More students attend community colleges than four-year institutions. In the Tampa Bay area, for example, the combined student population of St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough Community College is nearly 62,000, while the combined undergraduate total of the University of South Florida and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg is roughly 35,000.
Such numbers alone reflect the community colleges' significance. President Barack Obama, a Harvard graduate and a law professor at the University of Chicago, lauds the essential role of community colleges in preserving the nation's economic competitiveness in the world.
Logic would suggest that the financial viability of community colleges would be a top priority for every legislator at every level. Not so. Community colleges, also called state colleges in Florida, remain the stepchildren of higher education, and lawmakers continue to shortchange them. Why is this, when one of the successful missions of the schools is to provide postsecondary education to low-income and minority students who might not otherwise obtain it?
Although the answer is clear, it feels oddly un-American. Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, the nation's largest postsecondary institution, said, "The have-nots, history has taught us, have no political power, and with no political power, you get less resources." Padrón is a leading member of the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal. The task force is funded by the Ford Foundation, and it has been charged with finding ways to bridge the divide between the two higher education sectors.
How can community colleges gain political power and, thus, more resources? Task force members agree that the schools need to enroll more affluent students because politicians — who hold the purse strings — care about this demographic. Although the stubborn economic downturn is influencing more affluent students to attend community colleges, low-income students remain predominant.
On a broader level, as a result of the high number of low-income students in community colleges, the racial and socioeconomic divide between these schools and universities is widening. Stated bluntly, schools that primarily focus on two-year degrees are growing blacker and browner, and universities are becoming whiter, richer, more elite and more separate.
"Community colleges should be open to, and attractive to, students of all economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds," Padrón said. "While two-year institutions must always provide access to low-income and working-class students, community colleges need to find ways to recruit middle-class students, as well, or the political and financial support for the two-year sector will continue to decline."
Many observers fear that the new mission to attract a broader mix of students, especially the affluent, to community colleges could have the unintended consequence of deepening the growing racial and economic segregation in higher education by displacing low-income students.
But Richard Kahlenberg, a Century Foundation scholar, writing recently for the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that community colleges can aggressively recruit the affluent without losing low-income students. He contends that low-income students, along with the campuses themselves, could greatly benefit from the presence of affluent schoolmates.
"For one thing, any strategy to attract more middle-class students into the two-year sector (through honors programs or offering bachelor's degrees at two-year institutions, for example) needs to be coupled with aggressive effort to provide more low-income and working-class students the chance to attend four-year colleges," he writes. "Just as the adoption of elementary and secondary urban magnet school programs to draw middle-class students are often accompanied by comparable efforts to give low-income urban students a chance to attend middle-class suburban schools, so spaces can be opened up on community college campuses by efforts of four-year institutions to more aggressively recruit talented low-income and working-class students.
"For another, because a greater presence of middle class and upper-middle class students in the two-year sector is likely to strengthen the political capital of community colleges, two-year institutions should be in a better position to demand stronger funding. More generous resources, in turn, should allow for the kind of community college expansion that would avoid squeezing out students of any background."
Kahlenberg is correct. Enrolling students from all demographics will benefit community colleges in every way. Continuing on the current path of pitting the groups against one another is counterproductive for everyone in the long run.