The White House, led by Vice President Joe Biden’s wife Jill Biden, recently held a meeting of the Presidential Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) that unveiled ambitious initiatives for the expansion of community colleges. Jill Biden, also an English Professor at Northern Virginia Community College, moderated the first-ever summit exclusively devoted to community colleges. The goal of the summit was to find ways to not only enhance federal funding streams for community colleges, but to also increase the likelihood of students securing associate degrees and certificates.
The summit put an unprecedented spotlight on community colleges, with the Administration following up from an announcement soon after the passage of health care reform legislation, which included additional funding for the institutions. Numerous educators and community college administrators were invited this week to the White House to discuss how to strengthen community colleges. The Administration views community college institutions as a key component of its economic recovery program, promoting job growth and small business development.
Discussions centered on the simplification of the admissions and financial aid process and easing transfer requirements to four-year colleges. Some critics of community colleges point to a phenomenon known in education circles as “credit creep.” There are numerous cases of community college students who are unable to transfer certain credits to a four-year college or University. The result is either a waste in money, or students being forced to continue taking community college courses beyond the traditional two-year stint.
The purpose of the summit was to reverse those trends. “Community colleges are uniquely American,” argued Jill Biden. “[P]laces where anyone who walks through the door is one step closer to realizing the American dream.”
The President was even more effusive in his praise. “These are the places where anyone with a desire to learn and to grow can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their families,” said President Obama, “whether that’s a single mom, or a returning soldier or an aspiring entrepreneur.”
With community colleges servicing a high number of minority students, particularly African Americans and Latinos, there is concern that the two-year institutions are not encouraging the attainment of a much more competitive four-year degree. The other concern is whether or not minority students are completing community college at a high enough rate.
Compared to 61% of Whites and 43% of Asians, the U.S. Census Bureau noted only 33% of African Americans and 25% of Latinos enroll in degree-granting institutions. Between 2001-2003, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 67% of White high school students transitioned into college right after graduation, compared to 57% of African Americans and 54% of Latinos. NCES also found that Black and Latino community college students were less likely to have transferred to a four-year college. A more glaring figure recently discovered is that 8% of Blacks and 15% of Latinos who started community colleges between 1995 and 1996 completed an associate degree within six years – compared to 24% of Asians and 17% of Whites.
Education observers also express concern that community colleges, two-year institutions serving a large share of minority students, are getting federal dollars that could be shifted to full-degree four-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Lincoln University President Ivey Nelson cited HBCU competition with community colleges as an “issue.”
“If you look at HBCUs as a whole, we receive 3 percent of the overall college population,” notes Nelson, a Grambling University graduate in his 11th year as Lincoln’s President. “But, we graduate 25 percent of all African Americans receiving a college degree. You don’t want to lose that 25 percent — in fact, you want to increase it.”
John Wilson, Executive Director of the White House HBCU Initiative, contends the money is there. “There’s too much money to say we’ve got money flowing away from HBCUs,” Wilson says. “We have a more informed and sensitive perspective when it comes to HBCUs and we are better resourced. Of the $40 billion in Pell Grants, a disproportionate share goes to HBCU students.”