With The Highest Hispanic Student Population In State, Norwalk Community College Wins Federal Grant

Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews.com
As the fall semester began, Norwalk Community College (NCC) found that its Hispanic enrollment, already the highest for any college in Connecticut, had grown to an all-time record for the college of about 37 percent of the student body, or nearly 2,100 students.
The two-year public college already had seen its Hispanic enrollment increase from 29.8 percent of students in the fall 2012 to 33.9 percent in the fall 2015. In addition, a preliminary head count for this year strongly suggested that this demographic trend would continue. Hispanics comprise 45 percent of the incoming or new students, which is the biggest group the college has experienced, said Vanessa Morest, dean of institutional effectiveness.
Accompanying the continued increase in Hispanic students and a large overall minority enrollment, at least 60 percent when African-Americans are included, are ongoing challenges that need to be addressed for the college to fulfill the role it has accepted in combating poverty in the ten-town Fairfield County service area.
These challenges go beyond the fact that NCC’s student body comes from 80 countries and speaks 54 different languages, with many coming from households where English is not the primary language.
Most NCC students are the first in their family to attend college. Also, the student body is drawn from an area of southwestern Connecticut where 17 percent of Hispanic families live in poverty, as compared to 2.4 percent of whites. The school’s service area includes many affluent suburbs, but the bulk of its students are from the urban areas of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport.
Consequently, like many community colleges across the nation, which serve as an entry point into higher education for millions of Hispanics, NCC has experienced a sizable first-year dropout rate and a below average graduation record, just 14 percent according to the U.S. Dept. of Education scorecard.
For several years, NCC has been developing a vision of how to best help Hispanics and other at-risk students achieve academic success at the community college level and beyond. However, full implementation of these proposed initiatives has been slowed by limited resources.
However, this year the financial situation has changed significantly. NCC has received a $2.3 million individual development grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Title V Program. This is a competitive program and NCC was among the 22 institution nationally chosen to receive the 2016 HSI awards, which provide support to colleges where at least 25 percent of the enrollment is Hispanic students.
NCC President David L. Levinson said the grant will bring the college resources to help it “create a culture of inclusion and excellence through intellectual inquiry, open dialogue, multicultural awareness and lifelong learning.”
The HSI allocation will fund a NCC program titled “The Student Success Collaborative: Transforming Student Pathways to Credentials and Beyond.” This program will allow the college to redesign its orientation process and enact strategies to help Hispanic and other low-income students progress from “admission to degree completion,” according to NCC’s announcement of the grant.
“This is an exciting time for the college,” said Morest, who is heavily involved in the research and planning of programs to help students fulfill their learning potential.
NCC, which is part of the 90,000-student Connecticut State University System, is one of only three Connecticut community colleges to meet the HSI enrollment criteria, the others being Capital CC (27.3 percent) in Hartford and Housatonic CC (29 percent) in Bridgeport, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and University. About half of the 435 HSI schools are four-year colleges and most are found in California, Texas and Puerto Rico.
The primary goals of NCC’s grant is to increase retention of students, currently 61 percent after the first year; increase student achievement, which includes how well they are earning credits; and to improve the graduation rates.
The planned activities include redesign of student orientation, advising and registration programs, build in academic support in 18 “gateway courses” and establish learning communities, according to the HSI report on the grant.
There are also plans to establish what NCC describes as “in-ground and virtual Learning Commons to provide meeting rooms, learning spaces and areas where students, faculty and staff can access resources, such as in-person and online tutoring, advice, transfer support for those wanting to continue beyond the college’s two-year program and career services.
“The Hispanic students do quite well academically,” Morest noted, “but a significantly lower percentage transfer to four-year colleges.” She said this can be due to financial issues and lack of knowledge about the transfer process.
“We have to provide more guidance,” she said, and NCC plans to do more to communicate its policies not only to students, but also to their parents, particularly in regard to financial aid.
The set up of the Learning Commons will take some time, Morest said, explaining that the college is currently doing some updating of its buildings and overhauling its student union/cafeteria area.
NCC is currently in the planning phase to map out how to best use the grant, Morest said. The first order of business, she added, will be to recruit someone to direct the use of this grant. There also is a need to work on professional development internally and strengthen online resources.
The grant also comes with a schedule of reports that the college will need to provide information about what it is doing and there will be an external evaluation to provide feedback, Morest said.
The college also has several established programs focusing on the needs of its Hispanic and at-risk students. These include providing Spanish-speaking mentors and programs that work with low-income students. There also is a freshman seminar that helps introduce students to college academics and a variety of activities which are specific to Hispanic students.
Each year the college provides English as a Second Language instruction to 1,500 students, according to Levinson. Many of the ESL students are immigrants who have degrees and professions in the homeland, but need greater English proficiency to work in this country.
The school’s ten-town service area stretches from Fairfield to Greenwich. This year, the largest enrollment, 2,065 students according to preliminary figures, is from Stamford, followed by Norwalk, 1,668 students, and Greenwich, 434 students.
Norwalk CC also draws 400-500 students a year from Bridgeport, where Housatonic CC, is located. This situation stems in part, Morest said, from many of these people working in the Norwalk area.
Hispanic enrollment is generally higher than its general percentage of the population, 15 percent, throughout the 12 two-year institutions that are part of the Connecticut State University System, which includes four universities and an online college. Overall, the community colleges have 52,000 students enrolled with 22.8 percent classified as Hispanic.
In southwest Connecticut, Puerto Ricans remain the largest Hispanic group, but this situation has become more diversified in recent years. Among the school’s Hispanic population, there are large groups of students from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru at NCC, Morest noted.
By embracing the diverse needs of its students, faculty, staff and community, “Levinson said, “the college will provide an environment where all are empowered to achieve their highest potential.”