While Black students disproportionately attend community colleges, their enrollment at these institutions has significantly dropped and gaps in their academic outcomes have more than doubled over time compared to their white peers, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on advancing Black communities.
The report, released today, examines student success metrics for Black community college students, mainly drawing on data from IPEDS, the primary federal data source for higher education; the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center; and the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population survey.
Community colleges are sometimes “heralded as almost silver bullets” by policy makers looking to reduce unemployment, but that isn’t the whole story for Black students, said Alex Camardelle, a co-author of the report and director of the workforce policy program at the Joint Center.
“We believe in the power of community colleges,” he said. “But we know that given the overrepresentation of Black students at these institutions, it warrants a closer examination of how well they’re serving those students … It’s one thing to improve diversity within these institutions, but that does not always guarantee or lead to positive outcomes.”
Steep Enrollment Drops
The center’s analysis found staggering enrollment declines among Black community college students. Their enrollment at these institutions fell 44 percent over the course of a decade, from 1.2 million in 2010 to 670,000 in 2020. The pandemic didn’t help matters, according to the report. Enrollment among Black students fell 18 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2021, at the height of the pandemic, with an even sharper decline among men. Black male enrollment dropped 23.5 percent, relative to a 15 percent drop for Black women over that same time period.
Camardelle noted that these enrollment declines during the pandemic sharply contrast with what happened during the Great Recession in 2008, when Black enrollment at community colleges rose.
Community colleges “were a place where workers who had lost their jobs could return to get additional skills and credentials and returned to the labor market in a fairly short amount of time, and it was especially that for Black workers,” he said. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic, however, didn’t yield similar enrollment surges.
The report highlighted that Black community college students faced particularly high rates of food and housing insecurity during the pandemic, and those financial hardships posed obstacles to students enrolling.
Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, said community colleges have to proactively increase their outreach to Black prospective students, especially Black men, in light of the data shared in the report.
“Many community colleges don’t have to engage in the multitude of activities that four-year institutions have to engage in to compete for students,” Harper said. “They’ve long just relied on students from the community who naturally find their way [to community colleges], but that approach is no longer appropriate, especially as it pertains to Black students,” as they continue to enroll at lower rates than they once did.
Keith Curry, president of Compton College, a two-year college in California, said he’s seen the enrollment declines described in the report play out in real time on his campus over the course of the pandemic. Notably, the number of Black men enrolled at Compton fell to 662 students in fall 2020, from 919 in fall 2019, an almost 28 percent decline. Black male enrollment plunged to 269 students in fall 2021. The magnitude of those losses drove him to hire a director of Black and males of color success last November.
Curry noted that community college administrators, faced with steep enrollment declines, are paying closer attention to student enrollment and outcomes data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. But it’s important that they focus on retaining Black students and boosting their completion rates, as well, he said.
Gaps in Academic Outcomes
The report also found a stubborn and growing disparity between the graduation rates of Black community college students and their non-Black classmates. The gap between the graduation rates of Black and white community college students has more than doubled, from four percentage points to 11 percentage points, from 2007 to 2020.
Black students also had the lowest transfer rates of any racial or ethnic group at community colleges between 2011 and 2017, and the problem appears to have worsened during the pandemic. The share of all community college students transferring to four-year universities has dropped 11.6 percent since 2020, while the share of Black community college students transferring fell 14.2 percent, according to the report.
“The typical community college student isn’t who you think it is,” Camardelle said. “Community college students, particularly Black students, are more likely to be parents. They’re more likely to have lower incomes or poverty-level incomes coming into college. Those are some reasons why folks can’t complete, or at least can’t complete on time.”
Black students were also the most likely group to earn certificates at community colleges as opposed to degrees. Fewer than half of the credentials earned by Black community college graduates in the 2019–20 academic year were associate degrees.
Camardelle said this finding is a cause for concern, noting that some certificates can lead to lower earnings than degrees.
“Some community colleges that may be steering Black students into certificate programs may be reproducing [racial] stratification in the labor market,” he said.
The report details that Black community college students do generally earn less than their peers when they graduate, and despite the relatively low tuition rates of community colleges compared to four-year universities, these students are still disproportionately saddled with debt.
Black community college graduates typically earn roughly $20,000 less per year than their white classmates, according to the report. In 2020, the households of Black community college graduates earned nearly $16,000 more than Black households without associate degrees but earned about $2,000 less than households of white workers who only held a high school diploma.
The typical Black associate-degree earner also owed 123 percent of the original amount they borrowed 12 years after starting college, while white graduates owed 69 percent and Hispanic graduates owed 91 percent of their original loan amounts.
Curry said community college leaders urgently need to address the debt loads of Black community college students, whether by bolstering food and housing assistance for Black students or relieving the debts the students owe their institutions.
“If you’re accumulating less debt and you’re able to focus on your studies, your outcomes would be better,” he said.
The report offers a series of recommendations to community college leaders and policy makers, including improving access to childcare on campuses, disaggregating campus academic outcomes data by race and ethnicity, and streamlining transfer pathways, especially from community colleges to historically Black colleges and universities.
The authors of the report also encourage federal lawmakers to make two years of community colleges tuition-free and state policy makers to increase funding to these institutions.
“Community colleges are extremely important,” Camardelle said. “They’re proximal to communities, they’re in our backyards, they provide very unique career training opportunities. And I don’t want us to think that they are failing as a result of anything other than bad policy choices and underinvestment. We have to put the onus on the folks that are making those decisions, which are the policy makers, the legislators and system leaders.”
Harper said he wants to see community colleges across the country develop “a comprehensive, race-salient strategy that focuses specifically on Black students, on enrolling them, engaging them, ensuring their academic success, graduating them and transferring them.”
He noted that campuses across the country, including community colleges, have started Black student organizations and clubs in recent years, which foster a sense of belonging, but more needs to be done.
“That did not move the needle on academic outcomes,” he said. “I think there are some powerful lessons that we can learn as colleges think about what to do in response to this report.”