Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Lost in the Shuffle: The Critical Role of Community Colleges

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Lost in the Shuffle: The Critical Role of Community Colleges

Article excerpt

Not surprisingly, debates about access and equity at four-year institutions never fail to generate their fair share of controversy. But lost in the shuffle is the critical role that two-year institutions play for many Black students.

On the surface, recent gains in postsecondary enrollment rates for African-Americans reveal significant progress for a group that has historically been shut out of higher education opportunities. Yet as their enrollment continues to grow at community college campuses, many of these students are straggling to attain achievement on par with other students.

Community College Research Center data show that well over half of all Black students who began their post-secondary education in a community college dropped out of school within six years. Eight years after high school, 72 percent of Black community college students--compared with 50 percent of White community college students--have not transferred to a four-year school or earned a certificate or associate degree. Only 10 percent of all Black first-time community college students earned an associate degree within six years and only 2 percent completed a bachelor's degree in the same time--one-sixth the rate for White students.

This is at a time when the Bush administration and many legislators in Congress would like to hold postsecondary institutions to higher standards of accountability, just as they have done with elementary and secondary schools. Institutional reporting requirements to the U.S. Department of Education now include data for graduation rates overall and are broken out by gender and race/ethnicity.

The use of completion rates as a yardstick for accountability puts pressure on community colleges to improve student outcomes, which may ultimately benefit Black students and other groups of students with lower-than-average completion rates. These institutions may be forced to take student completion figures as seriously as they take their enrollment counts, although it should not be adopted without a caveat.

Relying exclusively on the raw graduation rate measure is shortsighted because many institutional and individual factors may impact those graduation rates. We know that socio-economic circumstances and academic backgrounds impact performance at the post-secondary level. Black students are often faced with barriers to their success, whether it is poor academic preparation in high school, financial difficulties that require employment while in school, family obligations and other challenges that require a daunting juggling of responsibilities. …

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