Last Updated on October 16, 2016
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.
Charlie Nelms, Ed.D., is a passionate advocate for college access and student success. He has held chancellor positions at Indiana University East, the University of Michigan-Flint, and North Carolina Central University. In retirement, he is a full-time advocate for HBCUs.