What a difference a year makes. We had originally planned to host CCA’s Annual Convening in Atlanta, Georgia the week of October 26, 2020. But, like many of you, our best-laid plans went the way of the wind. We were forced to postpone the Annual Convening for the first time in the organization’s history, and chose to adopt a virtual format. But one constant remained: an unwavering focus on achieving equity in postsecondary education.

Although CCA has always been committed to eliminating equity gaps among students, two years ago we re-evaluated and reconsidered that notion and updated our language and our focus. Moving forward, we would work to close institutional performance gaps by serving as the leading national organization focused on equity in higher education through the transformation of postsecondary institutions. From our vantage point, institutional transformation can only take place when the policies, conditions for change and strategies implemented for student success include an intentional prioritization of racially-minoritized (Black, Indigenous and LatinX students) and historically-marginalized students (first-generation, working adults, parent educators, differently-abled, justice-involved youth or opportunity youth).

Last week, Complete College America introduced its new paradigm for communicating its Game Changer Strategies. It is a more encompassing framework consisting of four pillars which undergird the higher education enterprise—Purpose, Momentum, Structure and Support. Simply stated, the four pillars are the mechanisms needed for students to successfully matriculate in, persist and complete college. Within each pillar is a set of proven strategies, including the Game Changers you’ve come to know and love, that have successfully helped to eradicate barriers that have hindered students hoping to complete college. Actively advocating for and deploying these strategies at scale is the only way to achieve the national goal of ensuring the percentage of adults with college degrees and credentials of value hits 60% by the year 2025. We have five more years to expand college completion nationally, but we must change the focus from “fixing students” to “transforming systems and structures.”

The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and the struggling economy have widened the racial wealth gap, laying bare the case for postsecondary education as a public good for our country and an individual benefit for the graduate or credential-holder. Over the last nine months, these impacts have been felt most intensely by our country’s frontline workers and those who operate in roles that don’t require a postsecondary credential at any level. Higher ed can demonstrate that it is truly focused on dismantling institutional inequities to help historically-marginalized or historically-excluded learners obtain educational justice by democratizing access to postsecondary education—by making it more affordable and easier to navigate, and by supporting students with policies, practices and perspectives based on the ethos that “student failure is not an option.”

I am a firm believer that the “high tide lifts all boats” theory has not worked for the past 50 years, yet this notion has been the prevailing standard that states and institutions have applied in the name of facilitating student access and success. I posit that college completion rates have not increased to the level of pervasive, national scale because of an inherent lack of value placed on the lives of those who are most needed to participate in the enterprise and achieve these credentials. Postsecondary education should be considered a human right, especially in a world where not having one can have deleterious social, emotional, health, and other consequences and possessing one can disrupt cycles of intergenerational poverty through the redistribution of wealth.

In the closing lines of America’s Pledge of Allegiance, the author included the words, “…with liberty and justice for all.” CCA was inspired to adopt this phrase for CCA week because those words represent the goal for education and higher education, specifically. Liberty is a lofty aspiration that every human being yearns to achieve, but there are milestones on the road toward experiencing liberty that must first be achieved—equity is one such milestone. Until all citizens are treated equitably and the systems and structures of American institutions of any type (education, criminal justice, healthcare, etc.) that don’t support or perpetuate equity are re-examined, restructured, and in many cases, altogether dismantled, our country will never achieve liberty for all of its citizens. Similarly, justice is an extension of liberty in that it encompasses a sense of fairness and moral rightness which ensures that people “get what they deserve”—access to resources, opportunities and fair treatment. This… is the American dream.

In like fashion, higher education is one of the long-standing institutions whose ultimate product—a degree or credential of value—is capable of conferring liberty and justice to those who participate in the enterprise. But again, we can’t reach those ultimate ends without considering the question of equity. How are students who have been historically and intentionally excluded from higher education experiencing what it means to be a college student? Is access to courses equitably distributed in the institution’s offerings? Are opportunities for co-curricular engagement in internships and experiential learning (e.g., study abroad) widely and equitably communicated and facilitated in a manner that perpetuates access? Are certain types of students regarded as “college material” while others are not, and thus tracked into remedial or developmental education courses? How easy is it for students to transfer between institutions and have their credits accepted and applied toward the completion of their degree?

Equity must be the primary focus of higher education, not as a temporal consideration, but instead as a continuous feedback loop which allows us to formatively take the temperature of the sector and hold it accountable. Our workplaces have changed significantly since compulsory secondary education was instituted and some level of postsecondary education was required of many employees; today, postsecondary education should be considered a civil right in a civil society that confers its fullest benefits upon American citizens. And for the 44 million adults with some college but no credential, there are opportunities to make good on this aspect of the American dream.

As a catalyst for social, racial and economic justice, colleges and universities should counteract, not reflect or reinforce, the inequities we see in society, writ large. As the purveyor of the CCA Alliance—a network of networks—those of us at Complete College America are committed to building institutions that actively end systemic racism. To that end, our work must actively pledge allegiance to the pursuit and ultimate achievement of “equity and justice for all postsecondary students” through targeted institutional transformation efforts. An equitable focus on Purpose, Momentum, Structure and Supports puts us on the right path.