From an early age, Joel Velasquez knew that Texas A&M University was his dream school, drawn by the university’s sizable student population, traditions, and opportunities for leadership. Being a prospective first-generation college student reliant on financial aid programs, he heavily considered in-state public universities for the reduced tuition costs which “just seemed more realistic,” he said. But when Velasquez learned his parents wouldn’t be able to provide any financial support, he turned down his acceptance to Texas A&M University and enrolled in Trinity Valley Community College because doing so would mean taking on a lower level of debt.
Velasquez’s situation is far from unique. For Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, community colleges are a common choice to continue their education and obtain a degree to increase their chances of building a stable career while carrying less tuition debt. In fact, community colleges serve a disproportionately larger number of students who identify as part of a racial and/or ethnic minority than four-year institutions according to the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. This also makes students like Velasquez more vulnerable to the impact of policies that reinforce or increase inequities in public education, including those that determine how community college districts are shaped.
The lack of information about how state policies affect the way community college districts are drawn is concerning, given the highly detrimental effects that geographic boundaries of school districts can have on students of color, including exacerbating disparities in resource allocation, which can restrict educators’ ability to effectively engage with their students. Diminished teacher engagement and a lack of resources can trigger cascading effects such as fewer students achieving bachelor’s degrees, lower engagement in the workforce, and reduced earning capacity. Furthermore, attending a diverse educational setting fosters a sense of safety among students of color, which can increase their ability to concentrate on and excel in their studies.
However, more researchers are beginning to pay attention to community college districting policies. Dominique J. Baker, an assistant associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, is part of a handful of scholars committed to holding this bracket of public education accountable. She spent months deciphering the political and legal processes governing the creation of community college service areas, including how districts intersect with racial segregation. Her preliminary findings were recently published by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, using her home state of Texas as its case study to provide clearer direction on which aspects of these policymaking processes require further examination. While the study didn’t reveal any “smoking gun” pointing to direct manipulation of district boundaries along racial lines, it did indicate some areas of concern about how districts could be altered to the detriment of students who currently rely on the accessibility of their community colleges.
More critically, the uniqueness of Baker’s study points to a lack of widespread understanding that access to community college depends as much on human choices, biases, and errors as four-year institutions—the way those factors can raise or lower barriers to education just happen to look different. The assumption that community college districts and their access to state funding and resources exists in a permanent state puts the educational and professional futures of BIPOC, low income, and other students who depend on community colleges at the mercy of political whims. Without a better understanding of how community college districts can be redrawn, students, communities, and advocates are left ill-equipped to spot warning signs and fight to have a more influential say in determining the future of an oft-overlooked avenue that many depend on to build a more secure and prosperous life.
Community college education provides a pathway to success
BIPOC students are more likely to lack sufficient resources to attend four-year colleges, leaving two-year colleges looking like a more affordable path to post-secondary education. Students of color are also less likely to expect their families to financially contribute to their education, a metric used by education experts to indicate high financial need. Black and Latinx students as a whole are more likely than their white counterparts to pay for either all or some of their own college education.
These financial barriers create an education system where adults of color have a lower average rate of educational achievement than white adults. For example, in California, roughly 50% of K-12 students identify as Latinx, but approximately only 10% of Latinx adults obtain a baccalaureate. Increasing these rates of achievement by providing more avenues to obtain a college degree can help bolster BIPOC adults’ overall earning potential, which could be life-changing for many. The median annual earnings of full-time employees increase by approximately $7,000 from a high school degree to an associate’s degree and by nearly $19,000 from an associate’s to a bachelor’s.
While community college isn’t always a cost-effective solution to borrowing upwards of six figures to satisfy private and public university tuition rates, they still play a key role in lowering barriers for low-income and other marginalized students. Additionally, community college programs are often a better fit for students’ needs and lifestyles than four-year institutions. Community college students tend to be much older than students at four-year colleges—the average age of community college students is 28. They’re more likely to be the head of their household, providing for dependents, and are often juggling multiple responsibilities and obligations along with their studies. This is the case for Velasquez, who works approximately 30 hours per week in addition to his class load and leadership responsibilities. As a result, community college students’ average timeline for obtaining a bachelors degree also tends to be much longer, more uncertain, and involve unpredictable costs.
The reality is that students who attend community colleges tend to have different needs and priorities than their counterparts at four-year institutions. And their ability to obtain a degree that would increase their chances to land a stable career depends heavily on how their college is able to access the resources of its district. This is why it’s vital to have a better understanding about how those districts are created and who benefits from those boundaries.
A case study for community college practices
State policies for creating community college districts vary widely across the nation. Moreover, while a large number of studies have analyzed patterns in how districts serving K-12 students are shaped, there’s been little research into the policies dictating district boundaries in post-secondary institutions—specifically, those that determine the location and creation of community colleges. Depending on an individual state’s policies, some community college districts could be more vulnerable than others to racial gerrymandering, in which district boundaries are manipulated to exclude certain racial groups.
Baker’s interest in community colleges and the effects of racial gerrymandering was piqued after reading an article by Inside Higher Ed columnist Matt Reed, vice president of academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, about a failed attempt by the Texas independent school district Barbers Hill to reduce the minimum population necessary in the state Education Code to establish a community college. If the bills had passed, the district’s sole community college would have been faced with a potential competitor and fewer available resources to provide for their students.
“My first thought, ‘This is wild! Wait, what actually goes into the creation of [community college] districts?’” Baker said in a Twitter post.
Baker chose Texas for the case study because as one of the most populous states with a racially diverse population, it offered a wealth of potential data. In August, the U.S. Census Bureau rated the Longhorn State with a diversity index of 67%, surpassing New York. With 82 community colleges statewide, over 700,000 students enroll in classes annually, 70% of whom are people of color. Additionally, Texas had the highest number of community college students among bachelor’s degree earners at 75% during the 2015-2016 school year.
While every state has a different legislature dictating the creation of junior college districts, Texas is an atypical example. Unlike other states, its criteria for creating districts is available to the public through its Education Code, which reveals the numerous political actors involved in the process including the Commissioner of Higher Education and School Board. This document also outlines the specific boundaries for each district according to the counties and independent school districts served.
Secondly, its districts have two geographic layers: the service area, in which two-year institutions are designated to offer an affordable education, and the taxing district, in which certain colleges offer discounted tuition. For example, Alvin Community College has a $50 difference between the cost of tuition for one credit hour depending on the student’s status as an in-district or out-of-district resident within the context of these two geographic layers. This reduced rate is especially vital for community college students who are consistently paying for their education and its related costs out of pocket. A study from 2020 found that reduced tuition prices at a local community college in Michigan led to an increase in its enrollment. Plus, academics also have found that overall, undergraduate students are more likely to attend institutions close to where they live. With the way these districts are structured, racial gerrymandering could be even more detrimental to low-income students looking to attend an in-district college.
Because service areas and taxing districts are tied to boundaries that can be subject to gerrymandering, Baker and her team positioned them in a framework similar to voter exchange, a practice in which legislators distort the shapes of districts to “exchange” voters living nearby for voters living much further away. The team measured the compactness of districts because the more compact or dense the district is, the higher the likelihood that gerrymandering was present in the drawing of its political boundaries. Their results presented conflicting evidence, which isn’t uncommon in evaluating district compactness. Ultimately, they found that three community college districts—Alvin, Hill, and Wharton—had fewer Black residents in their district versus in their local environment, which is the area surrounding each person in a district. The team didn’t have access to the actual locations of residents, so the researchers worked on the understanding that individuals lived in the middle of their census block group. The same was true for the Latinx population present in the Lone Star and Trinity Valley districts. Wharton County was the only district to exhibit evidence of gerrymandering by using both older and newer forms of measuring compactness.
Accessible education can’t be taken for granted
The issue with detecting racial gerrymandering as a whole is that there isn’t one definitive way of quantifying it. Not only are there multiple measurements of compactness, there isn’t a universally recognized threshold.
“Generally speaking, we don’t have a clear measure where we say, if the number is five, gerrymandered. If the number is 4.9, not gerrymandered,” Baker said.
The data did indicate enough of a possibility that some of the districts in Texas may exhibit racial gerrymandering to merit concern. Additionally, since 40% of districts in Texas provide reduced tuition for their student residents, how political boundaries are shaped likely has a strong role in affecting students’ school choice. Further studies may produce more detailed information about how racial gerrymandering would affect access to community colleges and how to prevent it.
While there wasn’t a clear pattern across districts, that wasn’t necessarily the point of this study for Baker. Her hope is that researchers, policymakers, and the public begin to understand that community college districts are created by people who are equally as vulnerable to being influenced by social and political actors as anyone else. Education scholars, the electorate, and state officials need to acknowledge this before they can begin focusing on ways that they can each make this system more equitable, which may involve district redrawing. At minimum, the students who rely on community colleges deserve to have their interests looked out for and protected proactively, rather than taking their current availability for granted.
“This is something we need to take seriously [and] pay attention to,” Baker said. “If we do not question and analyze how these boundaries are created, we risk allowing resources to be distributed in an inequitable manner.”