Has higher education become an engine of inequality? asks the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Education, long praised as the great equalizer, no longer seems to be performing as advertised. A study by Stanford University shows that the gap in standardized-test scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s—now double that between black and white students. A study from the University of Michigan found that the disparity in college-completion rates between rich and poor students has grown by about 50 percent since the 1980s.
Community colleges are part of the problem and essential to the solution, writes Thomas Bailey, who directs the Community College Research Center on Teachers’ College, Columbia.
Regardless of previous academic achievement, low-income students are much more likely than higher-income students to attend community colleges than four-year institutions. And students who start in community colleges do not, on average, progress as far as those starting in four-year institutions; they are certainly less likely to complete a B.A.
Better counseling and financial-aid programs might improve equity, but not by much, writes Bailey. He also has little faith that encouraging all students to start in a four-year institution is practical. Selective colleges and universities “have used the growing demand for higher education to become even more selective rather than to expand enrollment.”
The availability of low-cost, local, open-access community colleges is therefore crucial. As tuition at four-year institutions rises, and college degrees become a prerequisite for jobs paying a living wage, community colleges fill an ever more crucial role in our economy. Accordingly, their enrollments have steadily grown.
To increase completion rates without restricting access, community college reforms must include “the entire student experience at college, including opportunities to transfer to four-year colleges,” not just remediation or course selection.