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Diverse CityCommunity colleges are the most diverse institutions in academia, and getting more so by the dayBy Garry BoulardOf all the many numbers that illustrate community colleges’ rich diversity, the most telling are these: In 2000, the latest year for which comparable U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Census statistics are available, 12 percent of the U.S. population was Black. In that same year, 12 percent of all two-year college students were Black.
Hispanics and Latinos accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s population that year, and 13 percent of the two-year college population.
Asians represented 4 percent of Americans and 6 percent of two-year college students.
In plainer terms, community colleges — more than any other segment in higher education — look like America; the rich ethnic and racial diversity that is America is in plain view on a two-year campus near you.
“It’s an incredible achievement — something every community college in the country should feel good about,” says Dr. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “We have all worked very hard to ensure that our campuses are more diverse, that anyone, no matter what neighborhood or country they come from, will find the doors to their nearest community college wide open. … It is still very gratifying to see progress, to know that today our community-college campuses are the most diverse in the nation.”
According to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, ethnic minorities comprised 33 percent of the nation’s community-college student body in 2000, compared to 25 percent of the student population at public four year-institutions and 28 percent at all institutions.
Community-college educators and those who have for years argued in favor of diversity say such statistics speak volumes.
“Four-year schools have approached this question from an entirely different perspective,” remarked Dr. John E. Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin. “Very often they base their reputations on how many students they are able to turn away. The thinking goes that if you turn away a lot of students, you must be a better college than those who take more students. Community colleges have maintained the exact opposite view, and you can see the results in the numbers.”
A Lengthening Lead
Consider this: during the 1990s, community colleges not only outpaced four-year institutions in the scope and breadth of their diversity, but they consistently widened the gap in the percentage of ethnic minorities registered on their campuses compared with their four-year counterparts.
Only 3 percentage points spanned the difference between the number of minority students registered at community colleges and four-year institutions in 1992. But that gap widened throughout the decade, from 4 percent in 1993 to 5 percent in 1995, and to 8 percent by 2001.
If present trends continue, predicts Rick Chavolla, associate director of minorities and higher education at the American Council on Education (ACE), the diversity gap between community colleges and four-year institutions could reach double digits in the next three to five years.
“It is important to remember that there are more minority students at four-year schools than ever before,” Chavolla explains. “But the real numbers and percentage of their overall student population simply haven’t gone up as fast or as dramatically as we have seen with the community colleges.”
And, Chavolla said, the growth at the community-college level shows no sign of tapering off.
Even more remarkable, considering the far larger overall student population at four-year institutions, is that the actual number of community-college minority students was 87,000 greater in 2001 than at all other higher-education institutions — even though those institutions maintained a 2.5 million student advantage for all students combined.Survey Says …
On the heels of an extensive state-by-state survey of national postsecondary trends based on Census 2000, researchers at the Education Commission of the States (ECS) found that two-year colleges’ emphasis on general and remedial education largely explained not only the ongoing increase in the overall number of students attending community colleges, but the explosion in minority-student registration as well.
“These are very often the very sort of classes that minority populations require the most,” noted Genevieve Hale, an ECS researcher. “That, plus the fact that community colleges have maintained open-door policies and managed at the same time to keep tuitions low, also account for the growing minority presence.”
Ironically, diversity’s progress at the community-college level has surfaced at the same time that the nation’s public school system has become more racially segregated.
According to a report released by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University earlier this year, the average White enrollment in majority-Hispanic districts was 28 percent in 2001, down from 34 percent in 1987; in predominantly Black schools, the White student enrollment dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent during that same 14-year period.
“The country has been going backward toward greater re-segregation in all parts of the country for more than a decade,” according to the Harvard study. Such statistics, UT’s Roueche said, make community-college diversity that much more important.
“It is conceivable that a student coming out of that kind of system may not ever have been truly exposed to diversity in any meaningful way,” Roueche said, “until he or she enters a community college.”Trouble on the Horizon?
While the numbers show minorities making significant strides in higher education, some educators worry that just as community-college diversity has begun to mirror the nation’s diversity, that reflection might be shattered. Of all the storm clouds that could rain out minorities’ gains in higher education, experts say, most worrisome are the tuition hikes spurred by looming budget deficits.
The situation is especially dire in California, where state appropriations to community colleges have already been reduced by more than $161 million this year. In early August, Gov. Gray Davis signed the 2003-2004 budget, which reduced overall funding for community colleges by $87 million — 1.7 percent. The budget also raised student enrollment fees from the current $11 per unit to $18 per unit, an increase of 64 percent that Davis said could slash community-college enrollments by 6 percent next year.
“When your cost is $11 per unit you just naturally draw from a far larger pool of potential students, including significant percentages of minority students, who otherwise would not be able to attend an institute of higher education,” said Patrick Perry, vice chancellor of technology, research and information with the California Community College system. “The low cost of our system has been a huge factor in terms of our diversity.”
Others worry that community colleges haven’t moved quickly enough to hire significant numbers of women and minorities for both faculty and administrative positions.
The connection?
“When you have administrators and faculty members who come from the same community where you live, who share your ethnic background, who have gone through the same challenges you are facing, they tend to serve as role models for minority students,” said Dr. James Jacobs, associate director for community-college operations at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “This is particularly important for a low-income student, because the relationship between the instructor and student is often the most important factor in determining the success of a community-college student.” On the Move
Despite such concerns, the number of and minorities in leadership roles at two-year institutions has been increasing. According to the American Council on Education, the percentage of minorities at the helm of community colleges is at an historic high. In 2001, 17 percent of all two-year college presidents were minorities — the highest percentage in all of academia — up from 8 percent in 1990.
The AACC’s Boggs said those are numbers that should inspire ever greater leaps. “The numbers should be greater,” he said, “but they are a vast improvement over where we were before.”
For those nurturing hopes that those greater strides may be realized, or, alternately, fears that further economic instability and budget tightening may erode gains that have already been made, Dr. Gail Kettlewell, director of the doctor of arts program at George Mason University’s National Center for Community College Education, has a quick response: “Be persistent.”
Kettlewell was part of an administrative team at Manassas Community College in Northern Virginia that helped that school’s minority-student population increase from 17 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2002.
“Diversity has to be part of your mission statement,” she said. “It has to be a part of your recruitment and community service and continuing education. It literally has to define the community college itself. Nothing less will do.”
Kettlewell added, “I think the percentage of minority students is only going to increase. But we all have to keep working all of the time to make certain it happens.”  

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