Community Colleges Help Students Overcome Barriers to Success, Address Social Inequalities

by Keith Kirkland – Dean of Student Affairs at Essex County College / Feb 19, 2020

I am a believer in the power and role community colleges play in addressing the social injustices of people of color. Since starting at my community college, I saw students with self-determination and empowerment as they worked toward overcoming social barriers in their daily lives, and toward social and economic mobility through education. I knew I had to be a part of this thriving group. My goal is to continue the discourse regarding our students of color, who place their trust in community colleges to support their persistence and degree completion.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there are 1,103 community colleges in the U.S. The AACC Fast Facts 2018 document show that community college students are 24% Hispanic/Latino, 13% African American, 36% first-generation, 17% single parents, 7% non-U.S. citizens, 4% veterans, and 12% students with disabilities. 

These statistics remind us of the rich diversity of the community college student population.  However, what they don’t reveal is the diverse and daily challenges students face while attending college. Moreover, numerous articles and reports have shown the declining retention and completion rates of students of color and the factors that drive these numbers.

A 2019 report written by Stephen R. Porter and Paul D. Umbach presented the day-to-day challenges students face:

“Data collected and reported by indicated that community college students are experiencing personal issues related to balancing work and school, financial insecurity (the ability to pay for expenses), meeting demands of family and friends, health issues, and disabilities. Students who are trying to balance work and school, report that work does not leave enough hours for studying and does not pay enough to cover expenses while in school. Students who reported that expenses are overwhelming stated that funds are split between living expenses, books, and software, tuition and fees, and childcare. Student parents also found it difficult to locate childcare.”

A 2019 New York Times article by Brad Wolverton titled “As students struggle with stress and depression, colleges act as counselors” reported that:

“More than 60 percent of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year, according to a 2018 report from the American College Health Association. Over 40 percent said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning ... As students have encountered more mental health problems, they have sought help in record numbers. Between the fall of 2009 and spring of 2015, the number of students who visited campus counseling centers increased by more than 30 percent, while college enrollment climbed just 5 percent, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.”

Given the financial, personal, and mental-health challenges cited above, it’s clear that students of color require high-level, high-touch support services to overcome barriers to success and to counteract underlining social inequalities, which I believe are the root causes of these challenges.

Reducing Students Barriers to Success and Addressing Social Inequality

Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC, recently said, “We need to completely reimagine community colleges for today and the future.” I believe this objective starts with continuing to reframe the narrative about students of color. Below are a few suggestions.

Deficit-Based Versus Asset-Based Perspective

Instead of using deficit-based perspectives that attribute student-of-color deficiencies to family circumstances or socioeconomic status, we should utilize an asset-based approach. This outlook, espoused in 2018 by the Executive Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, states that an asset-based perspective “considers the student’s cultural capital and navigational skills employed to overcome the everyday life challenges which can be nurtured used to produce success student outcomes on campus” (p.1).

 Examining Instructional Systems and Policies

Another way of reimagining community colleges for students of color is to continue to focus on examining instructional systems and policy changes rather than individual students. A critical examination of our internal systems and policies would help community colleges determine whether we facilitate or hinder educational pathways for students of color, with the goal of reducing the daily feeling of institutional social inequality.

Ask the Students

A simple method for accomplishing this would be to administer a survey to students during new-student orientations. The questions could be based on personal and social issues discussed in the aforementioned report by Porter and Umbach or on the findings from a piece by J. Luke Wood and Ronald C. Williams titled “Persistence Factors for Black Males in the Community College: An Examination of Background, Academic, Social, and Environmental Variables.” By asking students of color what their challenges are, we give them a voice and signal they matter. Designing student support services to address these challenges would be the logical next step.

To conclude, we know from many studies, articles, and reports that people of color have encountered numerous social-economic, political, personal, and mental-health challenges stemming from daily social inequalities. Yet they fight through these challenges and attend community colleges to improve their lives. Let’s continue to reframe the narrative, look at our instructional systems and policies, and ask students of color what their needs are. Community colleges may not address all the social inequalities students face, but we can come close to this idea and work to meet evolving student needs.


Kirk Kirkland is an Engaging Excellence in Equity Fellow who participated in convenings designed to identify culturally responsive practices and further support-building evidence and capacity for this work. Learn more about this project.


American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). (2012). Reclaiming the American dream: Community colleges and the nation’s future. Washington, DC: Author.

American Association of Community Colleges Fact Facts. (2018).

Wolverton, B. ((2019, February 21). As students struggle with stress and depression, colleges act as counselors. New York Times.

Porter, Stephen R. & Umbach, Paul D. (2019). What challenges to success do community college students face? Raleigh, NC: Percontor, LLC.

Wood, J., & Williams, R. (2013). Persistence Factors for Black Males in the Community College: An Examination of Background, Academic, Social, and Environmental Variables. Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, 1(2), 1-28. doi:10.2979/spectrum.1.2.1