Students who are Multilingual Learners of English (MLE) play an important role in U.S. society but are often marginalized, misunderstood, and underserved in the postsecondary system. WestEd and Student-Ready Strategies’ recent report, Translating Opportunity: Improving Postsecondary Pathways for Multilingual Learners of English, examines the opportunities and challenges for MLE students navigating the postsecondary system. The report offers recommendations that can help educators, institutional leaders, policymakers, service providers, advocates, researchers, and funders better serve this diverse population with effective and equitable policies, programs, and structures.
Reshaping higher education to strengthen pathways and better serve MLE students requires institutional commitment, leadership, and consensus building. This interview features Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, the new Chancellor of Austin Community College and former President of Amarillo College in Texas, in conversation with Amy Getz, Senior Program Associate at WestEd, as they explore how the report’s findings intersect with the experiences and perspectives of a community college president.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Community college presidents juggle many competing priorities. How do you see pathways for MLE students fitting into those priorities?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: In the community college sector, any leader worth her or his weight understands demographically who their students are and who their community is. … Amarillo was a refugee site for Catholic Family Services, and we had 46 different languages that were primary languages in Amarillo College. If we were going to care about the future of our community, we had to care about the 20 percent of our population that needed language support and build that into the pathway—not just as an add-on or a “wish for” [at the college].
Data in your community will tell you how big a priority [support for multilingual learners] should be. … When [we] looked at the educational attainment rate and the poverty rates in our community, [the links] between poverty, language, and educational attainment were so direct that it was clear we had to engage [multilingual] populations as partners in the economic future of the community, not just as a group that we wished someone else would serve. Our data told us that this need was only going to grow.
Community colleges are not going to be able to survive by only enrolling high school graduates. We have to engage the 35–55-year-olds who need a skill or a degree but might not think they have the language skills or experiences they need to access those degrees. They are the economic and enrollment future of our colleges, and we’re not set up for them. That’s why they became a priority for me at Amarillo College. I think they will be a priority for me here at Austin Community College as well.
Q: How did you make the case to your community that supporting MLE students through their pathways is a priority?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: The economic argument is profound and important. There are true economic reasons to serve and support ESL [English as a Second Language] populations. … In Amarillo, I made the economic argument that you can look at the demographic shifts, and you can be afraid of it, or you can get out in front of it and embrace it and make ourselves leaders for the rest of the country. But if we don’t figure out how to serve and love MLE students to success … your economic future is related to their success, your valuation of your home is related to their success, and your low tax rates are related to ensuring that these populations get degrees that lead to family-sustaining wages. And if you can’t economically serve this group, it’s going to affect your economic prospects. We had to show how the data made that case.
Q: In our recent report, we found that the lack of alignment between Adult Basic Education (ABE) and community college ESL programs is a barrier to students. What advice would you give community college presidents about how to work with their ABE partners?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: Go find who all of your [ABE] partners are. Host them in your office and thank them for being the unsung heroes of your community, and ask them how you can support and partner with them. If you don’t have those partners, invest in your own infrastructure. The return on that investment is significant. Look at investments in ESL and Adult Basic Ed as investments that are going to have a return on your bottom line because you are going to get more students into the pipeline as a result of those partnerships.
Q: Research also shows that students who were in ESL programs in K–12 are less likely to matriculate into postsecondary. What role do you think community colleges should play in addressing this inequity?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: I think community colleges can be the solution for that inequity. We already have some of the infrastructure. I think we just have to be intentional about how we communicate and build relationships, not just with one student, but with their families. … When we started [building relationships with students] at Amarillo College, what we found was that family members started enrolling as well because it became a family experience. They found support and safety [at the community college].
Dual credit can be an effective way to build trust with MLE families before they become community college students, but none of these fixes can happen in a silo. It’s going to require partnerships with school districts, the nonprofit community, the religious community, and the business community to build the kind of relational trust that our ESL families need to walk into our spaces and take the risk to engage in the pathways we need to build for them. But if we can build that kind of intentional trust across the sectors, you will not find a group of students that will accelerate as quickly [as MLE students do] and bring other people into the fold as a result.
Q: If you had a magic wand, what would you change to increase opportunities for MLE students?
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart: That [community colleges] see ESL as central to our mission, not as a stand-alone program separate from the college. What I see in our most effective institutions is that ESL is brought into the college as a full partner that is engaged in the same conversations as corequisites, as advising, as career exploration. … What I fear is that the majority of our ESL programs are put on the side and are seen as auxiliary programs that we like to say we offer but we don’t privilege, invest in, or highlight.
Our ESL students and our ESL colleagues have to be full partners. It was really important to me at Amarillo College that our ESL and our Adult Basic Ed students were treated as college students. They got an ID, they had access to services, and we treated them as our students because they were our students. They got intentional advising that linked them to a pathway to a family-sustaining wage from the very beginning, not after they completed the ESL program.
So, if I had a magic wand, I would make all of that intentional, up front, seamless, where students didn’t have to seek it and colleges didn’t have to wonder where it lived. It just lived as a full partner [in the college] with every other aspect of serving our students.