A Diploma and a Degree... For Free?

Community colleges can be a gateway to a four-year university. If President Obama can come through with his promise of making two years of a community college education free for all Americans, every urban high school in America should use the community college as a means for their students to be ready to walk through the doors of any four-year university by graduation. President Obama spoke at a community college months ago and offered every committed student two years' worth of community college on the tab of the federal government - this is a major opportunity. The President's desire is the same of many community colleges; to offer opportunities to a host of American citizens who either cannot afford a four-year university tab or who are not ready for university level work to gain an education and learn skills to meet the needs of the job market.

However it is well documented that community colleges are producing lackluster results with regards to those who graduate and those who transfer to four-year schools. Community colleges have historically hosted a majority of students who are economically disadvantaged; without the social capital, networks and supports to navigate the complexities of the higher education system. These students tend to be ill-prepared for college level work because they've attended poorly ran and low performing schools with little or no resources. For example in New Jersey, Essex Community College's population is primarily African American (48%) and Latino (25%); the graduation rate of students is 8% and a student transfer rate of 12%. With those truths acknowledged, community colleges can still serve as a gateway to a four-year degree, especially for the aforementioned individuals in cities like Newark, New Jersey. If done carefully, urban districts can accelerate the K-12 curriculum to make room for the final two years of a student's secondary education to be a community college education. At graduation, these students can depart their schools with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree.

For struggling urban districts who graduate students lacking the necessary skills for their success at the higher education level, offering community college courses prior to high school graduation makes great sense for a number of reasons. First, offering a free two-year education allows urban students to carry zero debt upon completion; whether they decide to continue at a four-year school or enter the workforce is ultimately their decision. If they enter the workforce, students with no college debt have an opportunity to work and contribute to the economy, with no debt. If they choose to enter a four-year institution, their timeline to completion will be shortened and if they have to borrow money, the debt will not be minus two years. In addition, with the prospects of a two-year degree at high school graduation, these students may have the opportunity to forgo a standardized test when seeking admission into a four-year school.

Another plus is it gives urban students a chance to see themselves as a successful college student. An emerging body of research says that providing such opportunities in high school is a promising way to better prepare a wide range of students for college success; specifically individuals who don't see themselves as college material. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that the accumulation of twenty college credits by the end of the first calendar year of college is a strong predictor that a student will successfully earn a college credential so it is reasonable to hypothesize that the accumulation of twenty college credits prior to high school graduation would be an even stronger predictor that a student will obtain a college degree. In addition, offering community college courses in high school gives urban students the opportunity to receive intimate levels of support from a community of educators they know and trust. When students from urban districts walk onto college campuses, from the first day of classes the obligation of academic and emotional preparation for success inside and outside the classroom falls largely on them. Students without the proper supports and resources to assist with their success are left to sink or swim. Without the proper guidance, mentoring and preparation, students from urban schools are at risk for dropping out of college. By introducing students to college-level coursework while in a more nurturing environment, educators can support students in other areas of college readiness; research and study skills, time management, networking with professors and how to manage their relationships.

Lastly, community college courses offer a partnership for both community colleges and urban high schools. Many general requirements can be taught by either high school teachers in their respective content areas or other business professionals; both as community college adjuncts. This serves a multitude of purposes. First, it provides for the professional growth of secondary teachers in a secondary and higher education capacity. To prepare teachers to teach higher education level work, it will take professional development. Combined with their secondary experience in an urban school, these teachers will have the ability to challenge students academically at a higher level while providing students with the support they need; something they have intimate knowledge about. Second, this partnership offers the community college the ability to offer workshops to students, faculty and administration on admissions requirements, standardized test preparation and financial aid; supporting an already overburdened guidance counseling office. Lastly, this partnership offers the opportunity for adjunct instructors with career experience in various disciplines to teach students with a perspective on what skills students will need to be successful in a fluctuating job market.

Community colleges is not the final destination, however if utilized strategically, urban students can benefit from the opportunity to attend them; particularly if they were to obtain an associate's degree during their final two years in high school. This initiative isn't just up to president Obama, it is up to urban districts willing try something different. Because whatever the same thing has been, it hasn't been working.