More than 40% of American college students are enrolled in a community college. The problems facing community colleges resemble the problems facing public schools more than the problems facing larger universities. In particular, racial segregation and inequality.
While large private universities are mostly concerned with how to manage their endowments and cultivate student bodies in their own hand-picked image, community colleges— which accept the majority of applicants, and serve mostly their local areas— have much less control over their own fates. We already know that community colleges as a whole lack adequate funding. And new research papers say that community colleges also face the sort of racial inequality challenges that plague America’s public schools.
Inside Higher Ed reports that only one fourth of community colleges “can be considered racially integrated,” due in large part to the fact that they tend to draw their student bodies from surrounding geographic areas, and America is, you know, still a vastly segregated country. Even if you don’t see segregation itself as a problem, its side effects most surely are:
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.
Another study of California community colleges found that schools with the highest minority enrollments had the lowest rates of students graduating and transferring to four-year colleges. Why? For one thing, schools with high minority enrollment “typically receive less funding from local governments, according to the study. And state support doesn’t cover that gap.”
It’s certainly not a problem that can be fixed only with money. But it certainly is a problem that can’t be fixed without money. We’ve designed a society in which a college degree is the basic price of admission to a middle class lifestyle. Exclusive, well-funded colleges, by definition, cannot enroll everyone who wants a college degree. Community colleges, therefore, represent the most accessible path to the American dream. We should either fund them and fix them, or change the assumption that a college degree is a basic necessity. Otherwise, community colleges are just the final stop on a lifelong trip of underfunded public educational disappointment for non-white Americans.