Community College: Undivided Over an Educational Divide

President Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee about his new community college proposal.

On January 08, 2015, President Obama unveiled “a bold new plan” to universalize the first two years of community college. His initiative would provide free tuition to all students across the economic spectrum, but on the condition that students maintain a 2.5 GPA while attending school at least part-time. Although Obama’s proposal is only in its intial stages, it still represents a major leap forward for higher education.

The President’s desire to federalize the first two years of community college stems from the lack of access to higher education for lower-class or impoverished families due to cumbersome tuition costs. Unfortunately, the lack of higher education often poses hurdles for those affected; the job market has increasingly required that employees have college degrees. As a result, families unable to afford higher education are relegated to occupations with lower pay, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. In contrast, students who can afford and eventually earn a college degree find themselves enjoying a higher standard of living. In fact, “median annual earnings for full-time working college-degree holders are $17,500 greater than for those with high school diplomas only”. In addition, as past trends have shown, the value of a college degree has increased significantly. For example, in 1965, a high school graduate earned 81% of the income a college graduate earned. Today, that number has declined to just 62%. All these statistics show that over time, the chasm of economic inequality between high school and college graduates has only grown and will only continue to grow, polarizing the social stratification of society into a dual paradigm. This dichotomy has stifled social mobility and has allowed the economic inequality gap to flourish.

Fortunately, Obama’s new initiative could begin the process of socioeconomic integration in higher education, providing underprivileged classes the chance to achieve social mobility. The federal government’s oversight of community colleges would allow the government to properly allocate resources, contributing to equal levels of educational quality across all community colleges. Thus far in the status quo, inconsistent state funding that provides unequal resources among different colleges has negatively affected the quality of education in many schools, to the detriment of the students attending. In fact, a study done by Mary Martinez-Wenzl and Rigoberto Marquez for the Civil Rights Project of UCLA has demonstrated the extent of the divergence in higher education between the poorest community colleges and the wealthiest ones. Looking at Student Progress and Achievement Rate (SPAR) as a measurement of success created by community college leaders, they discovered that students in the poorest community colleges had SPAR scores nearly 8 percent less than those in the wealthiest schools. The study ultimately concluded that there is a strong correlation between poor school funding and lower educational quality. Such a report also indicated that a more balanced level of funding may be necessary in order to provide equal opportunities for underprivileged students.

Although tackling the socio-economic stratification of community colleges is an ideal first step, free tuition is still not the direct gateway to social mobility: the students that attend these schools still need to finish their degrees. Obama’s new plan is simply not far-reaching enough. Providing the means to integration does not automatically equate to increases in graduation rates. The larger issue at hand is the fact that many community college students seldom graduate or complete their degrees elsewhere. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics discovered that only 31 percent of students who start out at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree after six years.

If underprivileged students want to achieve social mobility through higher education, they need to graduate by fulfilling the required amount of credits. However, many of these students fail to accumulate enough credits. One primary reason is that remedial courses, or classes that teach developmental and basic skills, is a requirement for graduation. According to the Aspen Institute, 80% of all community colleges students must take one or more remedial courses upon entering to ensure that they are well equipped to tackle the difficulty of community college. The problem? None of these courses count for credit.

As a result, students may find themselves daunted by the task of completing units. These remedial courses force them to take more classes than necessary, often delaying or even preventing their graduation as a consequence. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that 79.9% of low-income students taking remedial courses not only fail to pass them, but they also fail to graduate and earn a degree. Simply put, many students drop out from boredom and frustration. These startling statistics highlight the need to enhance graduation rates.

One potential remedy could begin with acquiring credits as early as high school. Fortunately, the Early High School Initiative (EHIS) could serve as the much-needed solution. The program effectively blends high school and college curriculum in a supportive manner. Furthermore, schools that have implemented the EHIS have already begun to see success. Up to one year past high school, 21 percent of Early College students earned a college degree compared to only 1 percent for comparison students not participating in the EHIS. Because they start earning college credits in high school, students combine their work toward a high-school diploma with work toward an associate degree or two years of college-level credits, allowing them to graduate community college on time.

Overall, President Obama’s plan certainly lays out a bright future for community college prospects. The affordability of these schools provides equal opportunities for lower-class students to achieve social mobility. However, simply granting these opportunities is simply not enough; the proposal must also ensure that students are able to take advantage of these resources and actually graduate. Passing Obama’s proposal in conjunction with a project such as the Early High School Initiative allows those students pursuing community college to build up their course credits early, helping them complete their degrees. This blueprint, if followed correctly, guides students down the path towards social mobility with the least amount of obstacles.