The Influence of Race and Ethnicity on Access
to Postsecondary Education and the College Experience. ERIC Digest.
by Henriksen, Janel Ann Soule
The American ideology promotes the belief that all citizens of the United
States are entitled to equal educational opportunities. Hence, colleges
and universities must consider the extent to which such goals are being
met. Questions pertaining to how minority students attain access to postsecondary
education, and the academic and social experiences these students encounter
while in college, are fundamental to the goals of achieving equal educational
opportunities for all students. This digest offers a focused review of
current literature investigating how the goals of access and equal educational
opportunities are being met for minority student populations within community
COMMUNITY COLLEGES: DEBATE SURROUNDING ITS FUNCTION
As Americans, we are raised to believe that social mobility, equal access
to education, and a job for everyone is the cornerstone upon which our
Nation was built. The reality is, however, that our American society is,
indeed, stratified. Children and young adults living at or below poverty
levels do not receive the same academic or vocational training as do people
within higher socioeconomic levels. In addition, underrepresented groups
are often kept from achieving those educational goals they seek.
When considering structural barriers established in the system of higher
education, a large number of studies focus on the community college as
contributing to minority students limited access to higher education. Clark
(1960) wrote that the notion of "equal opportunity" in education is equated
to the idea of "unlimited access to some form of college" (p. 570). He
warned, however, that some students may lack the academic ability to pursue
the intellectual paths of their choice. In this case, the community college
plays an important role in helping students achieve realistic academic
and occupational ends. Clark termed this the "cooling out process," where
students are filtered into educational programs commensurate with their
academic abilities. Students who have unrealistic personal or occupational
goals must be made aware of their limitations, and with the help of a counselor,
can reconsider a career or educational path more suited to their talents
This article spawned the advent of much research into the stratifying
role that the community college, among other postsecondary institutions,
may play within the United States. In response to Clark's work, Karabel
(1972) stated that the community college was nothing more than a structure
by which class-based separation was continued, and that tracking existed
within community colleges by means of vocational education.
Since the incorporation of these two landmark articles into educational
thinking, many researchers have questioned the role of postsecondary education
in helping students attain their goals. Unfortunately, much of the research
into these inquiries focuses on the function of the community college rather
than four-year colleges and universities. An excellent summary of the many
issues surrounding the efficacy of community colleges was presented by
Dougherty (1994). This author stated supporters and opponents of community
colleges concur that the community college has enabled more students to
enroll in college at a lower cost, while prestigious institutions exercise
more stringent admissions policies.
Dougherty described the "fundamentalist" arguments in support of the
community college, pointing out that community colleges are within commuting
distance of most students, cost less, and are more willing to accept "non-traditional"
students such as high school drop outs and those with vocational goals
(Dougherty, 1994). Critics, however, highlight the large gap between the
number of students in two-year and four-year institutions who attain baccalaureate
degrees. This gap, Dougherty explained, could exist because community college
students typically come from families with lower incomes, have parents
who did not attend school beyond high school, and are non-white. Further,
these students often did not do well in high school and have fewer baccalaureate
attainment goals (Dougherty, 1994).
In addition to socioeconomic background as being a key determinant in
baccalaureate attainment, Dougherty noted that community colleges do not
integrate students academically or socially as well as four-year institutions.
Participation in extracurricular activities is lower at community colleges
than at four-year institutions. Finally, minority and working class students,
according to Dougherty, are more unsure about higher education--they want
to succeed but are afraid of failing, and are reluctant to achieve academically
if it means they must assimilate to the cultural norms inherent in their
school (Dougherty, 1994). These institutional barriers to the attainment
of academic goals have a deleterious effect on minority students.
Some recent data point to the difficulties minority students face in
attaining a baccalaureate degree. The progress of ethnic minority students
is lower than the progress of White students at all levels of schooling.
The same holds true for minority students who wish to transfer out of community
colleges and into four-year institutions. The Center for the Study of Community
Colleges 1995 Transfer Assembly Study reported that only 12 percent of
Hispanic and Black students transferred to a four-year college or university,
compared to 23 percent of White students. The transfer rates for Hispanic
and Black students were consistently lower than for White students at all
community colleges, including colleges known for higher transfer rates
for all students. However, in those colleges, the minority students' transfer
rates were considerably higher than the norm for their groups. At community
colleges with transfer rates in the top quartile, approximately 20 percent
of Black students and 24 percent of Hispanic students transferred to four-year
institutions, compared to 32 percent of White students.
CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON ACCESS TO POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION
Much has been written on the expectations families place upon their
children in terms of educational goals. In many inner-city and working
class communities, becoming an "adult" is often linked to gaining employment
and earning money after high school, rather than continuing education after
the twelfth grade (Richardson, 1990). In addition, the older son of less
wealthy Hispanic families is often expected to forego education after high
school, as it is his obligation to work in support of his family (Rendon
and Valadez, 1993). Often, these family obligations and expectations limit
students' educational choices.
Other studies address the influence of institutional barriers to academic
attainment. Kanter (1990) evaluated academic testing and placement as a
tool to segment students of color into low-level educational paths. Kanter
found that minority students were placed in classes at the pre-college
(remedial) or associate degree level more often. White students, however,
were more likely to be placed in transfer-level courses.
The absence of "role models" also may make the path to higher education
difficult for minority students. Williams' 1990 study found that African
American students indicated the absence of a role model as a reason for
not pursuing higher education. Another factor is a lack of a genuine cultural
understanding of students on the part of professors (Rendon and Valadez,
1993). Faculty in community colleges are primarily Caucasian, whereas the
student population is becoming increasingly diverse. Professors often have
difficulty understanding the academic encouragement and directions that
minority students seek, thus feel as though they are simply "lowering standards"
in order to account for a multicultural campus. A lack of cultural understanding,
on the part of the faculty, may make the students skeptical of remaining
enrolled in a community college (Rendon and Valadez, 1993).
WHAT ARE COMMUNITY COLLEGES DOING TO OVERCOME THESE OBSTACLES?
Fortunately, educational planners recognize the importance of programs
which encourage the enrollment of a widely diverse student population.
Several of these plans were introduced in the AACC's Multicultural Strategies
for Community Colleges (1995). Some colleges have started programs to actively
recruit students to science and engineering programs (Jones, 1992). Other
colleges in larger cities have implemented programs to assist minority
students while they are still enrolled in high school (California Community
Colleges, 1993). Still others invite minority students to serve as peer
mentors to high school seniors (Stolar and Cowles, 1992).
The involvement of faculty and staff has not been overlooked. Many
states, including Texas, are recruiting minority faculty and administrators
with the goal of improving the multicultural climate on campus (Laurel,
et al., 1991). In the Multicultural Demonstration Project at George Brown
Community College, senior administrators assisted in implementing race
and ethnic relations policies for the college, and began to construct effective
responses to the concerns of an ethnically diverse student body (Ward,
1990). These programs are only a few of many plans destined to bolster
a positive multicultural community.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
The implications of research on the influence of race and ethnicity
on educational access are many. Systematic isolation of minority students
in two-year institutions, because of academic difficulties or financial
constraints, will not assist in helping minority students attain their
individual academic goals. In addition, if minority students' feelings
of isolation within college campuses continue, students' motivation to
remain in college will decline. Future research must not only focus on
the influence race and ethnicity poses on access to education, but also
on practical solutions to achieving more equitable access and on creating
enriching experiences for all college students.
California Community Colleges. "The California Middle College High School
Program." Discussed as agenda item 7 at a meeting of the Board of Governors
of the California Community Colleges, Sacramento, CA, May 13-14, 1993.
(ED 355 999)
Center for the Study of Community Colleges. Transfer Assembly Study.
Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Community Colleges, 1995.
Clark, B.R. "The Cooling-Out Function in Higher Education." The American
Journal of Sociology, 1960, 65(6), 569-576.
Dougherty, K. J. The Contradictory College: The Conflicting College:
The Conflicting Origins, Impacts, and Futures of the Community College.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Isaacs, H.R. "Basic Group Identity: The Idols of the Tribe." In N. Glazer
and D.P. Moynihan (eds.), Ethnicity: Theory and Experience. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1975.
Jones, Enid B., ed. Lessons for the Future: Minorities in Math, Science,
and Engineering at Community Colleges. Report of an American Association
of Community Colleges Roundtable, Washington, D.C., August 13-14, 1992.
(ED 363 366)
Kanter, M.J. "An Examination of Demographic, Institutional, and Assessment
Factors Affecting Access to Higher Education for Underrepresented Students
in the California Community Colleges." Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting
of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA, April 16-20,
1990. (ED 317 239)
Karabel, J. "Community Colleges and Social Stratification: Submerged
Class Conflict in American Higher Education." Harvard Educational Review,
1972, 42, 521-562.
Kee, Arnold Madison, and James R. Mahoney, eds. Multicultural Strategies
for Community Colleges. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Community
Laurel, Elva G., et al. "Employing Peer Coaching to Support Teachers."
Teacher Education and Practice, 6, no.2, Fall-Winter, 1990-1991.
Rendon, L. I. and Valadez, J.R. "Qualitative Indicators of Hispanic
Student Transfer." Community College Review, 1993, 20(4) 27-37.
Richardson, R.C., Jr. "Responding to Student Diversity: A Community
College Perspective." National Center for Postsecondary Governance and
Finance and the Research Center at Arizona State University, 1990.
Stolar, Steven M. and James Colwes. Enhancing Minority Male Enrollment:
Students as Mentors. Vineland, NJ: Cumberland County College, 1992.
Ward, Barbara. Report on George Brown College Multicultural Demonstration
Project Toronto, Ontario: George Brown College, 1990 (ED 319 452)
Williams, C. "Broadening Access for Black Students." Community, Technical
and Junior College Journal, 1990, 60(2), 14-17.