Quora Question: Assessing the Problems With Community Colleges

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Answer from Vielka Hoy, Founder and CEO at Vielka Hoy Consulting:

There are a lot of reasons for the racial gap in graduation rates at community colleges: some have to do with K-12 education and others have to do with the purpose of community colleges. Before I really get into an answer, I do want to first say that this is precisely why communities, families and school counselors have to be more mindful about the advice we are providing to students of color and other underserved communities, especially if we want to provide tools for students to have more long-term success and position themselves to make lasting change in our communities. I will also say that the racial gap in graduation is important to consider in all colleges, not just community college, so many of my responses will be applicable to four-year universities as well.

Community colleges and many public universities are impacted. This means that there are more students who need classes compared to available classes. Students are stuck waiting for the required class so they get discouraged and leave, change majors, which may add time, or transfer before they’ve finished their AA, which adds more time. Some of the reasons why colleges are impacted are listed below but an additional reason is that students are not prepared for college coursework in high school. Regardless of major, students should be prepared to take calculus and college-level writing. In California, the majority of students, including students of color, have not taken the corresponding math and English courses or have not found success in them. So they are spending a lot of time in community colleges taking classes that they should have done in high school, or they are being remediated at a four-year university at astronomical rates. Some schools say they have to remediate 60% of the incoming freshmen. This creates a bottleneck for these courses forcing the university to direct its attention there. It also means that we are adding time to graduation. More time is more money, therefore increasing the likelihood that the student will be discouraged and drop out. When we consider some school districts where 13% of students are meeting the A-G admissions requirements for the public university systems in California, you can see why there is a hold-up somewhere along the way. Students who are prepared and enter the public university system, run the risk of getting caught up in that bottleneck as the university directs its attention to the needs of the majority of the students.

Community college is intended for the entire community, not just students attempting to transfer to a four-year university. Students at a community college have a variety of interests and needs: they may be looking to advance in their career or pick up a hobby in their retirement. Few are looking to take whatever math class is required by whatever university. Keeping in mind that the community college is community-driven, not university-driven, universities also change requirements mid-stream and would-be transfers do not keep in touch with the university they would like to transfer to. So they end up taking a bunch of classes that aren’t going to transfer. I’ve found that the worst community college transfer rates exist in wealthier communities where a majority of the students with means are going directly to a four-year university so the community colleges are not intended for transfers. But there is an enclave of students in these communities— many of whom are from families that work as domestics for the families with means—who get caught up in those percentages and can’t find success in these community colleges. Marin county comes to mind immediately.

Life happens. I don’t think there is anything worse to give an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old than a bunch of lag time. To say to them, your time to graduation may be five or six years, is like saying to wait for five million Instagram followers or an eternity for the next Candy Crush life. Their attention goes elsewhere or they fall in love or they want to get started with the real world already. For underserved communities, most often families can’t wait that long for there to be another bread-winner. Students reduce their course loads or drop out altogether.

Students who are going to a community college because they are lacking preparedness and certain soft skills, are not getting those needs met when they go to the community college. I don’t believe that all students and families are emotionally and mentally prepared for college at the end of the 12th grade. There are many work-arounds for some of these needs, but not for all. So there are instances where I have recommended that a student attend a community college to clients but I am really adamant about the things that student has to do to support building those soft skills so that by the time we get to the place where students can make a decision about transferring or not, they have the ability to do that on their own. For example, if a student wants to go to a community college because she would like to stay close to the support from home, what is happening while that student is at the community college to ensure she is less dependent on home later on?

As a community, we are lacking understanding of what college is for. I want to be really careful here in not blaming the students and families for this lack of understanding. All of us, including school community members, elders, and peers need to do a better job in this area. I hear a lot of “just as good as” justifications for not going to college: this community college degree or this vocational school degree is just as good as this college degree; or I can read all those books anywhere, I don’t have to pay a ton of money for someone to tell me to do it; or I want to do X and I know someone who did that without a college degree. I realize excuse-making is a coping mechanism but there are a few realities that we are missing: first, careers today require a bachelor’s degree, at minimum. Second, this is new. Our parents and even folks a few decades ago could get by or do very well without a degree. Third, and I think most important, students learn a lot in school that doesn’t have to do with just reading books and these are things that are helpful in most any career. Working with teams, thinking globally, being goal-driven, learning resilience in the workplace, creating networks, becoming self-empowered… these are the things that are critical for our communities that can be learned in college.

I think the best answer is to forego the community college altogether and attempt to go directly to a four-year college, with your eye on graduation. These schools, if you are matched correctly, tend to meet students’ financial needs as well.

What are the causes for the racial gap in graduation rates at community colleges? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: