Community colleges are uniquely positioned to support their local communities with pathways to economic and social mobility. But a recent report draws attention to a decline in Black college students, particularly at community colleges, which enroll over one-third (36%) of Black students entering postsecondary education.

From 2011 to 2019, Black enrollment declined at twice the rate (26%) of the overall decrease at two-year colleges (13%), a drop of almost 300,000 students. In 2020, Black enrollment plunged by another 100,000, a return to the same levels as 20 years ago. This threatens “decades of gains in Black economic opportunity through college enrollment,” according to the report, prepared for the Level UP National Panel, a coalition of 26 higher education executives, academics and national leaders assembled in response to this alarming trend.

Not only does this promote inequitable opportunity for Black learners; it also comes at significant economic cost to Black families and the nation. Brookings Institution data suggest that downward mobility affects 7 in 10 Black Americans — a racial wealth gap that McKinsey & Co. projects could “cost the U.S. economy between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion between 2019 and 2028 — 4% to 6% of the projected [gross domestic product] in 2028.”

Ensuring Black learner success is not solely about economics. It requires a commitment to redesigning structures and systems that many Black Americans encounter as barriers to economic and social mobility.

In recent years, community colleges have worked to introduce comprehensive supports inside and outside the classroom that help individual students access certificates, degrees and employment. They changed placement-test policies and accelerated transitions into college-level math and English courses. They implemented broad changes to strengthen advising, providing ongoing individual academic and nonacademic counseling when students need it, and created more agile financial aid policies, including emergency assistance. Additionally, community colleges have found resources for food banks and assistance to help students find housing and, in some cases, pay their rent, as poverty disproportionately impacts Black communities. In fact, according to a report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “an alarming 70% of Black students experienced food or housing insecurity or homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, this work needs to be coupled with a new strategy to bolster access for Black learners, many of whom no longer see higher education as a viable pathway. The strategy must begin by recognizing the fact that many Black college students perceive that they are not welcome. A recent Gallup survey found that Black students “are not only more likely to say they frequently or occasionally feel discriminated against, but also to say they feel disrespected and physically or psychologically unsafe.”

Read the full article about Black community college enrollment by Karen A. Stout and Francesca I. Carpenter at The 74.