Community colleges across America are denying access to hundreds of thousands of students, threatening the nation’s economic future, according to the first report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education, the research arm of a new faculty coalition.
The report, Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who’s not going to (community) college?, found that more than 400,000 prospective students are being turned away from community colleges due to funding cuts, despite an increase in student demand.
Those factored out tend to be low-income or minority students, the core demographic of community colleges.
“At this moment in our history, with the growth demographic being lower-income students and students of colour, when our social, political and economic future depend on contributing to this community’s upward mobility, it is national suicide to be denying these students access to higher education,” Gary Rhoades, author of the report and professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, told University World News.
According to the report, severe state and federal funding cuts in public higher education have led to enrolment caps at community colleges nationwide.
In California, where more than 140,000 students were turned away in the 2010-11 academic year, more than three-quarters of college deans blamed the decline in enrolment on a lack of funding, citing as a primary reason insufficient funds for hiring faculty.
Community colleges have been hit the hardest. Spending per student at community colleges is less than any other sector of not-for-profit tertiary education, and is less than a third of spending at private institutions, according to the report.
Rhoades said this pointed to a worrying trend – that college is becoming the realm of the privileged.
Community colleges are traditionally open-access institutions, catering to those who cannot afford or who are not qualified to attend other types of colleges. Now, underprivileged students are being turned away to make room for middle- and upper-class students who require less financial aid, pay more tuition and are more likely to graduate, he revealed.
It is not only a question of finances. Also to blame, said Rhoades, is President Barack Obama’s goal to increase the number of graduates by 50% by 2020.
The aim to have students graduate at higher rates has led to a focus on students who are likely to succeed, denying access to those who are less likely to do so. The latter tend to be lower income students or students of colour, the fastest growing demographic in the country.
The solution lies in first identifying the problem, said Rhoades. Faculty need to track how many students are being denied access, and publicise those numbers. The social class and ethnicity of these students also needs to be analysed.
“There are various actions that faculty, working in concert with other groups, can take to challenge and change the course of policy and practice in community colleges,” writes Rhoades.
The research centre behind the report is the virtual think-tank of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a grassroots coalition of academic leaders from 22 American states. The aim of the group, which was formed last year, is to give college faculty a voice in the national debate over higher education, said Rhoades.
The goal of the campaign’s first report, he said, is to highlight what is happening to the nation’s students as a result of current public higher education policy.
“We want to change the conversation, by calling out the fact that our current path is not working, that the idea of educating more students with no new resources is an emperor that has no clothes,” said Rhoades.