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The Mission of the Community College

South Carolina. Minority students represent 6 to 8 percent of all students enrolled in higher education, yet they constitute nearly 60 percent of the total enrollment in community colleges. These enrollment trends have been consistent over the last 25 years (Nora 1993).

Attrition rates of both minorities and non-minorities continue to be a serious problem in most community colleges. Figures on the persistence rates of community college students reported 10 or even 20 years ago are no different today than those cited in earlier studies.

In a national study of minority and non-minority student populations in both two and four-year institutions, attrition rates for all groups are still high. While the attrition rates at certain institutions may imply that students are not dropping out as much as in the past, the researchers note that the withdrawal trend at community colleges is still widespread, especially with regard to minority students. Attrition rates for minority students in two-year colleges is at about 60 percent and in some instances is as high as 80 percent (Nora and Rendón 1998).

It has been argued that students enrolled in community colleges are not often part of middle and upper-middle-class America. Instead, they are often members of minority groups, and typically are less academically prepared in high school, do not have a high aspiration to achieve academically, do not aim for a college degree, and are less likely to be enrolled full-time (Cohen 1989). These characteristics contribute to the high dropout rates of community college students ( Tinto 1987). Dougherty (1992) has found, however, that even when controlling for background, ability, high school record, and aspirations, students at community colleges are 10 to 18 percent more likely to drop out of college sometime during the first two years than students at four-year colleges with similar backgrounds, abilities, and aspirations. Student characteristics alone have not explained, and do not explain, the high dropout behavior of community college students.

It has also been stated that the mission of community colleges is driven by a strong commitment to occupational, remedial, and community, and adult education. Cohen (1988, 398) notes that “For the past 25 years, occupational education that leads to direct employment has been high on the priority list” of these institutions. One would not expect that the number of community college students graduating with an associate degree in liberal arts would constitute the majority of associate degrees earned in two-year colleges. Furthermore, this view, along with the fact that more than 60 percent of minority students are enrolled in community colleges, may lead one to assume that a larger proportion of associate degrees earned in occupational fields would be conferred on minority students. This is not the case. Sixty percent of associate degrees earned mainly in occupational fields are awarded to non-minority students. Even in those two-year institutions in which the majority of students enrolled were minorities, the vast majority of all degrees were earned by white students (Nora and Rendón 1998).

While community colleges have always prided themselves with having an open-door policy intended to serve those underrepresented in four-year colleges and universities, enrollment figures for high-tech and other occupational programs reveal that minority students continue to be underrepresented in those areas (Dougherty 1992). The idea that the door is open to all groups in all programs at community colleges may be open to discussion.

So how exactly are minorities affected by the admissions process? Recent court decisions such as the Hopwood case and later interpretations by university administrators and boards will not have an impact on two-year colleges. The exclusion of race in the admissions process, a process that is unfairly biased against minorities , will only work to lower the acceptance rates of this part of the population at research universities. Lowering the number of minorities at research universities, along with corresponding high attrition rates and low transfer rates, could ultimately exclude minorities from fully participating in society. Access to higher education will fall on two-year institutions as the only segue into four-year institutions, in order for minorities to obtain an undergraduate degree. The future of the representation of all members of our society in graduate and professional schools is greatly affected by the lack of a baccalaureate degree. It has been stated that community colleges are allied with the democratic principles of equal opportunity and open access (Cohen and Brawer 1990). Valadez (1996) argues, however, that “although community colleges provide access they have not necessarily provided opportunity for lower socioeconomic groups to achieve social mobility” (391).

Pascarella and Terenzini (1998) addressed the challenges students and faculty will face in the next century by stating, “Shifts identified … in the profile of the undergraduate student body and in the economic and political climate in which higher education finds itself are accompanied by a rapidly emerging and expanding array of computer and information technologies” (159). Community Colleges are being urged to utilize and teach as much new technology as possible for two reasons. First, for students attending two-year institutions, who are not planning to transfer and earn an undergraduate degree, the ability to get a job will be adversely affected by not having the technological skills to compete and succeed in the labor market. Second, the role of community colleges is central to the retention of our country as it is today. Those individuals who are in a position to lose their jobs because machines, technology, and the economy have replaced them must find a way to prepare themselves to get back into the workforce.

As the only means of access to higher education for many, community colleges must continue to keep their admissions process as painless as possible. Businesses examine the wants and needs of their customers in order to better serve them. Maybe community colleges should ask their students, and potential students once what they see as the mission for community colleges.

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