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October 08, 2010

The Community College Summit

Richard Kahlenberg

This was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The White House recently held its Summit on Community Colleges, giving “the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education a bit more of the respect they deserve,” as Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel notes.  One enormous concern is funding, as cash-strapped community colleges are forced to turn away growing numbers of students, or teach classes beginning at 6 am because classroom space is so scarce.

But as participants gather, I’d like to raise another issue of concern: the need to take steps to prevent community colleges from becoming essentially separate institutions to educate poor, working class and minority students.  

According to research by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl reported in The Century Foundation’s book, Rewarding Strivers, the socioeconomic and racial makeup of the community college population – which has always been poorer and more heavily tilted toward students of color than four-year colleges – has become even more skewed in recent years.

Whites constituted 73% of the community college population in 1994, but that figure dropped to 58% by 2006.  Black and Hispanic students represented 21% of students at community colleges in 1994; but by 2006, the figure had grown to 33%.  Some of this change reflects growing diversity in the population as a whole, but some of it reflects white flight.

Changes in socioeconomic composition are even more clear (and reflect no shifting demographics, as economic quartiles stay constant.)  In 1982, students from the top socioeconomic quarter of the population made up 24% of the students at community colleges; by 2006, that had dropped to 16%.  Conversely, the representation of the poorest quarter of the population has grown at community colleges from 21% to 28% in the same time period.

There are many excellent community colleges in this country, but it would be unfortunate if the first instinct of poor and minority college-bound students were to attend institutions which spend far fewer resources on them than four-year colleges, and where only 10% of entering students end up receiving a bachelor’s degree.

In K-12 education, researchers have long known that concentrations of poverty result in unequal educational opportunities and policymakers have proposed two sets of solutions – programs to allow low-income urban students to transfer to middle-class suburban schools and magnet schools to attract middle-class students to schools in poor areas.  Should higher education adopt similar models?

The University of California has long facilitated a formal pipeline from two-year to four-year institutions, and new research from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation finds that talented community college students can transfer and thrive in even the most selective four-year colleges and universities.  The foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative, begun in 2005, has allowed community college students to transfer to eight highly selective four-year institutions – Amherst, Bucknell, Cornell, Mount Holyoke, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California.  Preliminary data suggest the transfer students have comparable grade point averages and graduation rates to non-transfer students.

Such programs should be expanded.  But more thinking should also be provided to attracting middle-class and upper-middle class students to community colleges, by creating new programs and devoting greater resources, just as magnet schools do.  At a conference in which the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced its findings about its transfer initiative, Carnevale floated the idea of creating three-year community college degrees.  Other ideas should be explored as well.

Of course, the sluggish economy may by itself push more newly strapped middle-class students into community colleges, and Wessel worries that this development could dilute the special  mission that community colleges have to serve low-income students.  But an influx of middle-class students into community colleges should be welcome, for the unmistakable lesson of American education is that separate instituions for rich and poor remain inherently unequal. 


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