demographics continue to shift dramatically.

Impeding access to meaningful information has unethical implications, especially if that information can otherwise empower marginalized communities. If policymakers continue to ignore the importance of disaggregating data, it is a social injustice to not only Laotian and other Asian Americans, but to our society as a whole.

Act Now: Sign this petition to demand that the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown pass AB1726, a bill to disaggregate public health and higher education data for AAPIs.

Ryan Khamkongsay
Ryan Khamkongsay

Ryan Khamkongsay is a Research Analyst focusing on the areas of student success and institutional effectiveness. Ryan has worked with non-profit organizations and grassroots networks in building their research capacity and leveraging data to empower the underrepresented communities they serve. Outside of his current work in institutional research, he is an advocate for Laotian and other Southeast Asian Americans.

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