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Lost in the Shuffle: The Critical Role of Community Colleges

Lost in the Shuffle: The Critical Role of Community Colleges
By Timothy D. Leinbach

Not surprisingly, debates about access and equity at four-year

institutions never fail to generate their fair share of controversy. But lost in the shuffle is the critical role that two-year institutions play for many Black students.

On the surface, recent gains in postsecondary enrollment rates for African-Americans reveal significant progress for a group that has historically been shut out of higher education opportunities. Yet as their enrollment continues to grow at community college campuses, many of these students are struggling to attain achievement on par with other students. 

Community College Research Center data show that well over half of all Black students who began their post-secondary education in a community college dropped out of school within six years. Eight years after high school, 72 percent of Black community college students — compared with 50 percent of White community college students — have not transferred to a four-year school or earned a certificate or associate degree. Only 10 percent of all Black first-time community college students earned an associate degree within six years and only 2 percent completed a bachelor’s degree in the same time — one-sixth the rate for White students. 

This is at a time when the Bush administration and many legislators in Congress would like to hold postsecondary institutions to higher standards of accountability, just as they have done with elementary and secondary schools. Institutional reporting requirements to the U.S. Department of Education now include data for graduation rates overall and are broken out by gender and race/ethnicity.

The use of completion rates as a yardstick for accountability puts pressure on community colleges to improve student outcomes, which may ultimately benefit Black students and other groups of students with lower-than-average completion rates. These institutions may be forced to take student completion figures as seriously as they take their enrollment counts, although it should not be adopted without a caveat. 
Relying exclusively on the raw graduation rate measure is shortsighted because many institutional and individual factors may impact those graduation rates. We know that socio-economic circumstances and academic backgrounds impact performance at the post-secondary level.

Black students are often faced with barriers to their success, whether it is poor academic preparation in high school, financial difficulties that require employment while in school, family obligations and other challenges that require a daunting juggling of responsibilities.

With rollbacks of affirmative action policies and increasing numbers of public four-year institutions denying entrance to borderline students, there is the prospect of declining proportions of minority students attending selective four-year institutions. In such a climate, policies that can support the performance of minorities at the community college level have taken on added urgency. This expanding role of community colleges is almost certain to have direct implications for African-American students.

Community colleges would do well to consider the following tasks to ensure that they are ready to meet the needs of their Black students:

1) Colleges must track their student completion rates by a variety of student characteristics, including race/ethnicity;

2) Studies at national, state and institutional levels must be done to identify the “filter points” in enrollment pathways. Investigators must ask, ‘Are students in developmental education unable to complete their remedial requirements? Are developmental education completers having difficulty in the transition from remediation to credit courses? Are there particular credit courses acting as gatekeepers to student persistence?’ 
3) Identify the barriers — academic, financial, familial or others — that are preventing students from completing programs; 

4) Colleges should investigate whether they are counseling particular students, such as African-Americans, toward consolation credentials — certificates and associates — when they aspire to transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees; and

5) Colleges must research the impact that innovative programs such as high school to college transition programs have in promoting not just enrollment in postsecondary education, but in increasing completions in higher education among its participants.

To fulfill this agenda, institutions, states and research organizations must collaborate on data collection, analysis and policy action. Some colleges will need to improve their institutional research capacity and their student data collection capability. But given the contemporary landscape in higher education, a redoubled effort is necessary if we hope to observe improvement in the graduation and transfer rates of Black community college students.

Leinbach is a research associate at Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

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