Segregation in Higher Education?

Posted By: Francisco Marmolejo|Dated: January 18, 2013

In my travels to different parts of the world, I am stricken by how hierarchical national higher-education systems tend to be. This is reflected in the existence in most every country of what I refer to as “first-class higher-education citizens” (namely “Universities” or their equivalent) and second-class ones (which adopt other names including “Community College” in the U.S., “Technological University” in Mexico, “Technical Formation Center” in Chile, or “Technical College” in Egypt, just to name a few variations).  If you will indulge my hyperbole, a “title of nobility” is conferred by a four-year degree, while very little status is gained in the attainment of a two-year degree. In fact, in some countries a two-year program is simply not even considered a degree.Higher Education System

Paradoxically, it is widely known that graduates of two-year programs often go on to make more money than those who have obtained a bachelor’s degree, and that a substantial number of individuals who already hold a bachelor’s degree go back for re-training at a community college in order to increase their income and/or enhance their employability. At the same time, two-year colleges provide a more affordable option to underserved sectors of the population for whom higher education may otherwise not be possible. Despite this reality, two-year colleges struggle to be recognized as comparably important players in the higher-education arena.

When I mention, while traveling abroad, that in the U.S. almost half of freshman students in higher education are enrolled in a community college, I nearly always find that I surprise people. Even within the U.S., it is not widely known that more than 6.5 million students, representing 36 percent of the national higher-education population, are enrolled in a community college as indicated by the U.S. Department of Education as referenced in The Almanac of Higher Education. In a recent decade (1997-2007) enrollment in community colleges increased by 28 percent in contrast to the mere 19 percent increase at four-year colleges. In some states, like California, 6 out of 10 higher-education students are attending a community college. Evidently, affordability is an important factor considering that the average annual tuition and fees at a community college were only $2,402 in 2008-09, in comparison with the $6,545 to $25,143 range of averages at four-year institutions. It is not surprising that a greater proportion of minorities attend community colleges: 51 percent of Hispanics studying in undergraduate education programs are enrolled at a community college, while, at the same level, only 33 percent of white, non-Hispanics are. A final statistic which helps to illustrate the gap: the annual cost for instruction at a two-year public college is $2,608, while at a four-year public college this figure goes up to $7,082.

Unfortunately, under-appreciation for the contribution made by two-year degree-granting institutions exists not only in the U.S. but also abroad. In Mexico where I was recently invited to speak to the presidents of the Mexican two-year colleges (Technological Universities), at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Technological Universities (ANUT by its Spanish acronym) I heard that this is also the case. Among other important topics, the meeting discussed ways in which their institutions can become more internationalized.  By every indication, they are working seriously to achieve this ambitious goal by developing innovative partnerships with peer institutions from other parts of the world. Despite all their efforts, a major challenge they face has to do with the value placed by society on their degrees. The feeling amongst the Mexican public — parents and employers — seems to be that two-year degrees, known in Spanish as “Técnico Superior Universitario,” are not valuable or are somehow less so.

The time has come to seriously analyze the long-term ramifications of this significant perceptual and consequential dysfunction in higher education. Failing this, gaps, or the perception thereof, will persist and higher education will continue to be composed of first- and second-class institutions. Or is this by design — are we intending to prepare first- and second-class citizens?

About the author:

Francisco Marmolejo

Francisco Marmolejo is the Executive Director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC), a network of more than 130 colleges and universities primarily from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Francisco also serves as Assistant Vice President for Western Hemispheric Programs at the University of Arizona and has taught at several universities and has published extensively on administration and internationalization. Marmolejo has consulted for universities and governments in different parts of the world, and has been part of OECD and World Bank peer review teams conducting evaluations of higher education in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

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