Report: Black enrollment at community colleges declines, academic gaps persist

Although community colleges have long been an access point for Black students pursuing higher education, career advancement, and economic mobility, they have not produced equitable outcomes, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank on public policy issues affecting Black communities in the U.S.

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In its analysis of administrative and higher education data from sources such as the National Clearinghouse Research Center and U.S. Census Bureau, the report, “The State of Black Students at Community Colleges,” suggests community colleges need to better meet the needs of Black students, as they experience higher levels of food and housing insecurity and accumulate more debt than their peers, which are obstacles to enrollment, Inside Higher Ed reports.

“We believe in the power of community colleges,” says Alex Camardelle, a co-author of the report and director of the workforce policy program at the Joint Center. “But we know that given the overrepresentation of Black students at these institutions, it warrants a closer examination of how well they’re serving those students.”

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Enrollment declines and achievement gaps

More than one-third (36%) of Black undergraduate students attend two-year colleges, the report says, and historically, community colleges enroll Black students at higher rates than other demographic groups, especially during times of uncertainty. During the Great Recession, for example, Black students enrolled at higher rates than other racial groups. However, Black enrollment dropped 18% during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from fall 2019 to fall 2021. Black male enrollment saw steeper declines, slipping 23.5% compared to the 15% drop in Black female enrollment. Overall, Black community college enrollment plummeted by 44% across a decade’s time, from 1.2 million in 2010 to 670,000 in 2020.

Additionally, the report highlights growing wealth and academic gaps between Black community college graduates and their peers. The gap between Black and white graduation rates has more than doubled, from a four-percentage-point gap in 2007 to an 11-percentage-point gap in 2020. Black students also transferred from two-year colleges to four-year colleges at a lower rate than other racial groups and were also more likely to earn a certificate at community college than an associate degree, both of which contribute to Black graduates earning less than their peers. The report also indicated that Black community college graduates earned about $20,000 less than their classmates while owing 123% of the original loan amount they borrowed 12 years after beginning community college, compared to white and Latinx graduates, who owed 69% and 91%, respectively.

Boosting retention and academic outcomes

To improve economic and academic outcomes among Black community college students, the report suggests policy makers, educators, and system leaders more actively engage Black students, especially Black men. Two-year colleges should also track academic outcomes data by race and ethnicity, streamline transfer pathways, and improve access to on campus childcare services, as Black students are more likely to be parents and have lower or poverty-level incomes when they enter college.

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, hopes that, given the disparities in academic outcomes outlined in the report, community colleges will focus on “a comprehensive, race-salient strategy that focuses specifically on Black students, on enrolling them, engaging them, ensuring their academic success, graduating them, and transferring them,” he tells Inside Higher Ed. “I think there are some powerful lessons that we can learn as colleges think about what to do in response to this report.”

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