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Most discussions about diversity in higher education focus on the admissions process at selective colleges. Rarely considered are problems due to the segregation of disadvantaged students at community colleges.

Two new research papers, released last week alongside a broad policy report from the Century Foundation, attempt to shift the conversation by focusing more attention on racial and economic stratification in the two-year sector.

Both studies, as well as the larger report, raise the alarm about a rise of “separate and unequal” higher education systems.

The first paper documents the extent of segregation at community colleges. Only one-quarter of community colleges can be considered racially integrated, and hover near an average of 37 percent of their students being from minority groups, the study found. About half are integrated along socioeconomic lines.

Community colleges reflect the areas they serve, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the study’s co-author. Most have open-door admissions and attract local students.

As a result, fully 75 percent of the variation in racial composition in the two-year sector is directly attributable to the racial composition of their surrounding geographic locales, according to the study, which Goldrick-Rab wrote with Peter Kinsley, a researcher at Wisconsin.

“The problems of those communities resulting from neighborhood segregation and the concentration of poverty are simply transferred up the educational pipeline,” they wrote. Segregated community colleges with large shares of needy students "not only receive fewer monetary resources, but they likely produce less student learning.”

The study’s findings are mixed about the relative resources at colleges based on their racial and ethnic mixes. But as a general rule it found that the “more minority students a college enrolls, the fewer organizational advantages it enjoys.”

For example, there are 85 students per staff member at predominantly white colleges, according to the study, and 294 students per staff member at predominantly nonwhite colleges.

Research shows that integrated learning environments are better for student success, said Goldrick-Rab. And colleges that enroll large percentages of students from minority groups often suffer from budget problems.

“They’re always on the cutting block,” she said.

California Dreaming

The second paper looked at how community colleges stack up on completion rates relative to their levels of segregation. It used newly available data sets from the California Community Colleges System, which enrolls 2.4 million students at 112 colleges.

The study found that colleges serving larger portions of black, Latino and Native American students generally scored worse on measures of student success, like transfer rates to four-year institutions or the numbers of degrees and certificates students earned.

For example, California community colleges with the smallest percentage of students from those minority groups – ranging from 12 to 22 percent of total enrollments – had six-year completion and transfer rates of 57 percent. But those “success” rates were 45 percent at colleges with the largest shares of underrepresented students (49 to 91 percent).

There are many factors that go into graduation and transfer rates, said Tatiana Melguizo, the paper’s coauthor and an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She cautioned about making sweeping judgments or false claims about “failing schools” based on the study, which she co-authored with Holly Kosiewicz, a research assistant at USC.

However, Melguizo said the study suggests that a “tipping point” exists where enrollment levels of students from minority groups may have a negative impact on completion rates. And, as it is in K-12 education, that tipping point appears to be when minority enrollment tops one in three, she said.

One possible cause of lower completion rates at colleges enrolling large numbers of students from minority groups is that they typically receive less funding from local governments, according to the study. And state support doesn't cover that gap.

"There may be harms associated with racial and economic isolation at the community college level," said the study, "mirroring those found at the elementary and secondary levels."

Melguizo said the new research was based on data California community colleges made public a year ago, as well as federal databases. The study controlled for institutions’ size, their urban-versus-rural enrollments and, to some extent, college preparation at nearby high schools.

Spending Priorities

Goldrick-Rab’s paper assessed the nation’s two-year colleges based on their proportions of Pell Grant recipients and students from minority groups.

About half of community colleges fall into the category of economically integrated, with 47 to 58 percent of their students receiving Pell Grants.

The study’s findings on race are more troubling. Only 25 percent of community colleges “approach racial integration” with enrollments of students from racial and ethnic minority groups that average about 37 percent.

Another quarter of colleges are predominantly white, with minority groups composing just 8 percent of enrollments on average. And a quarter are predominantly nonwhite -- about 65 percent on average. The rest are neither integrated nor strongly segregated, the study found.

Both Goldrick-Rab’s paper and the California community college study drew from a new database the Aspen Institute created for its Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

Goldrick-Rab used that data to look at colleges that were more integrated than geography suggested they would be. The findings suggest that actions in K-12 schools are driving integration at those colleges.

In those cases it appears that high schools are encouraging disadvantaged students to attend four-year institutions rather than community colleges. That may result in "more integrated and thus seemingly preferable learning environments in both spaces," the study said. “This re-sorting engenders greater balance and seems to be more common in communities with more resources and strong college preparatory planning in the high schools."

Melguizo and Goldrick-Rab said the issue of segregation at community colleges deserves much more play. They said college leaders and policy makers should consider which institutions are serving the largest share of disadvantaged students when determining institutional funding levels.

The answer is not just “giving more money to community colleges,” said Melguizo. “We need accountability.”

But she said government support needs to be more strategic, a message echoed by speakers at the event held in Washington, D.C., last week for the release of the Century Foundation report.

Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, criticized funding gaps in higher education in his remarks at the event. The system is “totally out of whack,” he said.

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