From the founding of the nation’s first public community college, Joliet Junior College, in Illinois in 1901, the American community college has always stayed true to its roots — to serve local students and provide a gateway to higher education.
“Rural folks created community colleges because they did not have sufficient access to the existing four-year system,” says Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Over time, people from all sorts of backgrounds have utilized the community college because they felt that they weren’t getting sufficient opportunities in a traditional setting.
“[Community colleges] have been an incredibly important place for people who otherwise couldn’t afford [nor have] access [to] college because of things like geography,” adds Goldrick-Rab.
A 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that almost half of all students in higher education are enrolled at a community college. Numbers for Black and Hispanic students are at 15 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
“[Community colleges] have been a tremendous force for getting minorities into higher education,” says Dr. Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University. “If you look at where we were 30 years ago, in terms of minority representation at community colleges, we’ve made great strides.”
Most of today’s associate’s degree institutions were created between 1960 and 1978, partly a product of the proliferation of financial aid in the 1965 Higher Education Act and the Truman Commission Report, which established a network of public community colleges, as well as the increase of baby boomers attending college. Community colleges serve more minority students than ever before, and have even become majority-minority institutions in many states like California, says Boylan. But enrollment often does not spell out educational success at these two-year schools, he notes.
“A student at a school once said, ‘It’s easy to get into this place but hard to get out of it,’” Boylan recalls. “I think one of the problems is that a large number of the minority students that come to college are first-generation college students. They don’t have [much] knowledge of what the rewards and expectations are [or] what the rules and procedures are. So they come in knowing very little about what college is all about.”
Though community colleges have expanded and become more diverse, Boylan says receding resources and funding have diverted the colleges from their original mission — to provide general education and assist students with transferring to a four-year university.
“Colleges have tried to accommodate the influx of diverse students, but they haven’t been doing all the right things,” says Boylan. “The right things are integrating support services with instruction, doing a better job of training faculty on how to deal with diverse students and how to use learning theory and developmental learning theory in their instruction.”
About one in five first-time degree-seeking students at community colleges finished their degree in about three years. This number is lower for American Indian, Hispanic and Black students, at 18 percent, 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, according to “Student Engagement and Institutional Graduation Rates: Identifying High-Impact Educational Practices for Community Colleges.”
According to a recent Century Foundation report, community colleges are actually very segregated. That affects the success of their students, notes Goldrick-Rab.
“The browner the population, the fewer resources they get,” she says. “I am very cognizant of that problem. I think it is very important to note for our policymakers [that] community colleges are also full of low-income White people.”
Though community colleges were initially established to provide a general education and help students move on to higher degrees, they have now become a tool to facilitate workforce development for an evolving economy.
“I think that, particularly in the last few years, the recognition that we may have too few skilled employees to fill the labor market has caused policymakers to perhaps overreact by pushing vocational and career training too far,” Boylan says. “I think there has also been a tendency to push minorities into that vocational and technical training.”
The amended mission of the community college to also serve the business sector is a recipe for a caste system, Boylan adds.
“People tend to put the bottom half [of students] into vocational or technical programming so they go on and make a living and get into the labor market quicker,” he says. “Presidents have always asked [colleges] to do this job training without sufficient resources.”
Dr. Mark D’Amico, assistant professor and program director of doctoral programs in the College of Education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, however, points out that community colleges have evolved both ways.
“Many community colleges, especially in the South, began as technical training colleges, but have evolved over the years to also offer the college transfer function.”
D’Amico adds that the increase in articulation agreements in recent times has worked to help students.
Another area that has affected minority students is remedial education, which has seen a backlash in the last several years. “There are several states that have said you don’t have to take remedial courses — Florida, Connecticut — [and many] are considering it,” says Boylan.
“I don’t necessarily have a problem with putting fewer people in remedial courses — that’s probably a good idea,” Boylan adds. “But when you do that, you are going to have people who aren’t going to make it in college level courses without help.”
Providing more tutoring and support services is key, he notes.
Goldrick-Rab suggests that what is considered remedial must be reframed.
“When everybody needs something, it’s just an education,” she says, pointing to the fact that most high school students do not take math in their senior year and are not fresh on the subject when they enter college. “If people envisioned remediation as a problem for even the middle-class White kids, [then] we would have a very different set of policies around remediation than what we have right now.
“There is such stigma around remediation,” Goldrick-Rab adds. “People think of this as a problem of people of color, people who don’t speak English, people from other countries.”
Policy guidelines around welfare and public housing have also affected underrepresented and low-income students in the last two decades. With President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, the pressure on recipients to go to work made it impossible for people to enroll in a community college.
“If you are on welfare now, you can’t even be in college, not even a community college,” says Goldrick-Rab. She also notes that people who are full-time undergraduates are not allowed to live in Section 8 housing. “There is a really tricky message that is being sent.”
But schools are being proactive and helping low-income students persevere through the initiative Single Stop USA, a network that offers a cadre of benefits with a web tool called the Benefits Enrollment Network. Single Stop USA provides information to low-income students so they can address issues they may struggle with outside of the classroom, such as offering assistance in accessing government aid programs, and providing a directory of legal services, community food banks and tax preparation specialists.
“The community college is a really promising way of creating more access,” says Goldrick-Rab. ”The problem has been that that promise has not been realized, for the most part, because [although] the federal government and states did make an investment funding schools at one time, that was more than 50 years ago.”