Why Community Colleges Are Our Best Hope for Closing the Equity Gap

February 27, 2023 Watermark Insights

Why Community Colleges Are Our Best Hope for Closing the Equity Gap

Many people in the United States believe in the “American dream” — the idea that if they try hard enough, every American can and will achieve success and upward mobility. America, after all, is the land of opportunity. 

However, the reality of the American dream can look pretty different. Opportunity in America is not evenly distributed. It rests heavily with the wealthy, educated, primarily White population of Americans. Americans of color or lower-income people often face challenges in achieving their dreams.

The first step in creating real opportunities for everyone in this country is expanding access to high-quality education. Racial and ethnic gaps in higher education have been well-documented. While many institutions have shared plans for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), few have provided the same opportunities to underrepresented populations. A 2022 report from McKinsey & Company found that only 8% of higher education institutions have equal representation among students.

Closing achievement gaps by providing access to higher education is vital to enriching the middle class and building a stronger nation. Yet, as of now, the students who will become the future leaders of America are subject to chronic inequities in educational outcomes that put them at a disadvantage. 

The Changing Face of American Students

With the demographics of the U.S. shifting from a predominantly White majority to a majority of persons of color, the student population in the American education system is shifting as well. Racial and ethnic diversity changed significantly at the state level from 2010 to 2020, leading to new generations with a greater proportion of people of color. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, people between 18 and 24 years old enrolled in college at a rate of 40% in 2020. The highest enrollment rate among any race or ethnicity category was 64% for students who were Asian. White students were in second place at 41%, followed by Hispanic and Black students, each at 36%, and 34% for those identifying with two or more races. For several of these groups, these enrollment rates represent an increase over the previous decade. 

As older workers retire and a more diverse workforce takes their place, people from historically underserved communities need resources to make their educational and career goals a reality. The U.S. education system must adapt to meet these needs. 

Many institutions are focusing on minority populations that at one time were overlooked. For example, the University of Michigan achieved a 37.8% increase in enrollment of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) undergraduate students from 2016 to 2021. Initiatives to invest in the success of students from underrepresented communities are vital for closing the education gap.

Education Helps Close the Equity Gap

A higher education degree helps improve Americans' earning potential and career prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that a person's median usual weekly earnings generally increase with higher educational attainments

People with a professional degree earned a median of $1,893 weekly, while those with less than a high school diploma earned $619. The unemployment rate was 11.7% for those with less than a high school diploma and 2.5% for people with a doctoral degree. 

Higher earning potential and lower unemployment rates are just two benefits of higher education. The return on education is upward economic mobility. 

The Pew Research Center found that college graduates with a parent who also graduated college were less likely to incur debt obtaining their education. The report also showed that the children of a college graduate are more likely to receive an inheritance than those whose parents have less education. The generational wealth people can build through education impacts their families for decades. 

With college completion being vital to greater wealth mobility, strategies for improving student success and retention can play a big part in helping learning institutions achieve desired student achievement goals.

Community Colleges Build Success

Community Colleges Build Success

With the body of evidence supporting the fact that achieving academic success helps build and maintain wealth and opportunity, it is incumbent upon higher education institutions to ensure that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have equal access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.

Community colleges have long been the backbone of securing academic success for students of color and low-income communities. Public, two-year community colleges are significantly more affordable than four-year institutions, which lowers the barrier to entry into higher education. These institutions offer students a higher education who may not have the financial support from parents or the academic foundation to attend a four-year institution. 

These colleges also often have an open-access mentality that helps students hone skills, attain a degree, or transfer to another institution to continue their education. Many students may return to their communities to work in a skilled trade or local business. In these cases, community colleges are a building block to improving their local communities. 

Oftentimes, the worth of community colleges is overlooked in the post-high school education system. However, in reality, community colleges are the backbone of higher education, helping to advance students to four-year higher education institutions as well as earn degrees and complete certificate programs at their institutions.

Helping Students Overcome Challenges

Community college students, particularly those from lower-income families and families of color, often face challenges outside of their studies that hinder their academic success. These barriers include the high school students attended and the academic and enrichment opportunities they didn't receive because of their economic status or the community in which they lived. The World Economic Forum also reports that students are dropping out of college for several reasons, including the rising cost of education and living expenses, and uncertainty about their career paths. 

Student success and retention are especially important in a time when community college budgets have experienced steep budget cuts. A study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found that state budget cuts to higher education have disproportionately been distributed to two-year institutions.

These issues have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Enrollment numbers decreased across higher education institutions. Community colleges experienced a 4.2% decrease in undergraduate enrollment from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2022, according to information from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Given their role in helping communities thrive and closing equity gaps, community colleges should invest in helping students achieve success, whether that means graduating with an associate degree or transferring to another institution to earn a bachelor's degree.

Finding Success Through Student Programs

Given the changing face of college students in America and the reality of the challenges that a disproportionate number of students of color or low income face, community colleges are well positioned to be the catalyst for closing the equity gap in this country.

One way community colleges are working to close the equity gap is by providing at-risk students with the resources they need to achieve their academic goals. By making use of data-driven programs and technology such as Watermark’s Student Success & Engagement, community colleges can use predictive analytics and integration tools to help at-risk students meet academic milestones before problems arise. By focusing on early student interventions through student success programs, community colleges are increasingly able to see their students succeed.

Finding Success Through Student Programs

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