Higher Ed Spotlight #4: Expanding opportunity

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Author Sharon Spaulding addresses tactics to allow universities, specifically UConn, to create opportunities for marginalized communities. File photo/The Daily Campus

If education is truly a means of social mobility, then in a highly unequal society, to what extent should a publicly funded institution consider itself responsible for expanding educational opportunities to those on whom the burden of inequality falls most heavily? 

As I promised to in the first installment of my series on higher education, before I dig into how this question might be answered for the University of Connecticut, I’ll consider the question through the lens of a creative and unconventional educational program, The Care Center. 

The Care Center is a nationally recognized institution devoted to helping young mothers, many of whom are living in poverty, to achieve long-term economic stability for themselves and their children through access to higher education. The Care Center’s model is unique for a number of reasons. The center provides free childcare to their students, as well as free transportation to and from the center. They offer HiSET (High School Equivalency exam) prep classes, but these classes aren’t only about passing the exam; instead, the Care Center models their high school level program after private college preparatory high schools. They have small class sizes, an arts curriculum and athletic programs. Students visit local museums, produce their own literary magazine and attend talks given by visiting writers. Counselors meet with students to provide consistent support and assistance throughout the college application process. For women who already have passed the HiSET, the Care Center offers courses that give women credit towards an Associate of Arts degree through a partnership with Bard College.   

“If education is truly a means of social mobility, then in a highly unequal society, to what extent should a publicly funded institution consider itself responsible for expanding educational opportunities to those on whom the burden of inequality falls most heavily? “

The Care Center exists to fulfill a very specific need to provide educational opportunities for young mothers in a way that lessens the barriers present in traditional educational environments. The specificity and unconventionality of their approach may make their efforts and goals seem removed from the responsibilities and focuses of a large, public institution like UConn. 

Yet, their existence as a response to an unmet need should cause us to question why those needs continue to be unmet. This question is especially pertinent for public institutions, which have a responsibility to provide equal accessibility and opportunity to the public for the services it provides. In particular, for a large university like UConn which has established infrastructure, already built-up programs and existing partnerships with community colleges across the state; there are many ways that UConn is in a unique position to expand accessibility in higher education for young mothers. Here are just a couple:  

Early College Experience:  Many high schools across the state offer numerous UConn courses to students through the ECE (Early College Experience) program which allows students to earn UConn credit for courses taken at their high schools. Similar to Bard’s partnership with the Care Center that allows women to take humanities courses for credit at Bard, UConn could partner with community organizations (such as adult education programs which most towns have) to offer ECE courses for free to young mothers. The benefit of doing so is that it would not require women to directly enroll in community colleges which may or may not be in their hometowns. Also, the accessibility of UConn credit for the courses might make it more likely for the women to pursue a four-year degree, which might further expand their economic opportunities in the future. UConn also already has many ECE certified teachers all across the state who would be qualified to teach these courses. 

mother holding her baby
Author Sharon Spaulding suggests UConn incorporate a partnership with community colleges to make higher education more accessible to young mothers. Photo by Kristina Paukshtite on Pexels.com

GAP Program: UConn already partners with community colleges in the state through its Guaranteed Acceptance program (GAP). UConn could work with these partners to create more programs modeled after the Care Center’s model that remove barriers to education by providing more one-on-one support and childcare to young mothers.  

UConn’s satellite campuses: UConn already has an established presence and physical buildings in towns and cities outside of Storrs. They could use some, or even just one, of these buildings in one of these cities such as Hartford to create a “microcollege” modeled after the Care Center. Since the building would be close to or on an already existing UConn campus, faculty could easily teach courses at the microcollege without having to commute to a different location. The microcollege could benefit from proximity to a UConn campus through participation in events and extracurriculars that would mimic The Care Center’s approach to liberal arts education.  

Of course, deciding on the most practical and efficient ways for UConn to focus on expanding opportunities to young mothers with the same level of dedication as the Care Center is a complex process that requires more analysis of existing programs. Yet, deciding to do so isn’t entirely independent of UConn’s own willingness to do so.

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