My college career began with remedial courses at a community college and ended four years later with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.
This makes people flinch. But we all have an unexpected flame inside of ourselves waiting to be lit. I always believed this to be true. Others did not, and justifiably so, as my grades in high school were inconsistent. The marks on my report card followed the waves of my depression.
President Obama’s proposal to expand access to community colleges has many asking why the country should focus on students with the odds against them. I offer my story as one to think about amid this debate.
When I was a high school senior, expensive private colleges seemed unrealistic and only small, flimsy envelopes arrived from four-year state colleges. I scanned the website of Raritan Valley Community College, remembering that a high-achieving friend had just enrolled. That was enough to convince me to apply.
I received a startling text from my aunt after announcing my decision to attend Raritan Valley. “You're going to fail out and ruin your life," read the message. My aunt knew the stereotypes of community college too well. Those who attend two-year schools are thought to be defeatist, uninspired, and lacking in follow-through, according to the stereotype. My parents started community college with the intention of earning a degree, but walked away empty-handed.
Feeling perplexed, I quickly wrote back, “Students transfer from community colleges into top schools like Pepperdine and Syracuse all of the time! There's also an honors society. Some people even get full scholarships. I just need to get above a 3.5.”
"That's never going to happen,” read the message that flashed across the screen of my phone. I was disappointed. She feared that if I went to community college I would derail, forfeiting all hopes for a successful life.
For me, forfeiting wasn’t an option. The eccentric and quick-witted professors, personable and encouraging nature of the college president, and wealth of opportunities to explore made Raritan Valley Community College a well-kept secret that I was fortunate enough to discover.
My mathematics professor enlightened our class with her first lesson. “To be fully proficient in any subject,” she said, “studying an additional six to nine hours each week is essential.” I went home and immediately reorganized my schedule to accommodate this formula for mastery.
The tutoring center was my sanctuary. Although passes to the center were limited, I still managed to convince my professor to give me a few extra. I treated them like golden tickets, rejoicing as I danced down the hallway to book my appointment. In the end, my professor’s ultimate study formula proved to be correct. The high-achieving student within me finally took form.
I was no longer ashamed of not having it all together in high school. I belonged in this land of lost toys. The students I interacted with varied in age. They shared identical challenges but told unfamiliar stories. Community colleges accept more than just everyone’s application. Community colleges welcome all students and support them in their pursuit to improve their lives with education. There’s a reason no other academic institution is more accepting.
I applied to Cornell University with my fingers crossed. When I was accepted and decided to major in communication, I knew the odds were still against me. I didn’t anticipate that community college would lead me to graduating from one of the most competitive universities in the world. However, the tenacity I gained over those two years enabled me to face the odds and flourish.
Now, I share the stories of academically struggling children from low-income neighborhoods for the education nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect. We accept all types of scholars because we know they can achieve academic success through our five-week summer education programs. Learning in an environment that promotes acceptance, whether a summer program or a local community college, can strengthen a weak flame into becoming an invincible fire.
Please think about my story when you think about why community colleges matter – in the decisions of high school guidance counselors, state legislators who allocate funds, and members of Congress who now have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
Casey Randazzo is communication coordinator for Practice Makes Perfect, an intergenerational program that matches struggling elementary and middle school students with high-achieving middle and high school students with the supervision of college interns and expert teachers for an intensive academic summer program. She studied communication at Raritan Valley Community College and received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2013.
The problem is that such claims are largely false, and they feed popular misunderstandings of the role of HBCUs in the 21st century. The data are clear: while a small handful of HBCUs experienced a slight increase in non-black enrollment over the last decade, most HBCUs did not. In a re-segregating society, where race and economic class matter more than ever and contemporary accounts from students of color reveal chilly racial climates at predominantly white universities across the country, the future of HBCUs is most important for black Americans. Many of these students rightly view HBCUs as one of the few remaining safe spaces for black intellectual and personal development.
There are 100 HBCUs in the United States, and over 80 percent of them are four-year colleges and universities. A tiny number, however, make most of the news — think Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, Howard and Florida A&M Universities. Despite representing only 3 percent of all U.S. higher education institutions, HBCUs enroll approximately 9 percent of all black undergraduates in higher education today, including almost 11 percent of all black students attending bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.
That’s the real story. But journalists are distracted by the idea that non-black students also attend HBCUs, because that story seems to fuel the narrative of a post-racial movement in America and leads the public to believe that HBCUs are in danger of losing the unique culture that produces the “HBCU experience.”
The fact is that between 2000 and 2010, there were as many non-black students enrolled at 10 HBCUs (mostly community colleges) as were enrolled at all other four-year HBCUs combined. Fully 50 percent of all non-black students at all HBCUs attended just those 10 colleges and universities. But four-year HBCUs experienced no increase in non-black enrollment during the 2000s. In fact, three out of four public HBCUs and many HBCUs with the largest shares of non-black enrollment experienced significant decreases in non-black enrollment between 2000-2010. In other words, most HBCUs are becoming more, not less, segregated.
These facts have been presented before, yet ignored. In 2005, the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education released a report titled, The Persisting Myth That the Black Colleges Are Becoming Whiter, which received very little attention. Contrary to what today’s headlines suggest, the facts have not changed much since 2005.
It is not only important to know that most HBCU student bodies are not becoming less black, but to understand why that is OK. Even though the overwhelming majority of black college students are enrolled at predominantly white institutions, HBCUs continue to pull their (disproportionate) weight and remain the top producers of black graduates in many disciplines. They are able to produce such results because of their explicit commitment to educating black students in nurturing and supportive environments — facts that are missed on state and federal policymakers who still largely ignore and neglect HBCUs when developing higher education policies.
For examples of this, look no further than recent policies that had detrimental consequences for HBCUs, such as the change in federal Parent PLUS loans that cost many HBCUs millions of dollars in funding through steep and sudden declines in student enrollment. Many HBCUs must already deal with being persistently and significantly underfunded compared to predominantly white universities in their state, so policy changes that may be financially inconsequential to larger state institutions have far different implications on HBCU campuses. Another more extreme, yet very real, example of the genuine disinterest for HBCUs is the constant efforts of policymakers to simply get rid of HBCUs. In 2014, North Carolina legislators proposed shutting down Elizabeth City State University because it is “small” and “unprofitable,” even though it has consistently been a top performer when it comes to graduation rates among HBCUs across the country (and because that’s what public universities are supposed to be: profitable, right? Insert sarcasm.). Even the new College Scorecard ratings system proposed by the federal government has received criticism from the HBCU community for using metrics that inherently disadvantage these institutions.
These are just a few examples out of many, but it demonstrates that these attacks on HBCUs are not relics of history. Policymakers continue to regularly demonstrate their apparent disregard for HBCUs and channel their support — both financial and otherwise — to larger, predominantly white flagships despite the accomplishments of HBCUs. So until there is evidence that equitable outcomes are being achieved when it comes to access and success for black students more broadly, and until more students of color are reporting positive experiences with regard to race on predominantly white campuses, HBCUs should and will remain critical support systems for black intellectual development in the U.S. higher education system.
C. Rob Shorette II is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, a former HBCU presidential aide, and a graduate of Florida A&M University. He is also the co-editor, along with Robert Palmer and Marybeth Gasman, of a forthcoming monograph in New Directions in Higher Education, Exploring Diversity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Implications for Policy and Practice.