Seeing the Potential in All Students: A Q&A with Michele Siqueiros

Insights & Outlooks: As a first-generation high school and college graduate, what comes to mind when you think about the idea of putting students first?

Michele Siqueiros: My mother comes to mind—she was always my higher education champion. She did not have the opportunity to attend college, but she encouraged my success early on. Though she only made minimum wage, $3.35 an hour at the time, she gave me $20 for every “A” I earned.

In the same way, my mother planned for and rewarded my success, colleges and universities must plan for their students to be successful. Too often our institution leaders see flaws before seeing potential. Instead, they must see every student who steps onto campus as a future graduate. Our leaders must implement student-focused policies that prepare every student to get through college and leave with degree in-hand.

Insights & Outlooks: Today’s students are more diverse than any previous generation in race, ethnicity, age, and country of origin. What are best practices that exist that institutions can use to help promote student success in light of the immense of diversity of higher education?

Michele Siqueiros:Our college and state leaders cannot beat around the bush when it comes to tackling degree attainment gaps between White, Black, Latinx and other students from diverse backgrounds. Nor can they hide behind “commitments to diversity” without the actions to back up those commitments. Our leaders need to ensure that all polices and practices implemented on campus are examined with the lens of racial equity.

To do this, institutional leaders should collect data disaggregated by race and ethnicity to better understand which students are completing college and which students are most supported or hindered by policies and campus programs. Data shows us where improvement is needed.

This also means leaders must review transfer culture, scrutinize their course placement practices, and hire faculty, staff, and leadership that reflect the diversity of their student body.

Insights & Outlooks: California public institutions have had a strong focus on improving transfer pathways between institutions. Can you tell us more about how improve credit transfer, dual enrollment, and reverse transfer can help more students succeed?

Michele Siqueiros:Improving transfer pathways is critical to ensuring student success. In California, the majority of college students start at a community college. These students are often finding that it takes much too long to transfer. Our data show that only 4 percent of California community college students transfer after two years, and only 38 percent transfer after six years. We need to simplify the transfer process and, in turn, decrease the time and money students spend attempting to transfer. In our state, that often means colleges need to get creative about promoting transfer pathways like the Associate Degree for Transfer and Guided Pathways to their students to ensure that students understand what opportunities are available to them.

Insights & Outlooks: California has made important strides to improve higher education accountability with strong support from equity advocates and the civil rights community. Can you tell us about the role that equity provisions played in California’s new recently-passed performance-based funding law?

Michele Siqueiros: The community colleges serve the most diverse population of students in California higher education, so equity must play a role in how the community colleges are funded.

The Student Success Funding Formula includes a new lens of equity that hasn’t been seen in the previous ways we’ve funded our community colleges. Now, community colleges will be funded not only based on how many students they enroll, but also provided additional funding to support low-income students and for successful student outcomes. The new funding formula incentivizes colleges to implement policies that support students in getting their degree or transferring.

Insights & Outlooks: What are the three policy solutions that Campaign for College Opportunity supports that can help put the interests of students first and improve college access and success?

Michele Siqueiros: I can only recommend three?

Student success is an economic imperative for the state of California. Our state will need 1.65 million more adults with college degrees and credentials by 2030 in order to keep up with our workforce demands. That’s why the Campaign for College Opportunity alongside several business, civil rights, student, and community leaders have called upon our governor to set a degree attainment goal of 60 percent of adults with college degrees or credentials by 2030. We outlined a number of policy solutions our state leaders can implement to reach this goal, including:

  • Expanding access to our four-year universities by addressing the admission caps at the California State University and University of California. Funding provided for more seats on our campuses means more students have the opportunity to earn a degree.
  • Reforming remedial education through legislation that is successfully implemented at the community colleges. For far too long, high-stakes placement tests that do not fully assess a student’s abilities to succeed in college determined whether or not a student was “college-ready.” This one test could sentence students to remedial courses for several years, decreasing the likelihood that they will graduate in a reasonable amount of time, or at all. That is why we supported the passage of AB 705 and AB 1805, legislation that encourages colleges to give students more access to college-level courses when they arrive on campus.  
  • Expanding financial aid and prioritizing aid for low-income students. Low-income families face significant barriers in paying for college. The cost to attend a university in California for the state’s lowest-income families is about 77 percent of their income, compared to just 14 percent for high-income families. We must provide more opportunity for students with the greatest financial need receive the support to attend college.

Insights & Outlooks: In the past, you have talked about ensuring that colleges are student-ready just as we work to ensure students are college-ready. What are some of the practices that you believe institutions can adopt right away that will help them to truly put students first?

Michele Siqueiros: I had the pleasure of listening to Michelle Obama share her educational journey during her tour for her latest book Becoming. The former First Lady shared that in the second grade, it was clear to her that her teacher did not believe in the students. Mrs. Obama could tell she wasn’t learning what she needed to learn from that instructor. She explained that students, even very young students, know when they’re not being given the right tools to succeed and when they aren’t believed in.

The same can be said for college students. College and university faculty should see their students as successful, and in doing so, work to ensure those students are given every opportunity to earn their degrees. To do this, they must collect data, set goals that ensure students get to and through their campus in a timely manner, and be transparent with their students about the options available to them for financial aid, for course placement, for transfer pathways, and for any additional support offered to students.

Insights & Outlooks: What is a favorite podcast or show that you’re listening to or watching currently and why?

Michele Siqueiros: I enjoy listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR. She always interviews interesting individuals. Whether its Danny Trejo, James Comey, or Maurice Sendak – you walk away feeling like you were eavesdropping on a conversation. She does so much homework on her subjects that often you learn something incredibly interesting about their life, their struggles, and how they are making a difference in the world.