Portrait of Ajita Menon.

No More Rationalizations – Education Can Innovate For Those It Has Not Served

“We can’t actually face what we’re seeing in the world around us and continue to rationalize over and over old ways of doing things, that we know don’t work, for the communities that need us the most.”  

Those words, from Calbright College president Ajita Talwalker Menon, spoke to the need for innovation across higher education.  The communities that need support the most are the ones least served by business-as-usual.

This can be seen in outcomes nation-wide, as enrollment has dropped across most sectors of post-secondary education. Community colleges have been particularly hard hit, seeing a 10% drop in students.  Enrollment of Black students at community colleges declined nearly 25%.

“All the data on the pandemic has warning indicators for us really on the disproportionate impacts that are threatening equity for women and racial and ethnic minorities,” Menon said.  “And it’s really hard for me to look at the facts and still think that public higher education is doing all that it should be to really be the great equalizer. It feels very difficult to look at this data and not feel anything but a fury in our gut towards action.”

She was presenting the Frank Rhodes lecture at Arizona State University, where the need for innovation in higher education to better serve marginalized populations was well understood.  

“There’s nothing fair about or equitable about the way that higher education works in the United States,” ASU President Michael Crow said in his introduction of Menon.  “Half the people that enter the higher education system in the United States never graduate.  They have no degree or no diploma.  Half the people that have received Pell grants since 1980 have no degree and no diploma.  People that were raised in the lower quartile of family incomes in the last 50 years, less than 10% of them have attained college degrees.  And that’s only minimally changed in the last 50 years.  And so clearly whatever we’ve been doing is necessary, but insufficient. Whatever we’ve been doing has been useful, but not useful enough.  Whatever we’ve been doing has been innovative but not innovative enough.”

Menon said that Calbright was designed specifically to innovate, and has been adjusting its approach to serving students accordingly.

Calbright was already focused on Competency Based Education (CBE) prior to the pandemic, and targeted specific skills for specific types of jobs.  Since then it has added focus on teaching broader skills, like digital literacy, which are transportable between industries.

The idea of offering services like this to Calbright’s targeted population of working adults without degrees, particularly women and members of marginalized communities, encounters a lot of resistance, Menon acknowledged.  She said she understands: innovative changes often find objections. But she does not accept the idea that some people can’t be helped by online education.

“Think about what it means when somebody says that. It suggests that there are entire cross-sections of the community that they believe can’t adapt to a digital future. That should strike us as unconscionable,” she said.

That, in the end, was Menon’s message:  that we can do better, we can be more innovative to support those who our education systems have not supported, and that California is leading the change.

See President Menon’s presentation at the Frank Rhodes Lecture Series.

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