Community College Hoopla vs. the Equity Gap

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These are good times for community colleges. President Bush is stumping for support of the community college system. Special initiatives in the Department of Labor, along with locally initiated projects, are finding ways to enroll young people in rigorous community college programs that have been co-designed by industries and that lead to high-skill, high-wage jobs. One person at a recent national youth-training conference boasted, “We are the institutions taking people from $7-an-hour jobs to $17!”

Bush isn’t the first president to admire the community college system. Under President Clinton, the departments of Labor and Education worked with community colleges to create an American version of an apprenticeship system under the now- defunct School to Work Opportunities Act.

Bush’s excitement about the community college system is good for the nation. Our more than 1,000 community colleges serve at least 6 million people in credit programs, about one-third of whom are minorities. The system accounts for nearly half of all post-secondary enrollments in the United States.

An increasing number of community colleges – such as the Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn. – offer training programs for young people entering youth work.

There is quite a distance, however, between the potential of community colleges and the reality. That distance needs to be closed fast, or the enthusiasm of even the most ardent new fan of the community college system – George Bush – will fade. Scholars such as Thomas Bailey and Norton Grubb, and groups such as Jobs for the Future, have described an “equity” gap that reveals the underside of the community college system, and the work that’s needed to shrink that gap. Here are some of the challenges:

If helping young people earn associate’s degrees is the goal, then ask if you would invest in a college system in which about half the people don’t achieve a degree within five years. The caveat is that many students enroll in community colleges for a course or two, or for short-term training, with no intention of earning a degree. Others, from low-income backgrounds, are forced to quit for economic and family reasons.

Nevertheless, noncompletion is a serious issue for community colleges.

Another common goal of attending community college is to move on to a four-year college. Red flag! Red flag! Sixty percent of community college students who intend to go on with their education elsewhere do not.

How about the goal among colleges of helping minority and disadvantaged youth get a higher education? Bailey’s research shows that among full-time students attending college for the first time, about 13 percent of African-American students achieve associate’s degrees within three years, as do about 15 percent of Hispanics. The vast majority of those who earn associate’s degrees relatively quickly are white.

The expert consensus, as I read it, is that our community college system has enormous promise, but is deeply flawed and needs all the attention that the president and youth workers can muster.

Some of that attention should focus on the pipeline that brings young people to community colleges.

Those exciting new community college training initiatives from the Department of Labor often carry admission standards that many high school graduates cannot meet. Sadly, their high school preparation just doesn’t cut it. Reading at grade level is a must, as are advanced science requirements.

What about at-risk youth? The Indianapolis Private Industry Council’s BioTech Bound is experimenting with a post-secondary training program, designed by bio-tech companies, for life science careers. Community-based organizations work with at-risk youth to prepare them for college and support them during the college experience.

The challenge is finding enough at-risk youth with the qualifications to join this exciting experiment. A citywide search is on – for only 50 youth! The deeply committed organizers will find these youth. But, sadly, few youth enrolled in community-based organizations in poor urban communities read at grade level, and few can demonstrate the ability to study technical science. The requirements that the youth have a clean criminal record and pass a drug test knock even more of them out of contention. My concern is that with all the hoopla generated by the president’s focus on the community college system, we will forget to close the equity gap that keeps so many youth out of that system.

Think of the community college population as a set of tiers. Will the president’s enthusiasm lead to new opportunities for those on the bottom tier of potential community college students? Or will we write off this population as unworthy of high-skill, high-wage careers?