Free Community Colleges and HBCUs: Four Things to Consider

Last Updated on October 16, 2016

2015 Hinds Community College Graduates in Raymond, Mississippi.
2015 Hinds Community College Graduates in Raymond, Mississippi.
Recently I shared some thoughts on Twitter @CharlieNelms during a discussion about free community colleges. I tweeted “Those who assert that free community college will not hurt HBCUs are uninformed at best. Free CC is not the bargain many may think it is.”

It can be challenging to expound in depth with a 140-character limit! On the other hand, Twitter opens the door to a broader conversation about the questions I think we should consider when we hear proposals for free community colleges.

At first glance, it’s difficult to find fault with this idea. Community colleges focus largely on expanding access and workforce development. Achieving the Dream is a high-profile national reform movement and network helping more than 4 million community college students “have a better economic opportunity and achieve their dreams.” We can all agree that these are desirable outcomes. However, if we dig a bit deeper, free community college raises some potentially challenging implications for HBCUs.

There are four vital questions that must be considered.

1. What will the quality of the educational experience be for students?

In my previous experience as a former HBCU chancellor—and as a graduate of an HBCU, I have found that underprepared students entering community colleges did not fare as well as those in four-year colleges. The research suggests that key support, such as developmental education, academic advising, and other student support services, plays a significant role in enhancing the educational experience for students, especially those who need this extra support to succeed. A recent Gallup-Purdue University study, the largest of its kind, found that HBCU alumni generally reported a high level of satisfaction with their educational experience during their college years—and their quality of life afterward.

2. What is the success rate of students in community colleges?

Success may be measured in several ways. For some, it will be the transfer rate of community college students to four-year institutions. For others, it will be the percentage of students who complete their coursework and obtain their degree within a given time period. For example, the graduation rate is calculated by determining what percentage of students who enter a particular institution received their bachelor’s degree within six years at the same college or university.

According to the most recent statistics, the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at 44 percent. Yet a 2014 study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center of first-time college students who enrolled in a community college in the fall of 2008 indicates that only 39.1 percent earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education conducted a survey of graduation rates at HBCUs. At some HBCUs, such as Spelman and Howard, the graduation rate within 6 years is 69 and 65 percent, respectively. However, at half the HBCUs in the JBHE survey, the Black student graduation rate was 34 percent or lower.

The statistics from many community colleges are even grimmer. Only about 39 percent of students who enter the country’s most accessible postsecondary institutions graduate within six years. A quarter of those who enroll in the fall don’t come back in the spring. Community colleges have low graduation rates generally—but appallingly low rates for African Americans. A recent review of California community colleges, some of the nation’s best, found that while a third of the Asian students picked up their degrees, only 15 percent of African-Americans did so as well. Before believing that free community college is a panacea for what ails American higher education, we must examine and understand why this troubling racial gap persists.

3. Is progress commensurate with the emphasis on Achieving the Dream?

While we all want to support initiatives that help students achieve their dreams, there is little evidence that community colleges perform better than HBCUs in this respect for African American students. Many studies show that a larger number of poor and minority students aspire to graduate from college—but their graduation rates fall far short of their dreams. Is the current community college system really helping those students to achieve their dreams—or instead reinforcing persistent inequities, where black students find themselves on the bottom? More research should be conducted to explore why this is the case, in order to better inform policy makers and stakeholders. We need evidence-based decisions that benefit us all as we move forward.

4. What kinds of changes are necessary for sustainable progress?

Too often, in my decades of higher education leadership, I have witnessed greater emphasis placed on changing students instead of changing institutions in response to the needs of students. Are community colleges, which offer a “cafeteria” model of course selection but little in the way of student support and advising, truly in a better position than HBCUs when it comes to providing a sustainable model for progress that includes responsiveness to the needs of African American students? What are the best practices we can draw learn from so that success for all students is a genuine priority?

It is important to note that HBCUs and community colleges are largely recruiting from the same potential pool of applicants. Therefore, it is imperative that HBCUs and their supporters examine these four questions in depth as they seek to recruit students while facing increasing competition from community colleges.

One of the best lessons my parents taught me growing up in the Arkansas Delta is that cost of something, versus its actual value, are not the same. What is free is not always a real bargain. Let us avoid the temptation of seeking feel-good, short-term solutions that may not address complex and longstanding issues of diversity and equity. Achieving the dream is a goal we share in common; how we best do so is the central question confronting us in this ever-shifting landscape of higher education.

3 thoughts on “Free Community Colleges and HBCUs: Four Things to Consider”

  1. With all due respect…. You cant compare Spelman and Howard graduation rates to two year college rates… those are very Selective schools … how is that a fair comparison??? I’ve counseled a number of students of color and they attended 2 year colleges not because of cost alone.. but because they could not get into more selective colleges… due to their low gpas, & test scores

  2. Alvin Louis Jones, Sr.

    Two year colleges are still very good for several students. Several students have low grades, finance or merely cannot commit to four years of full time education before they are forced to go to work. It is all right to complete your education in steps, if that is the only way you can do it. Community colleges enable students to get adequate skills for employment. Once they are employed, they can take 6 to 9 semester hours part time to complete the rest. Normally the tuition is lower at most Junior colleges or two year schools. Now days, it is very good to get students to go to any school for any education that they are interested in, even if it takes over 6 years. Growing up in the 1940’s in West Baton Rouge Parish Louisiana (Plantation Country) and the swamps, it was the military, community college and then HBCU’s for me. Any school is better than no school at all.

  3. Raymond Lewis

    Dr. Nelms, it seems that many aspects of your article is either misguided or misinformed or both. Your comparison to the performance of community college students to those entering four year colleges (by nature) would not make a good comparison since most (if not all) community colleges have open door admission policies. I too, am a graduate of an HBCU and consistent with the reported Purdue-Gallup survey, can report a high level of satisfaction with that experience. The two issues compare apples to fish, so to speak.
    Your comparison of student completion rates of community colleges with those of Howard and Spelman with selective admissions policies misses the point of the completion rates of African American students in general and at community colleges in particularly. As a former chancellor you should know that many students enter community colleges to advance their skills training and knowledge, perhaps for a particular job, with no plans to earn a degree. Many already have degrees.
    Your article also demonstrates little understanding of the Achieving the Dream initiative or the outcomes either positive or negative. As a trustee at a community college and chair elect of my states association of trustees, I know few community colleges that offer a “cafeteria” model of course selection. To say that community colleges offer “little in the form of student support” is clearly an indication that little time has been dedicated to finding out what actually goes on at most community colleges and what their missions are. Community colleges and HBCUs in my state work in collaboration. Your statement that the two “are largely recruiting from the same pool” suggests that you see the two entities in competition. That cannot be further from actuality. Should this be the message that you communicate to students, you do them a disservice. You made no mention of dual enrollment programs at many high schools and community colleges around the country.
    For your information, through an endowment, my community college currently offers free tuition for any student graduating from any community high school, be it public or private. Our transfer rates (for those that wish to continue to a more advanced degree) have been quite good. More on that if you wish. You raise good questions but your demonstrated grasp of community colleges as well as what appears to be only a cursory understanding of the issues that you so “passionately advocate” for leaves much to be desired.

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