Penn research highlights vital role of community college in serving minorities

 Students gather around the roulette table during the casino training program at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Students gather around the roulette table during the casino training program at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Twenty-two percent of the country’s 1,100 community colleges serve mostly racial and ethnic minorities.

Community colleges educate almost half of all college students in the country. And a new report by University of Pennsylvania researchers finds these institutions play an oversized role in educating blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Twenty-two percent of the country’s 1,100 community colleges serve mostly racial and ethnic minorities.

And those those under-resourced schools, known as minority-serving institutions, serve more than half of minority college students, said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

“One of the things we tried to do was elevate the role of minority-serving institutions, which get almost no attention,” she said. “We wanted people to understand their contributions, where they are in the country, what kind of students they’re serving, and how they’re meeting workforce needs.”

The report’s lead author and Penn doctoral student, Thai-Huy Nguygen, said it’s important to study their best practices because minority-serving institutions are educating so many students.

“We knew going in that students attending community colleges was quite overwhelming just across the country,” he said. “But we didn’t know that minority-serving institutions made up such a huge portion of those community colleges.”

These community colleges — and not four-year institutions — educate the bulk of minority students.

“Like all sectors of higher education, minority-serving institutions are very much diverse,” Nguyen said. “We always hear about four-year institutions, and we sort of hold them high. But in reality, the majority of institutions in this country are community colleges that are educating non-traditional students: adult students, single parents, students from low-income backgrounds.”

Community colleges are going to play a bigger role, especially in science, technology, engineering and math  workforce, he said.

Nearly half of all STEM degree recipients in the U.S. attended community college at some point.

Nguyen hopes policy makers and other researchers will think differently about these colleges and broaden the research to help “majority institutions learn from these institutions in terms of serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

One purpose of the report is expand the conversation about the role of these schools.

Two-year colleges that serve minorities are growing rapidly, and their importance will only increase, Gasman said, especially if President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community colleges free becomes law.

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