Playing “Cultural Competence” Catch Up in Higher Education

September 25th, 2015
Brad Phillips, President/CEO, Institute of Evidence Based Change

By Brad Phillips, President/CEO, Institute of Evidence Based Change

Originally posted on

When Latinos became the largest ethnic group in California this month, it was a headline-making milestone. While fairly old news (the data is from 2012), higher education is painfully slow in realizing that the student population looks significantly different than it did just 10 years ago.

Cultural competency efforts that have been in effect in health care and K-12 for nearly 20 years are just getting started at many colleges. The cultural competence concept originated in health care when providers became aware of communication challenges that stemmed from cultural differences between practitioners (usually not diverse) and patients (often much more diverse). No matter what the cause — lack of awareness, understanding and even respect — the unacceptable results in education are disparate outcomes in student learning and achievement.

To help accelerate equity and opportunity, the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, in collaboration with Educational Testing Service (ETS) will host a webinar series for California Community College faculty, administrators and staff.

The exceptionally high registrations show college campuses know this work is important. They know this work requires bias checking, reflection and rethinking to deliver culturally relevant education to every student regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, language proficiency and a host of other identities. Here are four ways higher education can move from mere compliance to maximizing student potential:

1. Move beyond “competence” to proficiency. Cultural “competence” is not good enough for our students and the kind of future they aspire to. If education is to truly be in the opportunity-making business, college educators must go beyond tolerating or accepting diversity to achieve cultural proficiency. This requires more than just attending a three-day professional development course. Cultural proficiency becomes a set of beliefs and actions that lead educators to continuously provide relevant, challenging learning experiences and opportunities to grow. Cultural proficiency is a standard that changes how education is delivered to improve student learning and preparation for career and life. How will we know students are learning and experiencing the right things to succeed? We measure. Which leads to…

2. Use data metrics that improve response time. Too often the success or failure of education is measured after the fact. Education reporting and data collection systems almost exclusively focus on metrics like graduation rates, test scores, and even employment, which are reported too late to be acted upon. While important and representative of goals we as a nation must attain, they are not designed to help those in the delivery of education do the work required to meet those goals. Drivers of education need indicators they can respond to in time to make a difference for students. These “leading” indicators can include attendance, performance on assignments, participation, grades and progressing from course to course. For example, when faculty and student advisors look at class retention rates by various student groups, they are can address student needs earlier, when it can make more of a difference.

3. Recognize that diversity is much more … diverse. Creating a culture of learning is far broader than just race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and other common categories used to monitor progress serving “minority” and underserved populations. California’s community colleges equity initiative uses only seven categories: race/ethnicity, gender, age, veterans, disability, foster youth and income. While important populations, these categories miss a host of students who struggle. Consider native language, sexual orientation, age, job experiences, geography, access to and experience with technology and more.

Instead of checking seven boxes, higher education will accomplish more by intentionally reaching students where they are, not where colleges would like students to be.

4. Change beliefs and practice. There are many lists shared in cultural competency trainings that provide guidance on what educators should do. The lists assume that if educators know what to do, they will do it. But without the “how to,” it rarely happens. EdSource recently published an op-ed with advice for campuses to use the state’s unprecedented student equity funding to deliver better results for students. It warned campus administrators to stop assuming they know what’s best for students and do the research necessary to connect with each and every student in ways that have never been done before. For example, research shows that students learn more in diverse environments, but most students self-select to be in groups with students who are most like them. Educators are encouraged to intentionally create diverse working groups by blending age, geography, ethnicity, religion, political ideology and even size. Students will come to understand how they can learn the most from people who do not look or act like them.


With fewer than half of students earning a degree in less than six years, there is a growing sense of impatience to achieve cultural proficiency in higher education. California’s community college system is struggling to support students’ needs and squandering precious time, money and talent. It is increasingly understood that disparate education quality hurts students’ chances to succeed in life and persist at our nation’s economic and moral peril.

As the most diverse state in the nation, California has a competitive edge over other states and countries with aging homogenous populations. But it’s an edge that depends on higher education to extend degrees with value to more students. Becoming culturally proficient is really just good teaching for any student type, because it aims to maximize human potential and minimize barriers. This is higher education’s purpose. Let’s stick to it.