Building Back More Inequality: No Free Community College While Enrollment Dips In The Pandemic

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By Irene Sanchez

This is hardly a surprise, but the pandemic has impacted many students at all levels of education, particularly those who are underserved and over represented in a system like the community college. It’s no surprise that as a result community college enrollment has dropped in a global pandemic. Then there was a chance that the Biden administration had to help remedy some of this ongoing inequality that was happening BEFORE the pandemic. Promises to “Build Back Better” didn’t include free tuition for community college students nationwide and that decision is going to have ramifications for the next generation and the next and the next…

We’ve been here before many times and I think about the Latinx community here in CA and how a good majority of “essential workers” are Latinos and that the pandemic has impacted the Latinx community disproportionately in illness and death. For the majority of Latinx students in higher education, we begin our college/university journey in community college (whether we transfer is a different story).

At some point in “higher education” either studying it or working in it (or both) we get used to phrases like saying one of my former favorites, that “the community college is a stepping stone to this different life/future.” This along with “Build Back Better” and other simplistic phrases don’t take into account the varied life and educational experiences of this diverse group of students. The largest group of students in higher education are students in community college. Community college students are diverse in many ways after considering race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, immigration status, language, age, and more.

As a former community college student who spent five years in community college due to entering college ill prepared and working a lot, among other reasons, I was placed on academic probation/dismissal my first year. I can say that even then with no pandemic, my footsteps through that first chapter of higher education was no stepping stone, it was more like a series of leaps and bounds, accompanied by many set backs that I know could easily derail a student from this winding and sometimes confusing path. The system though, it is not meant for all of us to make it through, leaky pipeline diagrams continue to show us this decades later as many researchers cite the same data. I wonder how much is changing and who is benefitting from these ongoing inequities.

I encountered many of my high school students when the pandemic started who said simply they needed to go to work to help make up income their family lost or that they didn’t feel comfortable with going to college for the first time and often being the first in their families to ever go and having to start this experience online. As one of my students simply told me a couple years ago, Miss, I learn better in person and off they went to work upon graduating in 2020.

I think about Build Back Better in this context and think to myself, Build Back Better for what and for who? Definitely not for our students and communities who need basic things like child care and college access the most.

Image depicting transfer process by Artist/Teacher Maria Elena Valenzuela

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