Community colleges enroll almost half of undergraduates and large shares of the minority and low-income students in higher education today. Yet these institutions frequently struggle to receive public attention -- and funds. A new collection of essays -- Defending the Community College Equity Agenda  -- has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The collection was edited by Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Vanessa Smith Morest, assistant director of the center. Bailey responded to questions about the themes of the book.
Q: How would you define "the equity agenda?"
A: As we define it in our book, the “equity agenda” in higher education is made up of three components: equity in college preparation, access to college, and success in satisfying college goals. All institutions -- whether two-year or four-year, private or public -- face challenges in achieving the equity agenda. But community colleges are particularly important, because they play such a large role in educating students who are low income, minorities, or academically unprepared for the rigors of college. The “open-door” mission of community colleges (they accept many applicants who are not academically prepared to tackle college-level coursework) has leveled the playing field for countless students by giving them a fair shot at higher education no matter where they attended high school or whether or not they come from families with educational and financial resources that facilitate access to college and success once there. Our book examines how well the community colleges are fulfilling their “open door” mission and what can be done to help them succeed when economic, political, and social challenges -- such as limited funding and soaring enrollments -- have made doing so increasingly difficult.
Q: Much of the public debate about minority students focuses on admission to a few elite colleges -- what is the community college role in promoting the education of minority students?
A: Minority, especially Hispanic, low-income, first generation, and immigrant students are all concentrated in community colleges. In 2005, there were about 7,000 black and Hispanic students enrolled at Bronx Community College alone, while there were fewer than 7,500 matriculated in all of the Ivy League. Furthermore, the typical BCC students came from lower income families than minority students at Harvard and Columbia. At a time when other institutions, such as the elite colleges you mention, are working to diversify their student bodies, community colleges are launching millions of minority students on their first steps of a college education and providing a second chance at college for minority and immigrant adults seeking to better their lives.
This isn’t to say, however, that they always succeed in fulfilling that goal. Research reported in this book has shown that black, Hispanic and low-income community college students are less likely to complete degrees or transfer to four-year colleges than their upper-income and white counterparts. Like many who attend community colleges, minority students often begin with the goal of earning a college degree, but they frequently leave college without achieving that goal. Eight years after initial enrollment, only 20 percent of black community college students complete a degree or certificate at any institution.
Community colleges can be proud of their efforts to provide access to college for many students, but more progress needs to be made in improving outcomes for students once they get to college. This will be no easy feat. Most colleges are funded and judged on the basis of enrollments rather than on the educational and employment success of their students. A seismic shift is needed to change the focus from enrollment -- as it has traditionally been -- to student achievement.
Q: How are changes in state priorities and funding patterns affecting community colleges?
A: Cuts in funding to community colleges pose a severe threat to the equity mission of these institutions. It is ironic that community colleges enroll the hardest to serve students -- students attending part time and those who are low-income and often academically under-prepared -- but receive less funding per student than four-year institutions.
Moreover, in the last decade or so, we have seen the budgets for community colleges in many states stagnate or shrink. This has been caused by a number of factors, most notably the recession of the early 2000s, when state higher education budgets were hit hard. The impact on community colleges was greatest, however, because they are more dependent on state revenues than four-year public colleges. Though some community colleges have benefited in the last couple of years as their state economies have grown stronger, a debate over the public’s role in offering higher education has also taken place. This has led to a shift in funding to medical care, pensions, prisons, and other services to the detriment of community colleges. Despite the cyclical ups and downs of funding, the long-term trend has been a shrinking share of state funding going to community colleges.
This has caused an increase in tuition rates for students, the effect of which has been exacerbated by a shift away from needs-based financial aid. But the shrinking revenue per student has also made it difficult for colleges to maintain the teaching and services necessary for their growing and increasingly diverse student bodies. Simply put, for too long community colleges have been trying to do too much with too little. While colleges can always do more with the resources they have, and our book contains many recommendations to help them do that, these institutions do need more resources so that they can help disadvantaged students get the help they need to succeed in college. We’re hoping this is something that our newly-elected officials nationwide will take on as part of their legislative agendas in the new year.
Q: What is the impact of for-profit higher education on community colleges generally and specifically their role serving disadvantaged students?
A: Our book looked at the impact of the growth of for-profit higher education on community colleges. For-profit institutions account for a very small share of the two-year sector, although the number of associates degrees and certificates conferred by for-profit colleges is growing, especially in occupational fields. Based on current systems for funding and regulating colleges, there is little evidence that for-profit institutions are threatening the enrollments of community colleges.
The for-profits do tend to enroll a slightly higher percentage of minority students than do public community colleges. And while there is tremendous variability in the quality of the for-profits, there are higher quality institutions among them. Some of these colleges have coordinated and well-organized student services and strong ties to local businesses. These policies make sense for both the for-profits and public community colleges.
Q: Are there states or college districts you would point to as models for successfully defending the equity priorities in these challenging economic times?
A: No single college has found the magic formula for achieving the equity agenda, but one broad conclusion that emerged clearly from our research was that if colleges are going to shift from a focus on enrollments to one on student success, then colleges must have a better sense of where and why students have trouble, and what policies and practices are most effective. In most cases, colleges do not have the institutional research capacity to allow them to use their own data to develop a full understanding of what happens to their students. As colleges work to develop this capacity, state community college offices can provide tremendous help by maintaining and using comprehensive student record databases.
Of the states in our study, Florida and Washington are particularly committed to the use of statewide data to track the progress of students. Florida is a national leader in its ability to track students from high school into college and throughout the public higher education system. The state office provides extensive feedback to the individual colleges. Washington State has also done important research tracking students into the labor market. Both states are well above average on measures of student completion.