Community colleges across the United States provide a gateway to higher education and play an essential role in developing a skilled workforce. However, for many students of color, especially those who are Black, Latinx, and Native American, community college is not delivering on its promise of a more equitable future. Community colleges enroll large numbers of students of color but often receive less funding than colleges enrolling predominantly white students. The result is colleges with fewer resources, like student services, are serving the most vulnerable students, which may contribute to low completion rates. Recent graduation rates for students of color are low, especially for Black students. For example, among students who started two-year programs in 2018, Black students had a graduation rate of 29 percent compared with 45 percent for Asian, 40 percent for White, 34 percent for Latinx, 33 percent for Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 36 percent for American Indian or Alaska Native students.1
These disparities may be widening following the COVID-19 pandemic. In Fall 2020, enrollment at community colleges declined by about 10 percent, and enrollment among first-year Black, Latinx, and Native American students decreased by 30 percent. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment at community colleges had been declining, and this trend could exacerbate educational inequity if students are forgoing educational opportunities that lead to good jobs.
Some disparities in enrollment and outcomes can be attributed to structural racism. Structural racism refers to the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain white supremacy and result in the exclusion of people of color from access to opportunity and upward mobility. Community colleges are not immune to structural barriers that keep students of color from securing quality education, jobs, and other opportunities. This essay recounts the historical factors that contribute to structural racism in community colleges today. Understanding the history of racism in the founding of community colleges is essential for promoting equitable opportunities for students of color.
Expansion of Higher Education Institutions
Higher education institutions were originally created to prepare white men for leadership positions and excluded women and people of color.2 The Morrill Land Grant acts of 1862 allocated federal land and funded states to develop new colleges and universities and expand existing ones. However, many states excluded students of color from their colleges. Prior to the Civil War, philanthropists helped create the nation’s first institutions of higher education for Black students, including the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, in 1837 and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1854. During the Reconstruction era (1865 to 1877), the Freedmen’s Bureau provided funding to create other historically Black colleges and universities (also known as HBCUs). The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890 expanded access to higher education for previously excluded students by creating separate land-grant institutions of historically Black colleges and universities for Black students. However, at these land-grant institutions, Black students could only study mechanics, agriculture, and industrial fields, while white students received a full liberal arts education. The emphasis on these fields promoted the notion that Black students were inferior to white students. Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge that the creation of these new institutions came at a cost to Native nations and people whose land was taken away.
After World War II, the GI Bill provided education and training support for veterans returning from the war, including people of color. The GI Bill is often thought of as race-neutral and intended to reduce the education attainment gaps for people of color. Because of discrimination, segregation, and quotas that colleges had, about 12 percent of Black veterans went to college on the GI Bill compared with 28 percent of white veterans. The structure of colleges and the bill pushed Black veterans into vocational and trade schools instead of more research-focused institutions. Although fewer Black veterans could access the benefits of the GI Bill, many of those who did moved to the middle class, paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
How Did Community College Come to Be?
Community colleges can be traced to the mid-19th century under the name “junior colleges.” The idea of junior college is attributed to the University of Michigan president, Henry P. Tappan, who developed junior colleges as an extension of high school to prepare students not ready for four-year universities. In addition to preparatory course work, junior colleges offered remedial courses and technical or vocational education. Junior colleges were often located in high schools, making it accessible to students, or were in separate facilities close to a university campus. Many university presidents, including William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago, promoted an isolated two-year undergraduate study because they believed the first two years were not part of a university-level education. They believed that university education was for the advancement of science and research, while junior college was for the preparation of the broader workforce.
In 1901, William Rainey Harper and J. Stanley Brown, superintendent of Joliet Township High School, established the Joliet Junior College as the first public junior college in the United States, which remains the oldest operating community college today. Between 1910 and 1930, junior colleges expanded across the United States, starting from 25 in 1910 and growing to 325 by 1927. The expansion and contraction of community colleges has followed economic and population trends over the years; periods of economic downturn have often corresponded with increases in enrollment. The Great Depression contributed to the expansion of community colleges because college was a gateway to social and economic upward mobility, and it was hard to find work. A rapid growth also occurred again when the baby-boom generation became of age.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not see the same pattern with the economic downturn because of its uniqueness and devastating impact on all areas of life, including college attendance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions occurred in college programming and most if not all colleges shifted coursework online. Students lacked access to reliable internet, technology, and digital literacy training, and had health concerns that interfered with engagement in school. It is unclear what explains recent declines in community college enrollment, with possibilities including a hot job market, increased competition from online and for-profit providers, and concerns about levels of debt.
Community Colleges Take Hold
The 1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education proposed many significant changes in postsecondary education and formalized the concept of community colleges to refer to a network of institutions designed to serve the educational needs of diverse groups of students in their local community. The commission intended for two-year colleges to be incorporated into the lives of the community, so they championed for the cost of attendance to be low or free for students. Additionally, some community colleges began developing their own campuses and were no longer an extension of high schools.
In 1970, 1,091 junior colleges spanned across all 50 states, and the number today is 1,681 community colleges in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all US territories. During the 2020–21 academic year, among students enrolled in two-year institutions, 24 percent were Latinx, 14 percent were Black, and 6 percent were Asian. Although community colleges enroll many students of color, a large number fail to achieve positive outcomes for students—whether that is in retention, transfer numbers, or employment outcomes.
The Role of Minority Serving Institutions
In concert with the antidiscrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Higher Education Act of 1965 sought to expand access to colleges, most notably for students of color who had been denied access because of structural racism. The landmark education law recognized the “particular national interest” of supporting minority serving institutions.3 The law helped spur the desegregation of majority white colleges, and elevated federal support for community colleges.
Some community colleges are designated as minority serving institutions (MSIs), which include a hundred historically black colleges and universities, 35 tribal colleges and universities, 545 Hispanic serving institutions, and 199 Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander serving institutions. Although, as discussed above, historically black colleges and universities and other MSIs arose as a result of the policies of exclusion from predominantly white-serving institutions, today MSIs can provide targeted support and resources to meet the needs of students of color. MSIs receive federal funding through the Higher Education Act and often have strategies in place tailored to meet the needs of these specific students. MSIs enroll over 20 percent of all college students in the US, including many who otherwise might not pursue higher education.
Approximately 324 MSIs exist at the community college level. These institutions serve as important avenues of opportunity for low-income students, students of color, first-generation students, and immigrant students. Two-year MSIs are public or private community colleges that become eligible for MSI status based on legislation, the demographic characteristics of their student body (race and ethnicity or low income), and institutional resources. MSIs help students achieve stronger outcomes related to upward mobility relative to other institutions of higher education by creating a sense of belonging and strong academic experience for students of color.
Notwithstanding the evidence of the benefits of MSIs and community colleges more generally to promote access to opportunity for students of color, it can be argued that the underfunding of these institutions relative to those serving predominantly white students perpetuates inequity. What has resulted is a two-tiered system with well-resourced colleges serving more advantaged students and MSIs and community colleges serving those with the most barriers to education, including students of color. MSIs play an important role in combatting disparities in outcomes for students of color, but a need exists to continue to ask questions about resource allocation and to attend to issues of equity that emerge as a result of structural racism.
Unpacking the history of community colleges helps us understand the racial disparities we see in community colleges today. Although the ways in which structural racism affects higher education are subtler than in the past, education and student outcomes continue to be intimately shaped by it. In the next essay, “Present-Day Experiences of Students of Color at Community Colleges,” we will explore these disparities and hear from administrators and students about institutional racism in contemporary community colleges.
Espinosa, Lorelle L., Robert Kelchen, and Morgan Taylor. 2018. Minority Serving Institutions as Engines of Upward Mobility. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
Gasman, Marybeth, Benjamin Baez, and Caroline Sotello Viernes. 2008. Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions. New York: Sunny Press.
Gilbert, Claire Krendl, and Donald E. Heller. 2013. “Access, Equity, and Community Colleges: The Truman Commission and Federal Higher Education Policy from 1947 to 2011.” Journal of Higher Education 84 (3): 417–43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23486834.
Long, Angela, ed. 2016. Overcoming Educational Racism in the Community College: Creating Pathways to Success for Minority and Impoverished Student Populations. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Minority Serving Institutions: America's Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Yuen, Victoria. 2020. “The $78 Billion Community College Funding Shortfall.” Washington. DC. Center for American Progress.
1 National Center for Education Statistics measures graduation within 150 percent of the expected time for completion. In the case of students in two-year programs, students are considered complete if they graduate within three years.
2 Thelin, John R. 2011. A History of America Higher Education (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
3 Higher Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89–329 (1965).