Access and equity: Are community colleges the answer?

Every Thanksgiving I travel and take the opportunity to catch up on reading materials.

While in flight to California, I opened the November 11 issue of The Chronicle. Three headlines caught my eye: “How Dual Credit Contributes to Inequality,” “Public Colleges Backslide on Access” and “How to Help Disadvantaged Students Reach the Middle Class.” The community college mission aligns with my life mission: providing access to those who may not otherwise have the educational opportunity that leads to a middle class earning potential in America. So, you can imagine the range of emotions I experienced when I read these three headlines.

Let me unpack these three headlines as they relate to community colleges, which, by the way, was not necessarily the focus in the three articles referenced. First, let’s examine the headline, “How Dual Credit Contributes to Inequality.” I strongly disagree with this headline, and would argue it sends the wrong message from my community college lens. Inequality would suggest that everyone does not have EQUAL access to the opportunity of dual credit — this is not true. Most community colleges offer dual credit, and because community colleges are open access institutions, everyone has equal access. There is an embedded EQUITY issue.

Equity issues

The first equity issue: high school students often have the deck stacked against them that prevents them from placing into college-level courses. I’m not blaming the schools, the families or anyone’s ethnic background; what I am saying is that the data speak for itself: students from homes with low socio-economic income levels are less likely to attend college. Students from homes where both parents did not attend college are less likely to complete college. And students from schools with low college-going rates are less likely to go to college. Is this always the case? Of course not. I’m living proof that while poverty can be a barrier, it doesn’t have to be.

So, you may be asking, “I still don’t see the equity problem.” Well, if a child comes to the baseball game ready to play, but can’t afford a glove or tennis shoes (or is it cleats), the coach is either going to tell the child he or she cannot play, or a good coach is going to get the child the needed essentials to play the game. How does this relate to college and specifically to dual credit? Many students have EQUAL access to the placement test to place into dual credit, but cannot place into college level due to the deficient skills; hence, the equity challenge.

Let’s take it a step further. A child has all of the barriers stacked against him or her: being raised in poverty by single parent who graduated from high school doing her best to make ends meet. The child has always been bright, takes the placement exam and places into college level. Now, the child has to pay for the courses — enter the second equity challenge.

Anyone reading this article can place a name and face with the scenarios highlighted above — in fact, I would bet that you could place hundreds of faces and names with these scenarios. What can community colleges do? The better question is what SHOULD community colleges do?

Live up to the mission

Again, community colleges were built to democratize higher education — provide access to higher education to provide greater earning potential for ALL, not those who could afford it or came from the best neighborhoods, or those who came from the best families, or those who came from the best schools. If this is our mission, we should live up to it!

There are a number of great models out there where colleges live up to the mission. Some colleges defray all costs for dual credit students. In Virginia, a state that is poorly funded in higher education, many colleges have partnered with the school districts to fund students’ tuition. How? The high school pays half the tuition and the college subsidizes the other half. In this case, the high school paid the tuition only for those students on free or reduced lunch, balancing the equity scale.

There are many creative solutions. Foundations at the high schools and colleges are becoming more engaged in the success of their students and will fund tuition. Taking a targeted approach for those students who may have an income barrier is a great way to tackle it, but what about the student who didn’t place into college-level courses? One of the anchors in community colleges is developmental education. Why couldn’t we partner with high schools to remediate these students through some type of boot camp? This way everybody wins: high schools increase their college-going rate, the community college serves its community and stays true to its mission, and the student, the most important component of this equation, gets an education and earning potential.

Serve the entire market

This conversation regarding dual credit transitions nicely into the conversation regarding the other two headlines, “Public Colleges Backslide on Access,” and “How to Help Disadvantaged Students Reach the Middle Class.” Resolving the equity challenge with students gaining greater access to dual-credit programs will both provide greater access to higher education for students and help those who may be disadvantaged reach greater earning potential to join the middle class.

But, as I have shared with my own team, the high school student is only one aspect of our market share. Community colleges have an obligation to serve the total citizenry in their service areas: The working adult who wants to go to school at night, online or on weekends; the working adult who is laid off and needs to retool his or career; the young or mature adult who delayed going to college because life happened. These are components of our market share to whom we should market our programs and create greater access.

Some colleges do miss the mark on this and have to be pushed or stretched into thinking about all markets. I must say, as the CEO of a college, this is probably one of the greatest challenges in my job. You see, many times, we are our own worst enemy. While community colleges are affordable, convenient and flexible, they do not only lend themselves to high school students.

It’s up to leadership

In my view, this is where courageous conversations and unapologetic leadership comes into play. As leaders, we have to grab the bull by the horns and examine the class schedule to ensure we are addressing all markets. Do we offer night, online and weekend courses? More importantly, do we offer the courses in a manner where a student can complete a program at night, online or on weekends? This is can be an attractive model for adult learners who work during the day or have a family.

Many of my colleagues blame the faculty, stating that they won’t teach beyond the 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. sweet spot time of the day. Not true. When I was a faculty member, we had faculty who wanted to start at 8:00 a.m. (I was one of these folks) because they have children and wanted to work while they were in school, as was my case. Others had a lot of flexibility in their schedules and enjoyed coming in at 2 p.m. and teaching through the evening. It’s not the faculty, it’s the lack of leadership to stand firm to the mission which may mean scheduling classes throughout the day.

The other alternative fact that people will present is, “the classes don’t ‘make’ when we schedule 8:00 a.m.,  2:00 p.m.  or 3:00 p.m. classes.” Not true. When I was a dean, the faculty shared this perspective with me, and did not want to teach for fear that their load wouldn’t make. So, I said, ok, I’ll staff it with adjunct faculty. Within two years we doubled our enrollment, and full-time faculty were now willing to have the flexibility that a later schedule provides. Believe or not, there are some students who like an early schedule (I have seen classes as early as 7:00 a.m. for the working adult market), and those who like the later scheduled classes because they want to sleep in. It can be done.

The bottom line

What’s the bottom line with these three headlines? For me, it always comes down to strategic leadership. There is no other country in the world that has a system like the American community college, and as leaders in this industry, we need to walk in our uniqueness, build the capacity that community colleges were designed to provide, and build teams and relationships with our boards that can move this work forward.

America is in an educational crisis, and community colleges are best positioned to address the challenge. Community colleges are the answer to the access and equity challenge, but we need leaders who believe it.

About the Author

Kimberly Beatty
is chancellor of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri.