The Minority Report: How Minority Students are Really Faring at Community Colleges

The Minority Report: How Minority Students are Really Faring at Community Colleges
A performance gap continues to exist at community colleges for minority and low-income students. Learn about the troubling statistics and how the performance gap can be closed.

Despite all of our society’s socioeconomic progress, there still exists a major performance gap between students of different ethnic and income backgrounds. A recently published report paints a disturbing picture of how minority and low-income students are performing in community colleges.

The report, titled “Charting a Necessary Path” and prepared by the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit group the Education Trust, indicates that students from historically underrepresented backgrounds – defined as students of African-American, Latino, and Native American descent – as well as students from low-income families, complete associate’s degree programs and transfer to four-year degree programs at significantly lower rates than their peers.

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Few Minority Students Who Enter Community College Attain Bachelor’s Degrees

The press release accompanying the study reports that although 80 percent of freshmen entering community college intend to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, only 7 percent of low-income and minority community college students attain a bachelor’s degree within ten years. As the press release explains, low-income and minority students are “overrepresented in terms of enrollment” in community colleges but “underrepresented among completers” of community colleges.

Low Rate of Transfer to Four-Year Institutions

The rate at which historically underrepresented minorities transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions is also worrisome, according to the report. Only 12 percent of students from underrepresented minority groups transfer to bachelor’s degree programs within four years of enrolling in a community college.

Low Community College Completion Rates

The study recognizes, however, that attaining a bachelor’s degree is not the goal of all students. It also tracks community college “completion” rates, which it defines as either earning a certificate or associate’s degree or transferring to a four-year college. The study indicates that across racial and socio-economic groups, about one-third of students who enter two-year institutions achieve completion within four years. Troublingly, the two-year college completion rate for African-American, Latino, and Native American students is only 24 percent.

What Can Be Done to Close the Performance Gap

The troubling statistics certainly call for an evaluation of what community colleges can do to close the performance gap.

Pell Grants

Reporting on the study’s findings, the Washington Post notes that the “one bright spot” in the research concerns the Pell Grant, a federal program that helps low-income students through college. The Education Trust’s report indicates that community college students who are Pell Grant recipients achieve completion at a rate of 32 percent, which is the same as the general population.

Coordinated Programs with Strong Leadership

According to CampusProgress, a branch of the think tank Center for American Progress, one of the study’s authors, Jennifer Engle, believes that “a coordinated effort of increased financial aid, specialized counseling, and leadership from the university system's administrators” helps to close the graduation rate achievement gap between minority and non-minority students.

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Civil Rights Issue

The press release accompanying the report notes that the trends revealed by the study are “alarming, but reversible.” The study was performed as part of the Access to Success Initiative, a program that includes 24 public higher-education systems, which have committed themselves to halve the achievement gap between minority students and their peers by the year 2015.

Closing the achievement gap is “the civil rights issue of our day,” says William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Having a college degree is more important today than ever before; Kirwin notes that in this era, “a college degree is the path to a meaningful career and a high quality of life.”

In addition, community colleges, as the press release acknowledges, serve as “important access points to higher education” for many low-income and minority students. Thus, the fact that minority and low-income students at community colleges lag so significantly behind their non-minority and higher-income peers points to a racial and socioeconomic divide that does not sit well with those who advocate for racial and economic equality.

Closing the achievement gap is not only a civil rights issue but also essential for the United States to remain economically competitive in the 21st century. The journal Inside Higher Ed, notes that if our nation is to again become one of the world’s leaders in terms of the number of citizens with a post-secondary education – which is a goal set by President Obama – we must attend to the success rates of minority and low-income students, “whose share of the country’s population is growing by the day.”

The commissioner of higher education in Louisiana, for instance, told Inside Higher Ed that while the white population of her state is expected to grow by 4 to 6 percent over the next several years, the number of low-income and minority residents of the state is expected to grow by 70 percent. If the state could eradicate its achievement gap so that all minority and low-income residents were showing educational achievements similar to that of the state’s general population, “the personal income of Louisiana’s population would be $10 billion higher,” the higher education commissioner said. Similar patterns of population growth can be seen across the United States.

For both moral and economic reasons, the educational achievement gap that affects minority and low-income community college students affects us all.

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