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Field Notes

Reflections on Leading a Strategic Planning Process with the HOPE Initiative at Bunker Hill Community College 

Omotoyosi Saint-Cyr
May 15, 2024

In this field note, we reflect on the strategic planning process we recently completed with the Halting Oppressive Pathways to Education (HOPE) Initiative at Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, Massachusetts. Drawing upon our learnings from this project, we share our thoughts on the essential conditions for success of the free community college funding program recently approved by Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey.

In 2023, Governor Maura Healey’s Administration and Massachusetts Department of Higher Education announced the launch of MassReconnect, a program aimed at making community colleges more affordable and accessible for students aged 25 and older across the Commonwealth. MassReconnect covers tuition and fees and offers an allowance to cover books and other school supplies as well. Eligibility requires students to be permanent legal residents who have resided in Massachusetts for a minimum of one year and who have not previously obtained an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. All 15 of Massachusetts’ public community colleges participate in this initiative.

We know this program represents a critical step in ensuring college accessibility for all. Data indicates that completing community college results in significant improvements in employment and income, with certain fields experiencing a salary boost of up to $14,100.  Yet, there are nearly two million Massachusetts residents over the age of 25 without a college degree, and initiatives like MassReconnect could help alleviate the enrollment barriers they face. However, we also know that college accessibility goes beyond tuition. Student surveys indicate that while the high cost of tuition is mentioned by nearly half of the students as a reason for dropping out within a year of enrolling in a community college, other barriers include  high living expenses, unpredictable schedules, the challenges of balancing work and studies, parenting responsibilities, difficulty with studies, a lack of strong study connections, and insufficient  advising information for success or graduation.

Removing the financial barrier is a game changer, especially in an expensive state like Massachusetts, and should be applauded, AND we believe that more initiatives to address the other barriers mentioned above should also be prioritized. Our recent work with HOPE provides us with a case study of what’s possible.

The HOPE program at Bunker Hill focuses on eliminating social, institutional, and academic barriers hindering males of color from reaching their full potential in college. HOPE achieves this by transforming how the college operates and collaborating with students to intentionally navigate the system. Using an asset-based approach, HOPE provides tailored programming activities, including mentorship, affinity-based events, tutoring, coaching, and student advising to eliminate academic barriers. Additionally, the HOPE team conducts policy reviews, Think Days, research, and collaboration with other college offices to eliminate administrative barriers. Why does this matter? Studies across U.S. colleges have found that simple processes like registration, orientation, or making payments can be unclear on many campuses. It is important to consider that community colleges cater to a diverse population, including parents, first-generation students from low-income communities, English learners, and recent immigrants. These students do not have the luxury of time to navigate bureaucratic and non-transparent processes. The HOPE initiative identifies these types of barriers and collaborates with students and administrators to address and rectify them.

So what are our key learnings? With the removal of the funding/enrollment barrier, colleges can better address persistence and retention issues by:

  • Creating spaces to regularly gather student feedback and taking steps to address issues and barriers
  • Increasing investment in student advising through hiring additional staff, including mental health support teams and resource navigators for graduation success.
  • Being intentional in the simplification and dissemination of new and existing policies (transfer, credits, etc.), to ensure that students promptly receive them. 
  • Partnering with community organizations to enhance access to resources like food (establishing food pantries on campus if unavailable) and other basic necessities.
  • Partnering with private sector organizations to create internships and experiential learning opportunities for students.

Funders in the higher education space in Massachusetts should also consider investing in initiatives like HOPE. This investment not only aligns with the state’s priorities but also contributes to increased retention and eventually higher graduation rates, leading to a more educated workforce, higher income for citizens, and benefits to the community as a whole. 


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