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2011 June 27 - 12:00 am

POV: Community Colleges Must Be at Forefront In Narrowing Achievement Gaps

Angela Provitera McGlynn

Much has been written on the gap in college degree attainment between white, middle-class students and those students who are low-income, first-generation to college and members of minority groups. Never has the need to close this gap been more pressing.

African-American and Latino students significantly lag behind their white peers in college graduation. Given that a college education has become a prerequisite for success in the 21st Century, both for individuals to be a part of the middle class and for our nation to remain competitive in a global economy, that gap must be erased.

The fastest job growth will take place in occupations that require some post-secondary education, but not necessarily a four-year degree. Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as those requiring no college. President Obama recently set a goal that by the year 2020 America will once again lead the world in higher education by increasing community college completion.

America cannot achieve that goal without educating and graduating more low-income, first-generation, and minority students. Community colleges will continue to play a big role in educating the underserved population.

Past research focused on the problem of access to college in the United States. The numbers indicate, however, that a bigger problem in American higher education is attrition. Basically, we are losing “educational capital” among our younger generation.

Low-income, historically underserved students face a host of challenges that interfere with their success in high school and in college. Financial barriers limit access to college. If they are admitted to college, and are the first in their families to attend college, they don’t have the advantages accompanying a college-going family culture. When we factor in a K-12 system that often leaves them ill-prepared to do college-level work, the uphill battle many students face is easy to understand.

But large gaps in completion rates between white students and African American and Hispanic students are not inevitable. Institutions with similar student bodies and similarities across other crucial dimensions vary in their student success rates. This means that some colleges and universities have instituted policies and practices that prove successful in narrowing achievement gaps.

Given the great increase of Hispanics in America, educating this group is particularly critical to our standing in the world, not only in terms of education, but also in terms of the global economy. Latino students will comprise about a quarter of America’s college-aged population by the year 2025. The projected population growth of Latinos, their current poor educational attainment levels, and their relative youth are three reasons making their academic success critical.

Addressing the inequities is definitely doable. All students, but especially low-income, first-generation students, need academic and social support to help them navigate the system, complete an associate degree, and transition towards the bachelor’s degree.

Since the community college sector is where the great majority of this underserved group starts their education, these institutions must be at the forefront of improving this population’s academic success. What can community colleges do to improve their degree completion rates? They can:

Enhance college readiness: Community colleges should work with their feeder high schools to ensure an alignment between the high school curricula and what students need to be prepared for college-level work.

Ensure rigorous high school curricula emphasizing writing skills and critical thinking skills: Faculties in both sectors can do joint professional development training to share best practices in instruction. Students should leave high school proficient in quantitative skills. Researchers have found that that taking advanced mathematics in high school increased the chances that low-income, first-generation students would attend college

Offer college courses to high school students: Getting students affiliated with a college early can enhance their chances for success. Giving high school students a taste of a college experience, as well as some college credits under their belts, can go a long way towards improving academic achievement

Promote social connections: Knowing that retention and degree completion are tied to whether students feel a sense of community at their college, community colleges should foster social connections in students’ classroom experiences and in college activities

Provide effective remediation/development programs in college: Community colleges need to make sure that students are properly evaluated in terms of course placement, and that those in need of remediation are given what they need to make the transition from the developmental courses to college level courses

Focus on the first year of college: The retention literature is so clear that most attrition occurs prior to sophomore year that community colleges should place a special emphasis on first-year at-risk students. Intrusive monitoring and advisement in the first year can promote advancement to the second year

Promote student engagement and make students the heart of the institution: All staff and personnel at the college should be sensitized to the reason for the college’s existence – student success. Because student engagement has been found to be crucial to learning and academic success, community colleges should train their faculties in active learning pedagogies and the learner/learning centered classroom.

Offer support programs for college students: One of the most effective support programs involves learning communities, especially at two-year colleges where students typically go to their classes and then leave campus. Learning communities can take many forms, but the essential ingredients at the community college, non-residential level, are that students go to classes as a cohort and instruction is organized around themes that overlap from class to class.

Identify and restructure “gatekeeper” courses: those courses that historically have kept students from moving on to other college courses

Give underserved students and their parents what they need for college success: Community colleges should be at the forefront of educating their prospective students and their families long before they start college about what will promote student success. They should help families of at-risk students navigate the financial aid process, and hold meetings for families to discuss the factors that contribute to academic success

Community college graduation rates and transfer rates must improve to close gaps among groups of students and to meet targets set for America’s international standing.

It’s YOUR TURN.  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  What strategies do you think work best in closing minority achievement gaps?
Share your opinion: ccweekblog

The author currently is a national consultant on teaching and learning issues and the author of several books and numerous articles. Her latest book is entitled, “Envisioning Equity: Educating and Graduating Low-income, First-Generation, and Minority College Students.”

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