Report Warns of Separate But Unequal Community Colleges

Community colleges "are in great danger of becoming indelibly separate and unequal institutions in the higher-education landscape," a Century Foundation task force warns in new report.

The report, "Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream," outlines a series of proposals aimed at shifting the patterns that result in four-year colleges' enrolling disproportionably more wealthy and white students while two-year colleges enroll a higher proportion of needy and minority students.

Among its recommendations, the group urges states and the federal government to provide additional funds to two-year colleges that serve the neediest students, much in the way the federal Title I program works for elementary and secondary schools.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the task force effort is premised on the notion that community colleges, which enroll about 44 percent of the nation's college population, are in many cases not serving students well now and will be ill equipped to handle future demands without radical change.  Research undertaken for the report found that, at some community colleges, almost two-thirds of the students are COMMUNITY_COLLEGEblack, Hispanic, or members of other groups typically considered underrepresented in higher education.

The approach outlined in the report could not only create more-affordable college pathways for middle-class families and improve educational outcomes at community colleges, it could also give community colleges more political clout, the Chronicle reported.

Connecticut’s 12 community colleges have 58,228 students, according to the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities website.  According to a 2011 report by the now defunct Board of Governors for Higher Education, nearly two-thirds (62.1 percent in fall of 2010) of all Hispanic/Latino and African American students attending community college do so at four of the system’s 12 institutions – Capital Community College in Hartford, Gateway Community College in New Haven, Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport and Norwalk Community College – all situated within or near urban cities with large low-income and minority populations. These institutions also awarded more than two-thirds (68.9 percent) of the associate degrees conferred to Hispanic/Latino and African American students by the community colleges during the 2009-10.

The Board of Governors report added that “it is clear that there is no problem regarding access for minority students at the state’s community colleges; thus, the Department’s grant program designed to reward and support their diversity efforts will require that they focus solely upon the retention and graduation of targeted students.”   In 2011, the Connecticut Mirror reported that the state pays about $7,000 a year for each full-time student enrolled in one of the 12 two-year community colleges -- but only one out of every 10 full-time students who enroll seeking an associates degree or certificate will earn one in three years. That ranks Connecticut's community college graduation rate 47th in the nation, according to a report by the state Department of Higher Education.

Earlier this year, in March, the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which now oversees the state’s 12 community colleges and four state universities voted to increase tuition by 5 percent in the coming year, despite student protests.  Students at Connecticut's community colleges would pay 5.25 percent more. For a full time student, that's an increase of $188 more, for a total of $3,786, the Hartford Courant reported.

The report by the Century Foundation noted that in a survey, eighty-one percent of students entering community college for the first time saying they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree but just 12 percent do so within six years. Among low-income students with “high” qualifications for college (those who completed “at least Trigonometry”), 69 percent of students who began in a four-year institution earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 19 percent of those who started in a community college.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation, questions how "we shower the most resources on the wealthiest college students and the least on the neediest," noting that the idea of reducing stratification by enhancing community colleges is an important focus in the report. The 22-member task force was led by Anthony W. Marx, the former president of Amherst College who now heads the New York Public Library, and Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.