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The Challenge for Community Colleges

Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl have noted a central paradox of American higher education: increasing access to college in recent years has been associated with increasing inequality. As more students from all backgrounds go to college, socioeconomic stratification between types of institutions—two-year and four-year colleges, in particular—has also increased. Two new reports out this week underline the challenges that this stratification poses for community colleges and suggests the need to take steps to counteract growing inequality.

The first analysis, published by The Chronicle, found that state legislators—who provide the bulk of funding to community colleges—appear to have little personal experience with attending two-year institutions. The Chronicle found that 74.7% of state legislators had at least a four-year degree, 8.7% had no college; and 14.1% had “some college.”

These data don’t tell us precisely what proportion attended a community college, because some of those who receive bachelor’s degrees could have begun at two-year institutions, and some of those with “some college” may have gone to a four-year institution and dropped out, never having spent time in a community college. But the numbers of legislators with B.A.’s who started at community college is likely to be small, given that 90% of community-college students never earn a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, it’s telling, in itself, that the associate’s degree apparently has such little salience among legislators that a separate category was not created in The Chronicle’s analysis.

Exposure doesn’t guarantee sympathy, but when it come time to divvy up money, the fact that so few legislators appear to have gone to community college may reduce the sector’s political capital. At two-year colleges, public spending averages $9,184 per student, compared with $13,819 per student at public research universities.

A second analysis published this week, this one by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, found that community colleges and for-profit institutions are increasingly the schools of choice for low-income students. Some 71% of first-year low-income students at postsecondary institutions attended either community college (52%) or for-profits (19%) in 2008; by contrast, 21% attended four-year institutions, either public (15%) or private (6%).

Of course, at one level, the strong presence of low-income students is the pride and glory of the community-college sector. Two-year colleges are open-access institutions that provide a postsecondary chance for a group of students who otherwise might be shut out entirely. But the concentration of poverty in community colleges also brings vulnerabilities that hurt the chances of students graduating, such as inadequate resources and lower levels of expectations. And students are increasingly cut off from networks that come with more affluent peers. As Carnevale and Strohl have found, while the top socioeconomic quarter of the population made up 70% of students at selective four-year colleges in 2006, they made up just 16% of community-college students, down from 24% in 1982. Separate institutions for rich and poor are rarely equal anywhere in the world.

If community colleges wish to provide a better learning environment for all students, including low-income students, they would do well to take creative steps to draw more affluent students alongside low-income and working-class pupils. Coincidentally, right next to the Chronicle’s analysis of state legislators was a story about a promising practice that is changing the nature of community colleges in Florida—and may have the potential to draw a stronger socioeconomic mix of students.

As reporter Jennifer Gonzalez notes, more than 13,000 students last year sought bachelor’s degrees at 19 Florida community colleges that are specially authorized to award bachelor’s degrees in certain areas. Nationwide, 17 states now permit community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees, according to the article. While some have voiced concern that this development involves “mission creep” and might water down the open-access nature of community colleges, Willis N. Holcombe, chancellor of the Florida College system, doesn’t see it that way: “The mission has not changed,” he told Gonzalez. “Now we are just providing even more access.”

Florida’s seems like one promising approach to the substantial and growing problem of stratification in higher education. Blurring the lines between two- and four-year institutions could have the desirable effect of increasing both access and equality in one fell swoop.

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