Applewhite: Community colleges reflect society's inequities
Last month the Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, released a report that examines the role of community colleges in American education. While 81 percent of their students enroll with plans to transfer to a four-year college down the line, according to the report, only 12 percent actually transfer within six years.
The report found that students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile outnumber their counterparts from the highest quartile by nearly 2 to 1 in the community college setting. And black and Hispanic students are disproportionately represented in the community college student body.
The data offer a look at how U.S. higher education is increasingly becoming "separate and unequal," as the foundation puts it. Community colleges, which serve a broad population by accepting anyone with a high school diploma, receive far less public funding than four-year institutions.
As a community college professor, I can safely say that I work with some of the brightest students in the city. But a majority of them face real-life struggles that many who receive a traditional college education could not fathom -- homelessness, poverty, domestic violence -- while attempting to complete school, raise children and work full time. Some of these students are immigrants and many are the first in their families to attend college.
Four-year colleges are the ultimate gateways to social mobility for many community college students. But some of them will never attend because of the rising costs of tuition or tougher admission requirements. Added to this is the difficulty in navigating the community college system in a way that helps students move on to four-year institutions. They may take courses that aren't accepted for transfer, for instance.
We need to make it a state and federal priority to provide more funding and resources at the community-college level to help these students meet their goals. Child care assistance, increased financial aid and more full-time faculty would address some of the problems students face and boost their academic efforts. Until we make this a part of our effort to reach for the top, our higher-education system will continue to be separate and unequal.
Sheldon Applewhite is an assistant professor of sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He tweets as @DrSApplewhite.