PROJECTStructural Racism Explainer Collection

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  • 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

  • Present-Day Experiences of Students of Color at Community Colleges

    Elise Colin, Daniel López, and Shayne Spaulding

    February 2023


    "You can be a diverse institution, but does that mean you are equal? Are you fair? Where is the inclusion, where is the equity?"
    Community college staff member

    Community colleges provide students seeking an affordable education close to home an option for flexible scheduling. They help students advance their education, build skills for work, and access jobs. A large percentage of Black, Latinx, and American Indian and Alaska Native students who attend postsecondary institutions enroll in community colleges first. As of 2021, 40 percent of Black students, 51 percent of Latinx students, 41 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students, and 39 percent of white students enrolled in postsecondary programs attend a community college.1 Although community colleges are a popular choice among students of color because of the benefits and conveniences they offer, students of color struggle to access academic, socioemotional, and basic needs supports that could improve their academic success and postcollege outcomes.

    This essay builds on the first essay of this series, “Contextualizing the History of Structural Racism in Community Colleges.” Drawing on the literature and five interviews with community college students and staff members of color, this explainer highlights the present-day challenges students of color face at their respective community colleges and the opportunities to make education and training more equitable for students.

    Access to Supportive Faculty

    Faculty-student interactions and relationships are an important determinant of a student’s academic success and experience at community college. Students who interact more with faculty and who receive more personal attention from their instructors display stronger relationships that help them achieve academic success. How students perceive their relationship with faculty and advisors and how well they adjust to college, including finding their sense of purpose, affect the student’s likelihood of completing school. Through faculty interactions, students gain access to further academic opportunities. One student we interviewed indicated that he gained attention from faculty and staff members through his advocacy work on campus. Through his participation in campus activities, the student interacted more with faculty and staff who learned about his interests, and faculty could recommend certificates aligning with his future career goals.

    "I’m someone that’s kind of aggressive when it comes to standing for what’s doing that, other faculty members or staff members at the school recommended different little help me further that advocacy work. "
    Community college student

    Although anyone can act as a support or role model for students, the effect is greater when the student shares the same ethnicity or race as them. When faculty is more diverse, students of color are more likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year institutionA study found that when underrepresented minority students (which included African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander students, but did not include Asian students) are taught by underrepresented minority instructors, they are more likely to get a better grade, more likely to pass the course, and are less likely to drop the class. These findings demonstrate how important faculty of color can be in promoting academic success among community college students of color.

    "It can make all the difference in the world…seeing someone who looks like you and understanding that this is a place where you might belong too."
    Community college graduate and current community college staff member

    However, the lack of diversity among community college faculty poses a challenge. The National Center for Education Statistics find 74 percent of faculty at public two-year institutions are white. According to a community college administrator we interviewed, rectifying this issue is difficult because of the systemic bias embedded in the faculty hiring and tenure process. Oftentimes, the faculty that makes the hiring decisions is predominantly white, which can lead to a perpetual cycle of nonrepresentative faculty for students of color.

    "We [predominantly white institutions] hire people who remind us of us."
    Community college staff member

    Despite research emphasizing the significance of these faculty interactions, the students of color we interviewed mentioned negative interactions with professors that made it more difficult to do well in class.

    "There were walls that I was hitting [as a student]. There were times where I would work with an instructor, an advisor…and just the difference of how you’re treated based on your skin color was something that really came out…. [There was a] different standard for students of color."
    Community college graduate and current community college staff member

    A student we interviewed shared an example of how a professor would never give anything higher than a B in one of his classes. Another student discussed how she has not received much support from faculty and staff when attempting to transfer to a four-year college. She shared that faculty and staff sometimes assume an associate degree is enough, even if the student wants to continue their education through a bachelor’s degree that could provide further opportunities.

    With the knowledge that faculty have such a profound effect on student outcomes, colleges have started focusing on training faculty and staff to mitigate bias in the classroom and support students of color. One interviewee who serves as the associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at her community college stated that they were implementing measures of accountability when faculty failed to participate in diversity, equity, and inclusion work or to implement equitable practices in their classroom. In California, a new pilot program called the Open for Antiracism program (OFAR) trains community college faculty on how to foster inclusive classrooms. Most of faculty who participated in this six-week long course indicated that afterward they worked to incorporate antiracism materials and conversations into their curriculum.

    Access to a Relevant, Rigorous Curriculum

    Students of color do best when they are taught in an academically rigorous setting with critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy means that students are taught in a way that centers their identities, relating to race, class, gender, socioeconomic status, and that challenges existing oppressive structures. It is vital that students of color are not taught only with a Eurocentric curriculum—a curriculum that centers white, Western narratives and fails to include the histories and contributions of people of color—but also about their own communities and stories. A community college student we interviewed discussed advocating for the inclusion of people of color and LGBTQ+ people in his nursing studies. He wanted to ensure that he was receiving an education that would allow him to serve everybody in his community.

    "There is more culture in this community...[that should be represented] in the way we’re learning...just to better serve everybody."
    Community college student

    Black and Latinx community college students are also more likely to enroll into noncredit-bearing remedial math and English classes than white students. Historically, these courses have been required for certain students before enrolling in college-level courses that count toward a student’s degree, thereby prolonging their time in school. Research finds most students placed in remedial classes do not advance to college-level courses and are less likely to graduate compared with students who enter directly into college-level classes, and students of color are particularly disadvantaged by these policies.

    Based on this evidence, many community colleges and postsecondary systems have begun to revise their approach to remedial instruction. There is evidence that corequisite remediation, in which students are placed into college-level courses with learning support, rather than traditional remediation, can prepare students better for their subsequent college-level courses. Another strategy for supporting students is through learning communities, which allow students to learn in a supportive environment that promotes culturally relevant teaching and active learning. These small introductory seminars serve to supplement students’ other classes by providing opportunities to engage with faculty and receive mentoring.

    Employment and Career Support

    Community colleges are more than just a gateway to four-year institutions; they are also important for career preparation. However, many students of color and women land in programs that lead to low-paying jobs or where limited demand exists, and they do not receive the career preparation needed or connections to good jobs. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are less likely to graduate and earn less. The challenges that students face in terms of employment can partly be attributed to persistent occupational segregation and crowding, where workers of color are more likely to hold jobs in sectors and occupations with low pay, and white workers dominate high-paid sectors and occupations.

    Community colleges have expanded efforts to improve career outcomes for students. As a first step, faculty can help students choose programs of study that align with their interests and yield the promise of a well-paying job. This important work starts before students enter college and involves targeted support and information to guide students and their families. Postsecondary institutions also have a role to play in addressing occupational segregation by influencing who gets admitted, what students study, and what supports they receive to gain the credentials and skills needed for jobs.

    To help combat occupational segregation, colleges work to align programs with quality, in-demand jobs. Community colleges have also hired career coaches and counselors to provide students with quality career and employment information, and to help them navigate the job search process. Building relationships with employers can create connections for students and help ensure their skills reflect what is being demanded in a job. Colleges can also work with employers to implement more equitable hiring practices and to create workplaces that are more inclusive.

    Social, Emotional, and Mental Health Supports

    Students at community college identify financial barriers as the top reason why they were unable to seek mental health services. Mental health and counseling services are limited within the community college system and often do not have the same resources to provide services to their students compared with four-year institutions. Students facing mental health challenges may not be able to depend on their college to provide the support they need. One study linking basic needs insecurity to mental health found that college students facing basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges frequently turn to other social supports, such as their family or friends, because of limited mental health resources at community colleges. Even when services available, it is difficult to access them for part-time or commuter students who are not often physically on campus. One of the students we interviewed stated that she did not pursue mental health services at school even though she might have needed them because she did not know where to find it. The effect of these barriers can be seen in the rate of access to therapy; community college students access mental health services at a lower rate than four-year students (30 versus 39 percent).

    Students of color may also want to speak to someone of the same race or ethnicity about the challenges they are facing. However, mental health professionals are overwhelmingly white, which can create barriers for students of color seeking counseling. Because of lack of diversity in counseling staff and the fact that community college, which disproportionately serve Black and Latinx students, often do not have the resources for adequate counseling services, these students in particular do not have access to the supports they may need.

    Many students of color find support in peer mentoring services where they meet students who look like them and through cultural organizations. One student we interviewed stated that she took a job at the student support center at her school to welcome students and show them the services available to them that she had not received. Students we interviewed mentioned using affinity group spaces to share their stories and connect with other students who understood their experiences. These experiences highlight how students of color bring the assets of cultural unity and self-agency to enrich their learning experience. However, according to a community college administrator we interviewed, some of these cultural organizations do not receive enough institutional funding to continue providing a space for students to feel connected. Studies have documented that community colleges often do not invest in supports for students outside the classroom so that they can get to know others like them and cultivate a safe space. This lack of support can cause students to struggle to feel a sense of belonging at the college and can affect how well they navigate the college process.

    Interviewees mentioned that students can receive support from many places on campus. Community colleges have created multicultural resource centers and hired student success coordinators or diversity, equity and inclusion directors. Colleges also have advising, peer mentoring, and tutoring programs to provide students with support both academically and socioemotionally. The peer mentoring was especially mentioned by students we interviewed, who stated that they wish they had someone who had been in their place previously to guide them through their first year.

    Basic Needs Support for Community College Students

    Some of the biggest challenges community college students face are related to basic needs, including food and housing, as well as access to child care and transportation. Facing instability can make it difficult for students to complete community college or transfer to a four-year university. One student we interviewed stated that finding access to food and housing has been the most difficult aspect of community college for him. He found that navigating that process while keeping up with his personal mental health and academics could be very stressful. The lack of stability in a student’s life outside of school can create an emotional toll that requires socio emotional support from the college. Another student noted that the financial aspect of community college is the hardest obstacle, making it difficult to move forward. Although she said scholarships were available, it was not enough to cover the full tuition and she was forced to take out loans to continue her education.

    Recognizing that race and social economic status are connected and influence students experience at community college is a step in addressing students’ basic needs. In fact, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander community college students face the highest rates of food and housing insecurity. Some community colleges have food pantries, laptop loan programs, and clothing drives, and provide emergency funding grants to address students’ basic needs. Some schools also provide students with access to dorms, free public transportation to and from the college, free childcare, and community connections to affordable housing. However, these resources are not available at all community colleges. Studies have documented the important role of supports in promoting persistence, but scarce funding makes it difficult to provide students with the help they need.

    Additionally, even when funding for supports is available, community colleges must also ensure that students know about these services. Students we interviewed mentioned seeing information about basic needs resources on social media, professors’ syllabi, and flyers. One student noted, however, that most times the information was passed on through word of mouth, which suggests that not all students are getting news about the available resources, especially remote students and those who do not know many people. The students we interviewed stated that oftentimes they did not find out about the resources available to them until it was too late. A student shared that, rather than being told about the services when he enrolled, he had to reach to administrators to ask where these resources were and how he could access them. A lack of clear information that is accessible can hinder students’ abilities to receive the support that they need. Some colleges have partnered with organizations such as Single Stop where counselors reach out and screen students to find out about their needs and help them find resources. By having information available in one place, the process is much easier for students, allowing them to focus on completing their degree.

    "People of color face a barrier of entry of not knowing what is there for them when they first get to a higher institution."
    Community college graduate and current community college staff member


    Community colleges have an important role to play in making education more equitable and attainable for students—especially for students of color. To improve outcomes, the literature and our interviews with students and staff suggest the following:

    Academic. Community colleges can strive to create academically rigorous learning environments with culturally relevant instruction for all students where students have access to support when necessary. Colleges can also strive to hire more diverse faculty and provide faculty with antiracism trainings to make their classrooms more inclusive for students of color.

    Career. Community colleges can develop career advising and employment supports that work to combat pay inequity in the workforce and occupational segregation. By providing students with knowledge about their various career choices and the potential earnings in each field, colleges can help students make informed decisions about their postgraduate work.

    Socioemotional and mental health. Socioemotional well-being is an important factor for persistence. By hiring diverse counselors and providing services through a variety of platforms, community colleges can improve access to mental health resources for students of color.

    Basic needs. Financial assistance programs through community colleges can significantly help struggling students who may have difficulties finding a consistent source of food or housing. Food pantries, housing partnerships, tuition assistance, and commute reimbursement can help students focus on their academic trajectory, increasing graduation and transfer rates.

    In addition to these recommendations for practitioners, policymakers at the federal and state government level can play a role through financial and data support, as will be discussed in the subsequent essay, “Elevating Policies to Combat Structural Racism in Community Colleges.”


    Additional Reading

    Cooper, Michelle. 2010. “Student Support Services at Community Colleges: A Strategy for Increasing Student Persistence and Attainment.” Washington, DC: US Department of Education

    Garcia, Sara. 2018. Gaps in College Spending Shortchange Students of Color. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

    Roder, Anne, and Mark Elliot. 2019. Nine Year Gains: Project QUEST’s Continuing Impact. New York: Economic Mobility Corporation.

    Scrivener, Susan, Michael J. Weiss, Alyssa Ratledge, Timothy Rudd, Colleen Sommo, and Hannah Fresques. 2015. Doubling Graduation Rates: Three-Year Effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for Developmental Education Students. New York: MDRC.


    1 For this analysis, we use institution-level data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). We identified community colleges using a list developed by the Community College Research Center: Fink, John, and Davis Jenkins. 2020. “Shifting Sectors: How a Commonly Used Federal Datapoint Undercounts Over a Million Community College Students.” New York City, NY: Community College Research Center.