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Guest Post: Community Colleges Are Not a Silver Bullet for Closing Completion Gap

Published:  April 7, 2010

[Yesterday at Higher Ed Watch, we reported on how both public and private colleges and universities are using large shares of their institutional aid dollars to try to attract well-to-do students. As a result, many of even the highest-achieving low-income students are finding their higher education options limited to community colleges. But instead of confronting these issues, policymakers are increasingly promoting community colleges as an affordable way for these students to get a start on their college careers. Is this a good public policy solution? Kati Haycock, the president of the research and advocacy group Education Trust doesn't think so. In this guest post, she explains why.]

By Kati Haycock

For years now, many four-year colleges have been running away from their responsibilities to educate students from low-income families. This phenomenon is especially discouraging among the prestigious state institutions that were founded for the express purpose of providing high-quality higher education to students whose families could not afford to pay the costs of private higher education.

Though more and more of our high school graduates are coming from poor and minority families, the relative representation of those students at state flagships and other public research universities has actually fallen.

And while campus leaders often wax eloquent about their commitment to students from modest circumstances, their actions tell a different story. Instead of using their own, often considerable “institutional financial aid” dollars to make certain that students of limited means have access to the education they provide, these institutions award vast amounts of aid to those who will make them look better on college rankings—students who have no financial need whatsoever.

But instead of confronting these issues,  policymakers have been taking the easy way out – promoting community colleges as THE answer for low-income students and students of color.

A Fast-Building Consensus

The logic, of course, is seductive. Students can start in a two-year college and earn a certificate or degree there, or they can continue their education in a four-year college. Because community colleges cost less, students end up with less debt. And because state subsidies per student are lower in community colleges, these institutions could increase degree attainment at less cost to taxpayers.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of affection for America’s community colleges. When I was a high school senior in Southern California, the classes I took at nearby Chaffey College were not only a welcome intellectual challenge but among the best taught of my entire undergraduate experience. Thanks to Oakland, Calif.’s Laney College, my stay-at-home mom, finding herself newly alone at age 50, was able to become a registered nurse. And both of my daughters spent what should have been their senior years in high school at Montgomery College in Maryland.

So I understand in a very personal way what treasures these institutions are and welcome federal initiatives to push more dollars their way. That we spend only about half as much per student in the institutions that educate students with the greatest needs as we do in institutions that serve more privileged students is both morally wrong and economically short-sighted.

But there is something deeply troubling in the fast-building consensus that community colleges are our new silver bullet—a seemingly “perfect vehicle” for low-income and minority students who “cannot afford” to start at a four-year institution.

First, just because “that’s where the low-income and minority students are,” doesn’t mean they are where they should be. Unless we want only privileged students to have unfettered access to the bachelor’s and advanced degrees that equip them for high-level positions, we need to be very careful about anything that would further increase stratification in our already horribly stratified system.

Second, if we are serious about achieving President Obama’s goal of regaining our international lead in educational attainment by 2020, then we cannot place the entire burden on only one part of our higher education system—especially the one with the weakest completion record. Not, that is, unless we figure out how to radically increase success rates in community colleges.

A Lack of Success

Federal longitudinal studies conducted on the high school graduating class of 1992 show that even “college qualified” students who start in a two-year college are considerably less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than similarly qualified students who begin in four-year colleges. Although differences exist at all family-income levels, the gaps are biggest among low-income students. Among such students who aspired to earn a bachelor’s degree and had completed high school mathematics coursework through trigonometry (considered “high” college qualifications in 1992), 69 percent of those who began in four-year colleges earned that degree, compared with only 19 percent of those who started in two-year colleges.

Further, more recent large-scale data collection for the Access to Success Initiative suggests that most students who begin in community colleges don’t complete anything at all.  A project of the National Association of System Heads and the Education Trust, the Access to Success Initiative works with 24 large public college and university systems that have pledged to cut the college-going and graduation gaps for low-income and minority students in half by 2015. The initiative's first report shows that fewer than one-third of all students (and only 24 percent of underrepresented minorities) who started in two-year colleges had completed a certificate, an associate’s degree, or transferred to a four-year college within four years.

Certainly, not everybody needs a bachelor’s degree. But because many of the best jobs typically require one, it is essential that the transfer function work. Here, the Access to Success data tell an alarming story:

  • Among students who begin in a two-year college, only 12 percent of underrepresented minority students and 16 percent of other students transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Among transfers, only 55 percent of the minorities and 61 percent of other students earn a bachelor’s within six years of transferring.
  • In sum, then, only about seven percent of minority students—and 10 percent of nonminority students—who begin in a two-year college earn a bachelor’s degree from any institution in these large systems within 10 years of starting college. These rates are far lower than for students who begin even in nonselective four-year colleges.

To be fair, some of the success problems in community colleges undoubtedly are attributable to the fact that these colleges serve so many students from poor-quality, under-resourced high schools and receive so much less funding per student than their four-year counterparts. But to suggest that the students on whom we have spent the least since kindergarten somehow “belong” in the institutions that virtually guarantee we will continue to spend less on them seems not only counterproductive but distinctly un-American.

Wasting Talent

Certainly, community colleges have a hugely important role to play in our national effort to increase postsecondary education levels. And they need additional support to make sure more students succeed. But if we are to significantly ramp up educational attainment and narrow the enormous disparities in postsecondary education levels in this country, we can’t leave that job to just one part of our higher education system. Four-year colleges need to do their share, as well.

But instead of serving as engines of opportunity for their states, far too many of them are becoming engines of inequality. The result? An awful lot of high-achieving low-income students either are not attending college at all or are ending up in two-year colleges or open-access institutions. These are institutions, in other words, to which they could have been admitted without cracking a book in high school and from which they are least likely to earn a degree.

Not long ago, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation commissioned a study to examine the impact of this phenomenon, which the researchers call “under matching.” The effects were stunning. With every decline in school selectivity, there was a measurable decline in the likelihood of graduation. Among high-achieving low-income students, graduation rates declined from 90 percent in the most selective institutions to 56 percent in the least selective. In contrast, more than 80 percent of high-income high achievers received degrees no matter where they went to college.

We can’t afford to waste this much talent. Indeed, a recent report from the independent, congressionally chartered Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance painted a stark picture of the consequences of current attendance patterns. According to the committee’s calculations, the combination of three forces—the increasing cost of college, insufficient need-based grant aid, and an enrollment shift among college-qualified students toward the two-year sector—resulted in a loss of between 1.7 and 3.2 million bachelor’s degrees over the last decade.

That’s not good for young people, many of whom are now trying to navigate their futures with high debt and no degree. Moreover, if we continue down this same road—spending precious grant dollars in our four-year colleges on students who don’t need financial aid and simply dumping low-income students and students of color into community colleges, even slightly better funded ones—it won’t be good for our country, either.

Kati Haycock is the president of the Education Trust, a national organization she founded in 1990 to promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels—pre-kindergarten through college. According to the group's website, the organization's mission "is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people—especially those from low-income families or who are black, Latino, or American Indian—to lives on the margins of the American mainstream." Before founding the Education Trust, Haycock was executive vice president of the Children's Defense Fund, the country's largest child advocacy organization. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New America Foundation.

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