Md. Dream Act forces 'cooling out' of poor, minority kids in community college

Maryland now has a hard-fought "Dream Act" that offers undocumented-immigrant young people in-state tuition for post-high school education — but with many limitations, including that these "dreamers" must enroll first in Maryland community colleges.

Why would a number of staunch opponents approve the act once the last-minute community college mandate was added? Because this concession is very significant in legitimating the class- and race-biased structures of U.S. higher education — especially in blessing the community colleges, said to be the "democratizing" open door to higher education. The latter have instead been founded and designed to divert students, especially poor and minority students seeking the essential U.S. credential of baccalaureate degrees, away from the ever-more-selective four-year colleges.

Sociological critics have over decades documented how community colleges have performed massively what the late University of California, Los Angeles, professor Burton Clark called "the cooling out function in higher education," deploying various mechanisms to persuade the majority of their entering students to give up their "unrealistic" baccalaureate aspirations and settle for some lesser fate: certificate, associate's degree, or dropout. A student must be taught to buy the "meritocratic" ideology: If she individually is failing, it is her own fault (and her family's) for not measuring up, not that of the education institutions in not providing adequate public educational opportunities and resources.

A century ago, American college planners were worried about seeing a U.S. version of "the youth of Egypt" (their words) — "over-educated," unemployed, on the streets. Community college founders have sought to produce "intelligent followers" — docile technicians, resigned to their economic fate and not dreaming of being well-educated, politically active, powerful citizens.

Nationally, President Barack Obama and the Gates Foundation plan to throw $2 billion into community colleges as the "unsung heroes" that will provide needed job skills to save our faltering economy —essentially blaming our economic woes on the allegedly defective workers. However, the most nationally prominent community college researcher and leader, Kay McClenney, has persistently reacted to such proposals with skepticism: "If we're going to stake the future of our communities and our country on the ability of community colleges to educate more people, they are going to have to show us they're able to do it."

The American public has no clue about the necessarily hidden, undemocratic "cooling out" role that the Obama plan assigns to the 1,200 U.S. community colleges. But the business community and the community college establishment know its well-worn niche as the lowest track in higher education. As the American Association of Community Colleges itself admits, "Recent research has pointed out that those who begin their postsecondary education at a community college are less likely to attain a baccalaureate than those who start on a four-year campus."

In speeches to college presidents, Ms. McClenney often bluntly outlines the dismal class- and race-biased outcomes of community colleges: "There remains in American higher education a significant gap in educational attainment between students from high socioeconomic levels and students who are poor, between white students and their African-American and Hispanic peers. The gap is dangerous. It is intolerable. It is a blight on America's future. And it is worse in community colleges than elsewhere in higher education."

Regarding the "tar pit" role of community college remedial courses, Ms. McClenney says: "Of the half million academically underprepared students who enter community colleges each year, a substantial portion never make it out of remedial education, and only half go on to enroll in a baccalaureate degree program. For students of color, that figure is less than 20 percent. … For community colleges nationally, the dropout rate from the first to the second year is around 50 percent. A closer look reveals that low-income and minority students are too often the ones most likely to drop out."

Ms. McClenney does not resort to blaming students but highlights community colleges' practices. She insists: "Every program, every service, every academic policy, every college is perfectly designed to achieve the exact outcome it currently produces."

Community colleges are now crucial gateways, enrolling millions of low- and middle-income students. American decision-makers have decided not to expand four-year colleges more fairly for minorities and low-income families. Instead, they have increasingly created a largely two-tiered higher education system for the haves and have-nots, with parents' social class (and ZIP Code) a significant predictor of who are the winners and losers in gaining essential credentials.

"Dream Act" supporters must now strategize on how their aspiring students can actually persevere through the community colleges to their goal of a four-year degree.

Fred Millar is an educational sociologist and minority parent activist in Arlington, Va. His email is