It has often been said that the pandemic presented the single greatest challenge that US higher education has ever faced. Actually, the pandemic amplified challenges that existed before, including dwindling enrollment numbers, a dropout crisis, rising tuition costs and growing uncertainty among both employers and students about whether higher education adequately prepares students for post-graduation jobs.
However, amid this challenge, community colleges have been hurt the most, which is concerning given that the pandemic also highlighted the need to better address diversity, equity and inclusion issues. The majority of recent Black and Latinx high-school graduates, irrespective of their GPAs, begin their higher-education experience at community colleges. Even low-income or low-performing white students are more likely to attend four-year colleges than high-income or high-performing minority students. If community colleges are struggling, then this is another way these populations will be disproportionately affected.
Fortunately, we can effectively address these challenges with community college apprenticeships.
Community college as a deliberate choice
This student racial divide stems in part from socioeconomic barriers, such as affordability, location and the practical need that these students have for career preparation. Community colleges are significantly more affordable than four-year universities.
Many students go to community colleges due to geographic proximity and a need to stay close to their families to provide financial or other forms of assistance.
Most two-year students prioritize career preparation, which community colleges historically have tackled, beginning with returning World War II veterans. Community colleges have always had a pragmatic dimension with respect to career preparation. Their options for career-specific training often are lacking in four-year institutions.
Apprenticeships are a natural complement to community colleges and can help bridge existing opportunity gaps between higher education and the workforce for Black and Latinx students. This valuable experience can enhance a student’s reasons for choosing a community college.
Make community college apprenticeship programs more equitable
The Black and Latinx students who make up a large portion of the student body at community colleges have less social mobility and face more entry barriers when changing careers or advancing skills for better pay.
While apprenticeships can certainly get students onto a fast track toward attaining jobs, not all community college apprenticeships open up future career and educational opportunities. Those offered through four-year universities are often credit-bearing, while those offered through community colleges may be considered continuing studies and non-credit based. This perpetuates the opportunity gaps in higher education.
Apprenticeships offered through community colleges can play a stronger role in increasing diversity, equity and inclusion by being credit-bearing and stackable for future work and higher-education opportunities. Even better, this process can start in high school with dual-enrollment apprenticeships that bear community college credit while providing on-the-job learning — something that would further narrow existing opportunity gaps.
US financial influx may move the effort forward
With so much variation across community college apprenticeship programs at different institutions, the government could potentially lead the way in this effort. For instance, the Biden Administration recently announced its new Apprenticeship Building America program, which seeks to increase the scope of apprenticeship programs in the US. Significantly, community colleges are among the recipients of 30 grants being awarded by this initiative, and the American Association of Community Colleges will receive an $8 million grant.
This financial influx could go a long way toward increasing educational and career-related equity for these students. Apprenticeships can be an excellent way to pair students with jobs, but those jobs should not have to be the final career destinations for underrepresented groups. Community college apprenticeships should be stackable, credit-based and connected to jobs that offer room for further higher-education and career growth.
Lisette Nieves is the president of the Fund for the City of New York, which develops and helps implement innovations in policy, programs, practices and technology for government and nonprofit organizations. Nieves is a Distinguished Clinical Instructor at New York University and previously was the director of educational leadership and policy studies at NYU Steinhardt, where she was involved in doctoral program development.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter for higher-education leaders to see the latest hot topics in higher ed. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.