Community of Equals?

Few elites give much thought to community colleges. But they educate 44 percent of our undergraduates—and they need help.

By Richard Kahlenberg

Tagged Educationequality

In a single year’s time, Isaac Cameron, a low-income African-American student, went from attending Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington—where he says he was viewed by society as a potential criminal—to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he was told he could be the next Barack Obama. His is a classic American tale of a talented, disadvantaged youth who, through hard work and perseverance, rises from humble origins. Under a special program started by former Amherst president Anthony Marx to recruit promising community college students, Cameron was able to traverse what has become a chasm in higher education between two-year institutions that educate large numbers of working-class and minority students in underfunded and crowded environments and elite four-year colleges that lavish tremendous resources on their mostly wealthy students. Cameron flourished at Amherst and appreciated the opportunities offered to him but is quick to acknowledge, “I’m one of the few who made it.”

We know a lot from the media about highly selective colleges like Amherst and Ivy League institutions. Yet the top 25 universities and top 25 liberal arts colleges have combined enrollments of fewer than 350,000 undergraduates—about 1.4 percent of all students. By contrast, we know far less about community colleges, where a whopping 11 million students are enrolled, or 44 percent of all undergraduates in the country.

On one level, this is understandable. Selective four-year college graduates dominate the leadership class in America, so who gets to attend them matters. In 2002, the alumni of just 12 wealthy institutions filled 54 percent of America’s top corporate and 42 percent of government leadership positions, according to political scientist Thomas Dye. Indeed, I’ve spent many years researching and writing about issues like affirmative action and legacy preferences at selective colleges because they shape American society in profound ways.

But what arguably matters much more is the state of America’s community colleges. Their success or failure will help determine whether America remains globally competitive and whether American society can once again promote social mobility in an era of rapidly changing demographics. Community colleges educate the workers who staff the small businesses and firms that need skilled employees to stay competitive. These businesses may never hire an employee from Princeton, but they depend heavily on the quality of education provided by places like Highline Community College. And two-year colleges are the entry point for millions of working-class students like Isaac Cameron, who would like to transfer to a four-year college and could contribute to society in important ways.

For much of the twentieth century, Isaac Cameron’s story was a familiar one, and community colleges played a vital role in educating our young people. But today, community colleges often fail. They do a great job of providing access but a dismal job of helping students complete degrees. When you ask new community college students what they aspire to, 81 percent say they would eventually like to get a four-year degree. But the reality is that after six years, only 12 percent of entering community college students graduate with a four-year degree.

And these rates have declined over time. Among the cohort of students who began in 1989, 38 percent completed a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree within five years. That five-year completion rate dipped to 26 percent for those students beginning in 2003. Overall, a startling 65 percent of students who begin at a community college fail to earn a degree or certificate of any kind within six years.

Community colleges fail to produce better results in part because they are caught in a double bind: Asked to educate students with the greatest needs, two-year colleges have the fewest resources. Moreover, our higher education system, like the larger society, is increasingly divided between rich and poor, an arrangement that rarely works out well for low-income people.

The failure of community colleges couldn’t have come at a worse moment. At a time of massive demographic change, community colleges have become increasingly important to our future because they educate a growing number of black and Latino students.

Moreover, in an era of stagnating social mobility, community colleges—known as “people’s colleges”—are critical ladders for the aspiring middle class. As President Obama has argued, social mobility is what used to define us as Americans, but no longer does. At a time of rising college costs, two-year institutions remain significant as an affordable option for millions of low-income and working-class Americans, whose talents we need to develop to their fullest.

The community college experiment is now a far cry from its early democratic mission. Where did two-year institutions go off track? What, if anything, can be done to turn them around? President Obama got the reform process off to a good start by identifying an ambitious goal: that by 2020, 60 percent of young Americans have a postsecondary degree, with community colleges at the center of that effort. Achieving that target would require boosting college completion for adults between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2020 to 27 million degrees, eight million more than is currently projected. Of those eight million new graduates, five million (63 percent) would come from community colleges.

To reach that goal, comprehensive reform of the community-college system should do three things: One, it should review what works and what doesn’t, and include an effort to scale up the effective practices. Two, it must address the problem of inadequate resources that currently plagues our community college system. Three—and perhaps least acknowledged—reform should address the striking economic stratification of the higher-education system, a condition that only exacerbates the disadvantages community colleges face.

The Grand Dreams of Community Colleges

While four-year colleges in the United States date back to 1636, community colleges are a twentieth-century invention. They have a distinctly American ethos rooted in egalitarianism and efficiency. Originally intended as “junior colleges” to educate first- and second-year students inexpensively before they transferred to a four-year college, the mission has changed over time to also include workforce training for students who end their postsecondary experience with a certificate or associate degree.

The first community college was founded in Illinois in 1901. The growth of two-year colleges then accelerated after the 1947 Truman Commission report, which argued that higher education should be made far more accessible. “Equal opportunity for all persons, to the maximum of their individual abilities and without regard to economic status, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, or ancestry is a major goal of American democracy,” the commission declared. Two-year institutions were designed to broaden access by being more affordable, more geographically dispersed than traditional four-year colleges, and open to all high-school graduates, not just the strongest academically. Student tuition and fees covered just one-tenth of the cost of community college in the 1950s, with local and state subsidies accounting for most of the balance.

California Governor Pat Brown made community colleges the primary access point for most students in the state’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. Under Brown’s plan, the top eighth of the state’s high-school graduates were eligible to attend the University of California (UC) system, and the top third could attend the California State University System, but the remaining two-thirds would begin at community colleges, from which successful graduates could then transfer to the Cal State or UC systems. The open-admissions system provided a second chance to students who struggled academically in high school. During this era, California flourished. “By the early 1960s,” writes Kevin Starr in Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963, “millions of young Californians were in school; and in this alembic of public education was being forged a new California for whom the postwar boom, including life in the suburbs, was the norm.”

Nationwide, community colleges blossomed during this time. The number of community colleges more than doubled in the 1960s, from 412 to 909. The number of students increased from less than one million to more than two million. Overall, during the twentieth century, two-year institutions rose from just 5 percent of all institutions in 1917 to 40 percent at century’s end.

Today, more than 1,100 community colleges continue to be an important gateway for younger students who cannot afford to live in a college dorm and must reside with their parents instead, or for older students who need to continue working
full-time and want to take evening classes nearby. They also offer technical education geared toward the needs of local employers.

Because of their distinct mission, community college campuses have a markedly different feel than that found on a four-year college campus. The Frisbee-tossing undergrads you see in a typical four-year college brochure are a rare sight at the local community college. Because few students live on campus and more are older, many leave as soon as classes are over to get back to full-time jobs or parenting demands. The faculty members, likewise, are far more likely to be part-time adjunct professors who don’t have offices and also leave campus immediately after class. Many students are underprepared, and some faculty members are frankly dismissive of the young minds they’re in charge of molding. “Professor X,” an anonymous community college English instructor, wrote in his 2011 book, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, that many of his students “think that Edward Said is a literary technique, and ‘allusion’ the author of Ulysses.”

The differences between two and four-year college campuses illustrate the larger dilemma for community colleges: Do the very factors that make them more accessible than four-year institutions—their low price and open-enrollment policies—also make them less effective learning environments?

The New Segregation

While the crowning glory of the community college system is its accessibility and low cost, these features bring with them two related challenges—increasing isolation of student bodies by race and class, coupled with declining resources—that together help explain poor student outcomes.

The issue of stratification has emerged slowly over time. While primary and secondary schools have long educated a broad cross-section of students, the entire system of higher education was fairly elite until recently. In the early 1950s, around the time of Brown v. Board of Education, only 6.9 percent of the adult population had a four-year degree and only 7.6 percent had one to three years of college. Eighty-five percent of adults had virtually no college experience. By 2011, more than half of American adults had one year of college or more, a quadrupling of the share 60 years earlier.

The good news, then, is that more students are going to college than ever before. But the bad news is that the world of higher education has simultaneously become more unequal as economic and racial stratification between two- and four-year colleges has grown. According to research by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University, rich students outnumber poor students by 14 to 1 at selective four-year colleges, but at community colleges, it is poor students who outnumber rich ones, by nearly 2 to 1. There is also considerable stratification within the two-year sector, such that the most racially isolated quartile of community colleges has student populations in which almost two-thirds are from underrepresented minority groups. Community colleges, like public schools, tend to reflect the economic and racial segregation of surrounding neighborhoods.

This stratification has grown over time, as the share of students from the richest quarter of the population attending community colleges has declined from 24 percent to 16 percent in recent decades. The racial numbers are also stark. According to Carnevale and Strohl, “Since 1995, 82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the 468 most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollment have gone to the two-year and four-year open-access schools.”

Although today’s segregation is not mandated by law as in the Jim Crow era, the rising separation of minority and white students and low-income and middle-class students is deeply troubling for three reasons. First, growing segregation is associated with reduced expectations and a watered-down curriculum in the two-year sector. Sociologists Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel found that as the share of low-income and working-class students has increased at community colleges, institutions have focused more and more on a vocational curriculum leading to certificates rather than a liberal arts curriculum aimed at transfer to four-year institutions. Some of this shift may reflect consumer demand, but community college students in working-class settings that do not have a culture of transfer may find themselves steered by the curriculum to certificates in technical fields whether or not they wish to pursue that path. Research by Kevin Dougherty of Teachers College, Columbia University finds that community college students often suffer from “low expectations of teachers and lack of support from fellow students for academic work.”

Indeed, peer effects are a second reason to be concerned about stratification in higher education. Because middle-class students come to college generally achieving at higher levels, high concentrations of working-class students at community colleges may present a disadvantage. In Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write that “[b]eing surrounded by peers who are well prepared for college-level work is likely to shape the climate of the institution as well as specific student experiences. Having high-performing students in the classroom can help improve achievement of all students, including those who have accumulated fewer skills before entering college.”

Third, growing segregation reduces the political capital of community colleges, since legislators are more attuned to the needs of middle-class and wealthy constituencies. Despite having students with the greatest needs, community colleges spend far less per pupil than four-year colleges. In 2009-10, per pupil total operating expenditures ranged from about $67,000 at private research universities and $36,000 at public research universities to $13,000 at public community colleges. Those differences are partly explained by resources devoted to research, but even excluding that factor, large gaps still remain. Looking just at instruction, public community colleges spent about $10,000 per pupil in 2009-10 compared with $16,000 at public research universities and $36,000 at private research universities.

Moreover, gaps have grown over time, coinciding with increased student stratification. Stunningly, over the past decade, inflation-adjusted spending at public research universities has increased roughly $4,200 per student, compared with just a $1 per student increase for community colleges. The Delta Cost Project, which assembled these figures, concluded that “disparities between rich and poor institutions in overall spending levels have never been larger.”

Of course, part of the reason that community colleges spend less is that they charge less in tuition and fees. As state subsidies have declined for higher education across the board, four-year colleges have been able to cushion the blow with tuition increases. At public two-year colleges, tuition and fees (not including room and board) were $2,647 in 2011-12, compared with $7,701 at public four-year colleges. But if community colleges wish to remain open-access institutions, they can only raise tuition so much. Already, between 1989 and 2009, net tuition revenue as a share of total revenue at two-year public colleges rose from 18 percent to 27 percent.

In addition, accounting for differences in tuition and fees, research finds that public subsidies tilt toward institutions that educate the wealthiest students. A 2009 Brookings Institution policy memo, for example, noted that direct federal aid to higher education disproportionately benefits four-year over two-year colleges. The memo reported that four-year institutions receive more than three times as much federal support—$2,650 per full-time equivalent student at the four-year schools versus just $790 at the two-year colleges.

Furthermore, wealthy four-year universities receive large public subsidies in the form of tax breaks that are largely hidden from public view. Because they are deemed to advance the public interest, nonprofit private universities are not taxed on endowment income or capital gains, and donations to universities are tax deductible for the donor. If a wealthy individual in the top tax bracket donates a swimming pool to his alma mater, taxpayers subsidize more than a third of the cost in foregone revenue. Of course, community colleges in theory can also take advantage of these tax breaks, but in 2007, public community colleges derived just $372 per full-time equivalent student from private and affiliated gifts, grants, contracts, investment returns, and endowment income. By contrast, private research institutions derived $46,342 per pupil. Hedge-fund managers love to give to their Ivy League alma maters and to adopt public charter schools at the K-12 level, but rarely do they contribute to America’s community colleges. Considering these and other policies, economist Richard Vedder estimates that the annual federal and state subsidy to one wealthy private institution, Princeton University, is $54,000 per pupil. Direct public subsidies to community colleges, by contrast, are less than $9,000 per pupil, and tax benefits are miniscule.

The Community College Penalty

Unsurprisingly, increasing segregation and inadequate funding correlate with disappointing outcomes in community colleges. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin noted in 2010 that research finds that greater resources are associated with better outcomes, and when students have to vie “for scarce college resources, rates of degree completion tend to decline.”

As noted above, only about 35 percent of students who start at a two-year college earn a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree within six years. By contrast, 57 percent of first-time students enrolled in a bachelor’s program earned a bachelor’s degree within six years. Of course, the dismal completion rate is partly due to the fact that many community college students arrive poorly prepared, need to take remedial courses, and have to work full time to make ends meet.

But above and beyond that, economists have documented a “community college penalty” for students of the same race, income, and preparation level who begin at a two- rather than a four-year institution. Controlling for a number of relevant characteristics, C. Lockwood Reynolds, an economist at Kent State University, estimated that beginning at a two-year college reduces one’s chance of ultimately receiving a bachelor’s degree by 30 percentage points. Likewise, Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University and Michal Kurlaender of the University of California, Davis, found that after controlling for selection bias, students who initially began at a community college in Ohio were conservatively estimated to be about 14 percentage points less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within nine years than a comparable student who began at a four-year institution in the state.

Tellingly, in recent decades, just as community colleges have witnessed increasing economic and racial isolation of student populations and declining funding, student outcomes have grown worse. According to the U.S. Department of Education, community college students’ aspirations have increased since the 1980s but actual results have declined. In 1989, 71 percent of first-time beginning community college students wanted a bachelor’s degree, but just 7 percent had achieved it five years later. In 2003, the aspiration had risen to 81 percent but the five-year completion rate had dropped to 6 percent. The current system—in which fully three-quarters of community college students fail to meet their aspirations within five years—is in shambles and needs a complete overhaul.

A Community College Reform Agenda

To its credit, the Obama Administration has pushed for more federal funding for community colleges on multiple occasions, although only a fraction of the funds it has proposed have been appropriated. In 2009, when President Obama called for five million additional community college graduates by 2020 he announced a $12 billion initiative to improve graduation rates and develop new technology at community colleges. The American Graduation Initiative did not become law, however. Instead, a much smaller $2 billion program was created within the Department of Labor for career training at community colleges. Having to settle for one-sixth of the funding requested, even at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, underlined the lack of political capital possessed by the increasingly working-class and minority constituencies at community colleges.

So how can community colleges recapture the dream of promoting social mobility and American competitiveness? Three strategies look promising: scaling up best practices; reforming the way we fund colleges; and reducing racial and economic segregation of students.

Scaling Up Best Practices
Almost all of the discussion around community-college reform, driven by a few large foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, has focused on seeking to scale up the best practices of relatively successful community colleges. These exemplars—such as Santa Barbara City College in California and Kingsborough Community College in New York—do a better job of providing remedial education, which at many colleges is a swamp of non-credit-bearing classes from which students never emerge. One promising practice involves embedding remedial material within credit-bearing classes that advance students toward their degrees. Some higher-performing colleges also restrict students’ choice of courses to keep them focused and on track for a degree. Providing too many course options can take students down blind alleys, some colleges find. Some exemplary colleges also provide intimate “learning communities” of 20 or 25 students who take two or three thematically linked classes together and receive extra advising and support. Professors coordinate their instruction of these classes and students have a chance to form stronger bonds with peers than they normally could in an otherwise transient and highly atomized campus environment. These types of reforms are advocated by groups like Complete College America, which lobbies states to adopt reforms, and the Aspen Institute, which highlights community-college best practices through a biennial prize.

While these reforms may be promising over the long haul, a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center suggests that existing efforts at boosting completion rates are not sufficient. Despite a major push since 2006, rates have barely budged. Existing reforms are worthy but limited because they ignore the bigger structural issues facing community colleges: declining funding relative to four-year institutions and growing economic and racial segregation between two- and four-year campuses.

In confronting these issues, higher-education leaders could learn important lessons from the K-12 system, which has much more experience and success educating a broad cross-section of students. This suggestion might seem odd at first blush. Top American colleges and universities rank among the best in the world, and higher education is routinely cited as a model for our elementary and secondary schools. But system-wide, higher education graduates only about half of all full-time students, compared with nine of ten in our K-12 system. In learning how to educate growing numbers of low-income and minority students, higher education could learn much from what has worked to address funding inequalities and economic and racial segregation in our K-12 schools.

Reforming the Funding System
At the primary and secondary levels, it’s long been recognized that students with greater needs deserve extra resources, and that principle is embedded in our laws, even if it is imperfectly implemented in practice. Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides extra funds to high-poverty schools. And two-thirds of states provide additional funding to schools with large concentrations of low-income students, typically awarding them a 25 percent premium. That extra funding is based on extensive research about the greater needs of economically disadvantaged students. For example, a 2008 review of studies in nine states for the National Research Council found that the cost of educating economically disadvantaged students ranged from just under 23 percent to 168 percent more than the cost of educating other students. Although the studies ranged widely in their conclusions regarding the premium deserved, all agreed that it takes more, not fewer, funds to adequately educate disadvantaged students to proficient levels.

Public higher-education instructional funding, which now tilts toward four-year institutions, needs rethinking. Efforts should be made to move toward state and federal funding formulas that reward institutions with larger numbers of high-need students (something President Obama’s new higher-education rating system contemplates). These efforts should be coupled with accountability measures to ensure that the funds are spent wisely and institutions are rewarded for completion as well as access.

While federal funding reform is likely to meet resistance from a conservative Congress in the short term, there are concrete steps the Obama Administration can take now to plant the seeds for reform in the long term. The Department of Education could commission research on the amount of extra funding low-income students should receive in order to succeed in higher education. These types of studies, which are widespread at the K-12 level, are virtually nonexistent at the postsecondary level. Likewise, the Education and Treasury Departments could require disclosure by postsecondary institutions of the indirect subsidies they receive through tax breaks, highlighting the enormous subsidies for wealthy colleges like Princeton. These data could provide an important argument for reform in the future.

Would investing more money in community colleges work? Higher state per-pupil appropriations to community colleges do generally correlate with higher completion rates, with high-spending states like Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota having above-average rates. More to the point, we know that certain investments are particularly likely to pay off. For example, research by scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University finds that having more full-time faculty on staff leads to improved outcomes for students. Yet today, as a way of saving money, community colleges are much more likely to rely on inexpensive adjuncts and other part-time instructors. Only 31 percent of faculty members at public community colleges are full-time, compared with 42 percent at public research universities and 50 percent at private research universities. (Graduate assistants are counted as part-time in this analysis.) Investing in more full-time community college faculty could result in improved outcomes for students.

Likewise, there is strong evidence that investing in extra tutoring, small class sizes, intensive advising, and generous financial aid at community colleges can have big payoffs. At a typical community college, classes are crowded and student-adviser ratios can be as high as 1,500 to 1. But at the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, students are provided with the tutoring, class size, advising, and financial aid more typical of wealthy four-year colleges. These benefits, provided within a highly structured environment in which students must attend classes full time, have been found by the nonprofit research institute MDRC to nearly double graduation rates (to 33 percent compared with a control group’s 18 after two-and-a-half years).

Because it educates large numbers of students inexpensively, the current community-college system is often seen as efficient—but it is not. While the relatively inexpensive public subsidies provided to community colleges may appear to give taxpayers a good deal, careful research on the cost per degree shows that trying to educate students on the cheap doesn’t work well. When one factors in the enormous attrition rates at community colleges, the cost per degree is actually more, not less, than at four-year institutions. According to the Delta Cost Project, the spending per degree at public community colleges in 2009 was $73,940, compared to $65,632 at public research institutions and $55,358 at public masters institutions. Mark Schneider and Lu Michelle Yin of the American Institutes for Research find that federal, state, and local taxpayers paid almost $4 billion over a recent five-year period to educate first-year full-time community college students who did not return for a second year. The current arrangement is penny wise and pound foolish.

A new, better-funded system of community colleges could have a big payoff for the larger society. In 2011, annual median earnings for associate degree holders were $7,080 more than for high-school graduates. The higher earnings can fuel more economic growth and more tax revenue for states. A 2014 study found that the benefit to taxpayers of investing in community colleges exceeded the costs by a factor of 2.5 to one.

Reducing Racial and Economic Segregation
Spending reform alone, however, is unlikely to be sufficient. To turn around community colleges, we must also address head-on the racial and economic stratification that worsens outcomes for students by subjecting them to reduced expectations and isolation from valuable peer networks.

Racial and economic integration in higher education should be a two-way street. Up until now, most of the focus has been on affirmative action programs that allow minority and some low-income students to attend selective four-year colleges. These are important, but in addition, community colleges should adopt an array of programs to attract more middle-class students in order to elevate the community college experience. That is, in addition to affirmative action for low-income students at selective colleges, we need the community college equivalent of “magnet” programs used at the K-12 level to attract middle-class students to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

To begin with, community colleges should create new honors programs (or expand existing programs) to attract a broad cross-section of students. Now found on more than 160 community college campuses out of 1,200, honors programs range from those that offer entirely separate tracks and have strict enrollment criteria to those that offer supplementary honors seminars to students above a certain grade-point average and also provide advice on the transition to four-year colleges. These programs could reduce the stigma of two-year institutions that prevents some middle-class families from taking advantage of the bargain prices available.

The challenge is to offer programs that will simultaneously attract middle-class students who might not otherwise consider community college and yet at the same time prevent them from becoming tracking devices that segregate students within two-year institutions. A promising example is the honors program at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, that helped launch Isaac Cameron to Amherst. Highline’s honors program does not have separate courses for honors students but instead pushes students to complete extra projects and papers in classes that are accessible to all.

Community colleges can also attract more middle-class students by awarding bachelor’s degrees in certain disciplines. Twenty-one states now allow community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees, usually where they will not duplicate the programs of nearby four-year institutions. Florida is a leading example. In 2008, the state’s community-college system was renamed the Florida College System in an effort to increase bachelor’s degree production. The institutions must retain an open-door admissions policy, but 24 of 28 former community colleges now also offer bachelor’s programs in areas like education, business, and nursing.

Among the most promising strategies for reducing stratification—and enhancing student outcomes—is to find a way to connect formally what are now separate two- and four-year institutional silos. Richard Atkinson, the former president of the University of California system, and his colleague Saul Geiser note that these connections can take different forms. Under a “university centers” arrangement, four-year universities offer upper division classes on two-year campuses in order to reach students who, for reasons of work or family, need to avail themselves of a four-year education in a local community college setting. The senior institution offers the actual degree. In a related arrangement called the “branch campus” model, community colleges are converted into “lower-division satellites of state universities, thereby expanding capacity at the 4-year level and eliminating the need for the traditional transfer process.”

Yet another program provides guaranteed transfers from community colleges. Students with a certain grade-point average who have completed enough credits in the appropriate fields are guaranteed admissions at partner four-year state institutions. For example, Valencia College in Florida, identified as the nation’s best community college in 2011 by the Aspen Institute, has an agreement with the University of Central Florida (UCF) called “DirectConnect.” Under this policy, “students cannot transfer to UCF without an associate’s degree, but cannot be denied admission if they have one from Valencia,” the Aspen Institute explains. Virginia, Nevada, and New Hampshire have similar guaranteed admissions policies.

If all these programs were successful in attracting more middle-class students to community colleges, it would strengthen the social capital on those campuses, but might also exacerbate overcrowding. Accordingly, progress to better integrate four-year institutions with more low-income students is an important complementary strategy. To accomplish this goal, four-year colleges should be offered federal incentives to recruit low-income students to campus. And elite four-year colleges should agree to set aside a proportion of seats (say, 5 percent of the junior class) for transfers from community colleges. Under Amherst College’s plan, through which Isaac Cameron was admitted, the college has grown more racially and economically diverse, and the community-college transfer students have performed at very high levels.

How much would reducing socioeconomic stratification improve outcomes in two-year colleges? Recent research by scholars Tatiana Melguizo and Holly Kosiewicz of the University of Southern California finds that economically and racially integrated community colleges have considerably better outcomes for students than higher-poverty community colleges—even controlling for incoming preparation levels.

Melguizo and Kosiewicz’s findings are consistent with a 2008 study by Columbia University researchers that examined institutional factors correlated with higher attainment. Controlling for race, test score, and socioeconomic status of individual students, just a few factors predicted higher student outcomes: avoiding racial isolation, having a small student population, and providing a higher proportion of full-time faculty.
Over the long term, having a more favorable socioeconomic mix and avoiding minority racial isolation could create a virtuous cycle in which the presence of more middle-class students boosts the political capital of institutions, enables increases in spending, and improves outcomes further. Those developments then could attract yet more middle-class students, continuing the positive cycle.

Reviving the American Dream

If we want community colleges to approach the better outcomes found in four-year institutions, we should give two-year institutions what their four-year counterparts routinely enjoy: an economically diverse mix of students coupled with adequate funding. While some differentiation between two- and four-year colleges is appropriate, a rigid, two-tiered system that offers little fluidity between levels and tends to educate different income and racial and ethnic groups in different settings is neither desirable nor efficient.

We have much to celebrate in higher education, as more students are going to college than ever before. But we must also recognize that the growth in enrollment is fueling increased stratification, which is reducing completion. Separate but equal has not been a winning strategy at the K-12 level, and it is not succeeding in higher education. Educating rich and poor apart may be a familiar phenomenon, but it is not inevitable.

If our nation does not assist community colleges in better serving their students, it will be less economically competitive and poorer. The American Dream will remain out of reach for millions of our fellow citizens. Nonwhite and non-Anglo students, the coming majority, will be left behind. And college completion will increasingly become a luxury for the wealthy.

Today, community colleges can claim a few success stories, such as that of Isaac Cameron, who defied the odds, transferred from a community college, and graduated from an elite institution. But he remains the rare exception. “One of the most painful experiences of my life,” he said, “is going back home and watching firsthand the people I grew up with” accepting their fate. “Friends that I grew up with,” he said, “had high aspirations and dreams, kind of a sparkle in the eye, if you will. And you could see over the years as they interacted with hurdle and hurdle and hurdle how those aspirations started to fade.” What haunts Cameron—and what should haunt a nation that allows community colleges to fail—is this: “How many people could potentially be future leaders and really contributing to our country moving forward and are instead making peace with a life of mediocrity?” It is time to apply the powerful lessons of Brown v. Board of Education to community colleges so that they can strengthen American competitiveness, bolster American democracy, and revive the American Dream.

Read more about Educationequality

Richard Kahlenberg a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author or editor of 17 books, is writing a book on housing segregation.

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