These Community Colleges Are Still Fulfilling the American Dream

These Community Colleges Are Still Fulfilling the American Dream

As a Hispanic and former English language learner, my path to success was not easy. But with the assistance and supports provided in community college, I was able to meet other diverse students, encouraging professors and career counselors. They rallied around me on my post-secondary journey, which prepared me for my eventual career promoting equity in education.

Community colleges remain critical to upward social mobility for many students and adult learners, specifically low-income and underserved populations. Given that 50 percent of Hispanic students start at community colleges, for example, I believe a wide-range of programming and quality mentorship for our Hispanic students is important in order for them to dream big and achieve their educational goals. But for many students, barriers exist that discourage and prevent them from achieving their goals and attending college.

The good news is that many community colleges are finding innovative solutions to meet the demand of its diverse student population.

According to the Community College Research Center, community colleges account for 42 percent of all U.S. undergraduate enrollments. The percentages are even higher for low-income families and first-generation students. The data shows that community colleges are an important and essential stepping stone for many students and in turn connect them to successful pathways including further career opportunities and four-year institutions.

One of the biggest hurdles on that pathway is that nearly two-thirds of all students who enroll in community college are not considered academically prepared. Additionally, low-income, first-generation, and English language and adult learners lack the financial resources to attend college and often believe that college is not for them, despite community colleges’ unrestricted open-door policies. Most students from underserved populations have jobs and are contributing to the family income while getting their education.

According to Learning While Earning: The New Normal by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, more than 70 percent of college students work while enrolled in courses. Many also face the challenges of balancing work, school, and life priorities like caring for a child. One in four students at community colleges has children and struggles to find affordable childcare options. In Child Care Aware’s new report, child care is exposed as one of the most significant expenses in a family budget, often exceeding the cost of college tuition. How then are students who are working, raising families, and going to school supposed to make ends meet? 

Many community colleges are addressing the challenge with innovative programs designed to support a student population that is attempting to achieve post-seconder success while balancing life and family obligations. 

Not only do these schools serve the varied needs of their local communities, which include adult education and programming to enrich the lives of local residents, they play a critical role in providing an on-ramp to post-secondary education for students who have the talent and will to pursue a college education. Students need supports for a period of time to build the skills and momentum that will enable them to realize their educational and career aspirations. Community colleges like San Antonio College (SAC) are tackling these issues head on and offering supports and solutions to empower students.

SAC President Robert Vela told San Antonio’s Rivard Report that “placing an emphasis on connecting the surrounding community and supporting the student is the missing piece as the nation increasingly looks to community colleges to compensate for a broken K-12 system, skyrocketing tuition costs, and universities’ failure to meet the diverse needs of students in poverty.” Like many other community colleges, SAC offers academic advisement, academic skills development, career counseling, emergency transportation, textbook assistance, child care referrals, parenting support programs, and much more through their Services for Women and Non-Traditional Students. This type of programming is essential to retaining students who are committed to achieving their goal of attaining a degree and simultaneously have to balance life and family demands.

Community colleges also offer an important linkage between high school and a four-year institution or advanced career opportunity. My experiences as an ESL student at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and as the only Hispanic among many other cultures was intimidating, but opened my eyes to how wonderful our differences are when they are embraced. Community colleges like DMACC foster diversity and cater to various populations.

Like DMACC, South Texas’ Del Mar College is the largest institution of higher education in its region and provides its students with degrees and certificates in emerging careers like health and advanced manufacturing while providing outreach and supports to students. Del Mar is connecting local students to opportunities for upward mobility that otherwise may not exist for them. I learned English from a dedicated community college professor and have seen the positive and lasting effects that community colleges can play in the life and career of a student like me.

Additionally, organizations like Achieving the Dream have many active initiatives to help low-income students gain access to community college and Chicago’s Instituto is reimagining the way Latino immigrants and their families’ access education and training. By offering these services to engage and retain diverse students, provide job opportunities and pathways, and also offer on-site childcare, community colleges and supporting organizations are a gateway to a better life.

What’s more, community colleges offer personal touches and a sense of community that many large institutions do not offer. Having a strong sense of community at these campuses has allowed for innovation and creativity to flourish. The National Science Foundation and the American Association of Community Colleges invited student researchers at community colleges across the country to enter the Community College Innovation Challenge where they competed for cash prizes by creating innovative solutions to challenges at the nexus of food, energy and water. This this is a testament that you do not have to be in a four year school or be pursuing a Ph.D. to be innovative and creative; we can all do our part right from where we are.

Houston Community College (HCC) offers programs in computer systems, networking and telecommunications, and digital gaming and simulation. Their degrees and certificates offer information about employment opportunities in the Greater Houston Area and what the outlook is for the next four years. HCC is equipping students with the innovative skills that meet local and global marketplace demands in order to bridge community college education with the workforce.

While community colleges have made great strides in helping diverse populations by providing new solutions to helping working learners and creating upward mobility for underserved populations, there is more work to do. Adult learners, minorities, low-income, and rural students need help more than ever. Community colleges help scale innovation, which advance the interests of our pluralistic society through their heroic efforts to increase social mobility and counter the impacts of social inequality in our nation. Initiatives like Completion by Design aim to holistically transform the student experience and advise policies and practices to support the student.

My story is an American story to believe in, but it required policy supports like funding for community colleges and ESL programs, engaged and supportive faculty and staff, and nonprofit and community partners. I decided to pay it forward and pursue a career in equity in education that ensures that the circle of opportunity continues to expand. I have inherited and embraced the American Dream, as well as the obligations of citizenship to ensure that future generations have equal (or better) opportunity to develop and apply their talents to the health and vitality of our nation.

Community college is the gateway for opportunity; it was the catalyst that transformed my career—and my life.

Juan Garcia oversees Strategic Partnerships for the Center for Equity in Learning at ACT, working with existing and new partnerships fulfilling ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.

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