After Affirmative Action Ruling, Community Colleges Can Help Bolster Diversity Across Higher Ed

Following the Supreme Court's ruling against affirmative action, community colleges may soon serve as key drivers of diversity on four-year campuses.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on August 22, 2023
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  • Community colleges enroll a higher share of historically underserved students than their four-year counterparts, including students of color and first-generation students.
  • After the Supreme Court's ruling against race-conscious admissions, community colleges can serve as pipelines for a diverse university student body.
  • Universities need to work to streamline the transfer process and support students to ensure they both successfully transfer and graduate with their bachelor's, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against affirmative action in college admissions, community colleges may serve a key role in bolstering diversity on four-year campuses.

The Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority reversed precedent in June by ruling that the consideration of an applicant's race in college admissions was unlawful. That move will likely lead to enrollment drops for students of color, BestColleges previously reported, based on figures from California and other states that have already ended affirmative action in college admissions.

But colleges still have avenues to help ensure racial diversity and accessibility on their campuses, the Biden administration noted in August guidance.

The Departments of Education and Justice noted in the guidance that universities can use personal essays and letters of recommendation to allow students to talk about their experiences related to race. And they can still perform "targeted outreach," as long as they don't give students preference in the admissions process.

The Biden administration also noted the role of community colleges in bolstering four-year campus diversity. Colleges could admit all students who complete degree programs at community colleges and "other institutions that are more likely to enroll students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds" and meet certain criteria like a minimum GPA, officials noted in the guidance.

"These sorts of admission programs that do not consider an applicant's race in and of itself can help ensure that opportunities are distributed broadly and that classes are made up of students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences," the guidance reads.

Community colleges, with their more affordable and broader access to degree and training programs, typically enroll a higher share of historically underserved students than their four-year counterparts. That includes students of color, first-generation students, students with dependent children, and adult learners.

"Community colleges are the last bastion of access to higher education for all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or socioeconomic status," American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) President and CEO Walter Bumphus said in a message to his organization's members following the Supreme Court's June ruling. "We must fiercely protect it so that future students are able to freely pursue the American dream."

In addition to continuing their role as lifelines to higher education and social mobility, however, community colleges also have a unique role to play in bolstering diversity at universities following the Supreme Court's ruling.

Accessible Transfer Opportunities Are Key

Many community college students enroll with hopes of transferring to a four-year university, but students from historically underserved backgrounds often face barriers to doing so. While the vast majority of community college students enroll with ambitions of getting a bachelor's degree, only about 30% end up transferring to a four-year school, the AACC reported.

Amanda Janice Roberson, senior director of strategic engagement, planning, and operations at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), told BestColleges in an interview that partnerships with "open access" institutions and community colleges can play a crucial role in ensuring diversity on university campuses.

"We see these stronger pipelines and partnerships with four-year universities as creating these really important and new avenues for diverse student bodies," Roberson said.

BestColleges previously reported that the number of community college students who eventually transfer to some of the country's most selective universities has been ticking up in recent years, and transfer students thrive on elite campuses with the proper support systems.

Roberson said universities need to streamline the transfer process via partnerships and recruiting from community colleges to ensure students don't lose credits as they look to complete their education.

"Transfer is a really missed opportunity in many cases because we know that too few selective four-year institutions have transfer policies that are meeting the needs of aspiring community college transfer students, like those students of color and students from low-income backgrounds," Roberson said.

IHEP has long studied how to make transfer accessible and equitable for students, including as part of its TransferBOOST initiative, which included partnerships in multiple states to address transfer challenges.

Roberson said one example of a successful transfer partnership that emerged during that program was between South Suburban College and Chicago State University, which created a pathway between their respective associate and bachelor's of applied science in health information administration programs.

But getting students through the transfer process isn't the only step colleges need to take to ensure equity on campus.

Colleges should also provide supports to transfer students, both financially and in terms of mentoring and coaching, in order to make sure they not only successfully get to campus but also earn their degree.

Students face challenges after the transfer process. Daniela Alvarez, who transferred to Princeton from Miami Dade College in 2018 after the university reinstated transfer admissions, previously told BestColleges that the move is daunting at first.

"You have academic shock at the beginning because this is a whole different ball game," Alvarez told BestColleges last year. "There were a lot of moments that were really challenging, and I thought, 'Do I really belong here?' Imposter syndrome does creep in, but I never had a time where I thought I shouldn't have transferred here."

"We know that when students are transferring from community colleges, not all of them are making it through to that bachelor's degree," Roberson said. "So removing barriers in the transfer process and helping to provide some of those supports, including improving things like affordability, is really key if we're going to create a more equitable and just higher ed system."

Colleges also need to clearly communicate the value of degree programs to students, Roberson said, including return on investment and the total program cost, as well as the time required to complete the degree. Roberson noted that transfer programs aren't just a boon to students: Colleges also directly benefit from successful transfer programs.

"Ultimately, we know that when students transfer and succeed, it does good things for the bottom line of institutions, increasing the diversity of their enrollment, but also the yield from that," Roberson said.