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Commentary: Community College Campuses Provide an Accurate Reflection of Diversity

Last fall, Diverse ran an article that expressed my concern about the current lack of diversity, the lack of historical support for diversity and the lack of positive outcomes for diverse students in higher education. The column was written after attending conferences wherein neither those in attendance nor those being discussed reflected what should be the diverse landscape of higher education. Today, I write to you after the Association of Community College Trustees, or ACCT, annual congress that was held in Dallas in October. As disheartening as I found last year’s conferences, today I am filled with hope for those young people who attend some of our nation’s finest community colleges.

As I observed the 1,200 community college presidents and trustees present, I found myself surrounded by people who truly reflect the diverse landscape of the United States. The room was filled with trustees who come from a variety of academic, economic and social backgrounds. While there may be some commonality in the professional experiences of the presidents, trustees varied from academicians to manufacturing workers. Racially and ethnically the group reflected the diversity one witnesses on a New York City subway car.

For many years, community colleges were frowned upon publicly and, most especially, in academic circles. They were viewed as a fallback for those without the academic, financial or social resources to attend a four-year college. Some made the assumption that the faculty, staff, administrators and trustees were also inadequate. For decades, many of the people in the room at ACCT toiled not just in anonymity but, at times, in the face of public disregard. (One colleague describes being professionally ostracized by his professorial colleagues when he decided to serve on a community college board.) Today, community colleges are no longer second-class citizens: Currently, 44 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States are enrolled in community colleges. In the fall of 2008, there were 12.4 million students enrolled in America’s 1,167 community colleges.

This growth is not accidental.

Community colleges admitted anyone in the local area who wanted to further his education but who may have lacked the means to attend a four-year institution. Community colleges became the place where underrepresented students started and, for many, completed their education. Today, among students of color, we see 55 percent of Native American, 45 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, 44 percent of African-American and 52 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in community colleges. It’s not just the numbers that are impressive, however.

What community colleges have done, that traditional four-year colleges have not, is build a teaching, leadership and administrative body that reflected their students. Presidents, faculty and trustees often look like the students entering the college. They often have economic and social backgrounds that mirror those of students. They recognize that sometimes all one has on one’s side is potential and community colleges have decided — structurally and programmatically — to capitalize on that potential.

We know from recent federal expenditures that community colleges are now being favorably looked upon by Washington, D.C. However, it is important to keep in mind that while federal funding may be increasing, state funding of community colleges is dropping exponentially. In 2007-2008 state funds accounted for 36 percent of the revenue for community colleges. That number has recently reached historic lows in some states. The tuition increases seen in many sectors of higher education have not happened in community colleges. Average annual tuition at community college is $2,713. At a four-year public college the cost is $7,605. Four-year private colleges have an average annual price tag of $27,293.

Despite decreasing resources, community colleges are seeing unprecedented enrollment growth. Between 2008 and 2010, there was an estimated enrollment increase of 15 percent among community colleges. Anecdotally, some colleges report 40 to 50 percent enrollment growth. Times are tough for community colleges, but they are used to the financial struggle and the need to serve all students well.

Community college faculty members teach a more diverse — academically, generationally and ethnically — classroom than most four-year college faculty will ever experience. Community college administrators work with more limited resources and under a level of public scrutiny that would render many four-year campuses obsolete.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that other educators are less dedicated. I am merely saying that community colleges have embraced their students, their craft and their mission to the point that they have decided to create institutions that genuinely reflect their students. Higher education as an industry, though, could stand to look to community colleges and ask how they realize success with so many students. How do they manage to hire a diverse faculty? How do they find executive leadership and governance officials who are so passionate about their enterprise that despite whatever personal cost they continue to serve?

Higher education must stop viewing community colleges as drive-by institutions and recognize the depth they have among their constituents and the significant contribution they are making to American higher education. D

— Mary Hinton is the vice president for planning and assessment at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y.

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