PROJECTStructural Racism Explainer Collection

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  • Causes and Consequences of Separate and Unequal Neighborhoods
  • Developing and Implementing “Opportunity Neighborhood” Plans in Segregated Metropolitan Regions
  • Policies Available to School Districts to Dismantle Racial Segregation in Public Schools
  • Neighborhood Mobility Programs as a Remedy to the Legacy of Racial and Economic Segregation
  • Combating the Legacy of Segregation in the Nation’s Capital
  • Contextualizing the History of Structural Racism in Community Colleges
  • Present-Day Experiences of Students of Color at Community Colleges
  • Elevating Policies to Combat Structural Racism in Community Colleges

  • Elevating Policies to Combat Structural Racism in Community Colleges

    Elise Colin, Daniel López, and Shayne Spaulding

    February 2023

    Community colleges are public colleges that primarily provide associate degrees or certificates. They serve as an affordable, flexible option for students looking to continue their education or training at a postsecondary institution. “Contextualizing the History of Structural Racism in Community Colleges,” of the Community College Structural Racism Series provides historical context for structural racism in community colleges. “Present-Day Experiences of Students of Color at Community Colleges” describes the present-day experiences of students of color attending community colleges and provides suggestions for how community colleges can better support students of color. In this essay, we turn our attention to race-conscious policy efforts—at the federal and state levels—that could help dismantle the barriers of structural racism and ensure more students of color attain a college education.

    Federal Government

    Accountability Standards
    Accountability standards in higher education could include measures of how racially equitable the institution is for its students, with policy interventions for community colleges not meeting those standards. Disaggregated data by race and ethnicity can reveal disparities in rates of graduation, transfer, degree completion, and program-specific outcomes. By including equity measures to decide whether or not a community college is adequately preparing all students for success, the federal government can encourage community colleges to implement race-conscious policies that center students of color and other vulnerable students.

    College Scorecard
    Making data on college and program outcomes available makes accountability more transparent and empowers learners making decisions about their educational options. The College Scorecard, which is based on data from students who receive federal aid, allows prospective students to make informed decisions about higher education by providing information about program offerings, the cost, future earnings, average debt levels, the graduation rate, and more. The data also serve as a measure of accountability for colleges and allow colleges to compare themselves with similar institutions. It is important that the federal government keeps this data updated and makes sure that it is accessible to all. Now that Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has begun collecting information on sex and race/ethnicity, Scorecard will be able to disaggregate data based on these characteristics as well.

    The College Scorecard data alone is not enough to influence student enrollment, especially if prospective students have limited choices in the area where they live or if no financial assistance is provided. Students will need to connect the dots between their enrollment options and their available resources. Along with the College Scorecard, advising and financial aid counseling through various federal programs can help students make informed, holistic decisions about their education.

    Increased Funding for Minority Serving Institutions
    Through the Title III, Strengthening Institutions program, the Higher Education Act could focus on further developing community colleges that qualify as minority serving institutions (MSIs) so that they are able to meet students’ needs and provide them with a rigorous education. MSIs include historically black colleges and universities (also known as HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges, and Asian American and Pacific Islander institutions. These colleges were created to educate traditionally underrepresented students and are often underfunded compared with other colleges, including non-MSI community colleges. Investing in these types of community colleges will promote access and opportunities for students of color. 

    Resources to Support Ongoing Innovation and Coordination to Meet Student Needs and Improve Employment Outcomes
    Strategic investments in innovating the community college system have the potential to build the capacity of colleges to better serve the underserved, but these funds are limited and intermittent. Starting in 2011, the US Department of Labor in partnership with the US Department of Education invested nearly $2 billion in community colleges to promote innovation and capacity building to better meet student and industry needs. Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (also known as TAACCCT) ended in 2018 and community colleges have not received resources like it in years. Resources to promote innovations in service of students of color, would improve student outcomes, provide education and training for the labor force, and increase employer and industry partnership with community colleges.

    Partnership with States for Free Community College
    Without the burden of having to pay for community college tuition, students could focus their Pell grants and state grant aid on living expenses. Research also suggests that free community college would lead to more students attending college and increase a student’s expectations that they would receive an associate degree or higher, particularly for low-income students and students of color. This policy could be introduced through a federal-state partnership whereby the federal government would cover a portion of the expenses of free community college tuition while states pay the rest.

    There are important considerations to ensure a free community college program has the intended impact. Students should have the flexibility to use these funds not only for tuition but also to subsidize living expenses; if not, the policy would disproportionately benefit higher-income students given that most low-income students already pay nothing or very little tuition to attend community college.Additionally, policies should include undocumented students. Access to a free community college program is important given that undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid. Any proposal to make community college free would need to consider the downsides—for example, that the money used to fund free community college for wealthier students who may not have qualified for aid previously could instead be used to improve the supports available for struggling students.

    Pell Grant Increases
    Pell grants currently lighten the financial burden for students demonstrating a need for financial support to continue their education. Eligibility is determined through FAFSA. Pell-eligible students are more likely to be students of color and first-generation college students. As mentioned, undocumented students are not eligible for federal student aid; expanding federal aid eligibility to include undocumented students would allow them to apply for Pell grants and make postsecondary education more accessible.

    Pell grants are often not enough to cover living expenses and tuition, and some suggest doubling the Pell grant, arguing that Pell grant increases have not kept up with the rising price of college and that increasing the amount given to eligible students would disproportionately benefit Black and Hispanic students. An increase in the Pell grant amount could provide students with greater financial resources to continue their education, lowering dropout rates and increasing graduation and transfer rates.

    State Government

    Institutional Funding
    Community colleges are important institutions for students of color and other students who may not have other viable pathways to postsecondary education. To promote persistence and academic success, states should ensure that community colleges receive enough funding to provide adequate resources to their students with greatest need. For example, the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grant helps qualified higher-education institutions establish on-campus child care programs to support students on double duty with learning and parenting. Community colleges disproportionately serve low-income, first-generation, and older students who may require more supports to complete their degree. Yet, they receive significantly less public funding than four-year universities. Therefore, it is important that state appropriations for education do not overlook community colleges that need resources to provide robust basic needs and emergency aid, academic and employment support, and mental health services to their students. When community colleges have the resources to implement holistic support programs—like financial assistance, tutoring, career advising, and mentoring—their students show greater rates of persistence and are more likely to graduate.

    State Grant Aid
    Some state grants are available to eligible students by filling out FAFSA, but some require additional applications. As tuition costs rise, it is important that state grant aid continues and is accessible to those who need it, particularly low-income students and students of color. When these groups do not receive needed financial assistance, they are more likely to borrow for their education. This increase in debt continues to widen the racial wealth gap, especially when students of color take on debt but do not finish their education. Continuing to increase state grant aid and ensuring that application information is readily available would make college accessible to more students. Additionally, grant aid eligibility requirements vary by state; for example, in some states older and part-time college students or students enrolled at two-year institutions do not qualify to receive state grant aid, which disproportionately affects students of color’s ability to receive aid. States could expand eligibility for grant aid to make it more inclusive. States could also prioritize need-based aid over merit-based aid to ensure that the students who need financial support most receive it.

    Statewide Equity Action Plans
    From K-12 to college, policymakers can use data to drive equity in education. To advance equity, it is critical that states collect and analyze data to understand student progress, outcomes, and needs disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Statewide longitudinal data systems, which are funded through federal grants, are being used by states across the US to help states and colleges make data-driven decisions to improve student learning and opportunities. To ensure resources provided to students are equitable, community colleges should also take steps to understand student needs using student surveys, focus groups, and interviews with students. Additionally, having demographic breakdowns of who is accessing academic, employment, socioemotional and basic needs supports can help colleges design programs to ensure that every student is receiving the resources they need to succeed. States can help community colleges collect these data by providing data analysis tools and funding to conduct this research.

    States can implement statewide plans and policies to address racial disparities by providing robust professional development opportunities to campus leaders and faculty (both full time and adjuncts), increasing funding for students supports, and collecting and analyzing data on achievement gaps. For example, in 2014, California passed the Student Equity Plan to address disparities in the California community college system. Over the past six years, California has provided almost $785 million dollars toward racial equity practices in the community college system.

    Improving the Transfer System
    Transferring requires students to navigate a mix of transfer requirements that can vary substantially from one institution to the next. A disjointed transfer system burdens community college students and hinders their ability to continue their education at a four-year institution. The lack of cohesion in the transfer system creates many challenges for students such as taking excess credits, spending more money, not knowing which credits transfer, and spending more years in college than necessary. State efforts to ensure that community college courses are compatible with four-year universities’ bachelor’s degree programs and clarifying transfer requirements could improve the college completion rate—especially for students of color who have lower transfer rates and are less likely to complete their degree. In addition to demystifying transfer policies, robust advising is important to inform community college students of the different transfer pathways available that could meet their needs.

    Affirmative Action
    Affirmative action allows higher-education institutions to consider the race of an individual, along with other criteria, for admission or hiring, or when creating programs or institution-level policies. Affirmative action helps make community colleges more inclusive for students of color and helps foster more diverse learning environments, which benefits all students. Although community colleges tend to be open-access institutions and affirmative action has a limited role to play in admissions in these institutions, it can be important in combatting racial inequities in community colleges by allowing colleges to implement race-conscious policies that will improve outcomes for students of color. A study of California community colleges found that when affirmative action was banned as a result of Proposition 209 California Civil Rights Initiative, community colleges could not fully implement the 1992 Student Equity Policy. Support programs for retention, transfer, and degree completion could not focus specifically on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students who faced the greatest disparities. Additionally, community colleges could not consider race when hiring new staff, faculty, and administrators, thereby hurting efforts to make faculty, staff, and administration more representative of the community and student body. Currently, there is a pending Supreme Court ruling regarding affirmative action at the national level; if the Supreme Court ends affirmative action, this could have implications for how community colleges implement race-conscious policies.


    Community colleges are vital gateways to education, training, and jobs for a highly diverse population preparing for the workforce. However, access to community colleges—and the educational, social, and financial experiences they provide—varies significantly for students of color compared to their white counterparts. Elevating race-conscious policies that dismantle structural barriers in the community college system is essential to combatting structural racism in higher education and ensuring that all students have an equitable opportunity to forge a successful future. Policies that alleviate the financial burden of higher education, fund supports, streamline transfer pathways, and ensure institutional accountability to equity are policies for ensuring that more students of color complete their education and find well-paid jobs.


    Additional Reading

    Bass, Jared, Clare McCann, Chase Sackett, Oliver Schak, Cynthia Cole, Kim Hunter Reed, Jon O’Bergh, and Lauren Thompson Starks. 2016. Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Key Data Highlights Focusing on Race and Ethnicity and Promising Practices. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Office of the Under Secretary, US Department of Education.