Episode 113: The Community College Challenge

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Today’s episode focuses on a higher education issue that we have talked about before at USACollegeChat, though not recently–that is, the pros and cons of attending a community college, which is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality. At least, that has been our position in the past.

When I read a recent article about where community colleges find themselves these days, I thought we might look at them one more time. If you are the parent of a senior, we will offer some recent facts that might affect your decision to send your own teenager to a community college next fall. If you are the parent of a junior, these same facts might affect your wanting to use a community college as your teenager’s safety school option or as your teenager’s only option during the application process next year.

1. The Funding Picture

The article I read was written by Jeffrey R. Young and disseminated online by EdSurge. EdSurge is an organization that, in its own words, “report[s] on [the] latest news and trends in the edtech industry to help . . . entrepreneurs who build new products and businesses; educators who use these tools; [and] investors and others who support companies and schools” (quoted from the EdSurge website). So, here is some background for our discussion, thanks to Mr. Young and EdSurge:

Nationwide, enrollments in community colleges have been declining for several years, in part because the job market as a whole has been improving, so fewer people have felt the need to . . . [head] back to school. And even as some states and cities propose efforts to make two-year colleges free to students, the broader trend is that many state governments have scaled back public support for community colleges in recent years. In Arizona, for instance, the state funding for two major community college districts [Maricopa Community College District and Pima Community College District] is down to zero.

“Like all public higher education support, the funding is going down,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “It’s worse in some ways at community colleges,” she adds, because the total amount that community colleges spend per student has been decreasing, according to The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing. “They just don’t have the money to serve students the way they did,” she adds. “That’s a reason to be very concerned.” (quoted from the article)

Yes, that is a reason to be concerned–for sure, if you live in the Phoenix-Tempe-Tucson area, where funding is “down to zero,” and presumably if you live in other community college districts in similar financial trouble. We have read plenty in the news over the past year about public four-year universities that are living in a world of declining state funding and, often, that are raising tuition to make up for that loss, much to the anger of the state residents.

But, if you thought that public community colleges could be your fallback position, perhaps it is time for you to think again. Because what happens when state and local governments cut back on their funding of their community colleges? Clearly, the community colleges are going to have to raise their tuition–which, to be fair, is typically very low–or they are going to have to reduce educational and support services to their students. Unfortunately, there’s no free lunch, even at community colleges. For some students, whose only viable option is their local community college, either choice that a community college is forced to make will be a serious blow.

2. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s review quickly some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s a list of reasons to put two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of colleges to apply to (these reasons are conveniently taken from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students):

  • Two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers, including high-paying technical careers. Later, if the student wants to do so, the credits earned for an associate’s degree can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree.   (In fact, some two-year colleges in some states are now authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply. Students pursuing those bachelor’s degrees would need to stay at the two-year college longer, of course.)
  • Two-year colleges offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills and study habits they will need to succeed in more advanced college study. After doing well at a two-year college, such students can get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • Two-year colleges can be a good choice if a student is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career. Trying out different academic majors and different programs leading to different career paths is cheaper and likely easier to do at a two-year college than at a four-year college.
  • Two-year colleges offer their students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very low price. Putting two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of college options is a reasonable decision if paying for college?either right away for a two-year degree or eventually for a four-year degree?is a critical concern for your family.

Let’s underline that last point, which, I think, is the primary point for the kids who head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that it is so much cheaper than any four-year option is sometimes irresistible. We know that students can get financial aid of all kinds from four-year colleges, which could make their time there essentially free, but none of those deals is a sure thing. Paying the very low tuition at a community college, especially with whatever financial aid is available, is a sure thing.

Let’s also acknowledge that we understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Sometimes it is hard to argue against family reasons like that.

3. The Cons of Community Colleges: A Review

So, what’s the downside of going to a community college? As we have said before at USACollegeChat, the choice of a community college for students coming right out of high school is quite different from that same choice being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. But, we are focused here on students coming right out of high school, just like your own teenager. Here is what Mr. Young’s article says about one very important college statistic:

? [T]he truth is that community colleges don’t always pay off for students. Completion rates are notoriously low–only about 38 percent of students who started at a community college in 2009 completed a two- or four-year degree within six years. And students who take out even small loans to attend can end up with crippling debt if they end up with no degree to show for their efforts. As [Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute] puts it: “You really can’t pay back anything if you’re working at the minimum wage.” (quoted from the article)

That is a sobering statistic: Not even half of community college students complete any college degree in six years–not even a two-year associate’s degree. Admittedly, that statistic includes all kinds of students who attend community colleges–from bright kids right out of high school who need to save money to returning adults who have been out of school for a decade to kids who struggled in high school and couldn’t get into a more selective college. Nonetheless, we quoted evidence many episodes back that said that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. You have to put that in the scale as you weigh college options for your teenager.

In addition to that seriously low completion rate, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is also shockingly low, as we reported back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is that statistic, which was taken from a report from Teachers College, Columbia University:

. . . 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article)

So, as parents, you need to think hard about whether your teenager is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented, or something. Because, otherwise, the statistics are telling you that he or she is likely not to graduate with even an associate’s degree and is likely not to transfer to that more expensive four-year college you say you are saving up your money for. We all think our own kids are different and, maybe, better. But how much are you willing to gamble on that?

4. What Is the Answer?

Mr. Young’s article also noted that community colleges are trying out a few ideas in the hope of improving those statistics, and that’s a good thing. Let’s look at two of them. The first idea is something that community colleges are calling “guided pathways,” and the idea really couldn’t be simpler. Here it is:

The metaphor for the traditional community college is a “cafeteria” of course offerings, says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “We’ve since realized that too much choice is actually overwhelming,” she adds, “and too many students are unable to put together a program of study that gets them where they want to go.”

John Hamman, a dean at Montgomery College, agrees. “What we need to do is help and talk to students about, what do you want to do?” Many community college students who struggle with subjects like mathematics, for instance, might prefer a different track that requires less math–but may not know the option exists. . . . And we don’t do a good enough job helping students [take] those smart pathways.” (quoted from the article)

Well, this problem exists at all levels of schooling and can be solved, at least partly, by intelligent and experienced advisors. Certainly, we had to serve in that capacity at the high school we co-founded in NYC. It was clear that we had to be vigilant to make sure that students were taking what they needed to take in order to graduate–and, in our case, to graduate early in three years. But, it is also true that four-year college advisors need to pay attention to course selection and graduation counseling–especially, as we just said in our last episode (Episode 112), if students are trying to do four years of college in three years.

In this case of community colleges, given their low graduation rate, they absolutely need “guided pathways” to make sure that students get onto a track as soon as possible and stay on track to finish the courses needed to earn a degree. If you are looking at a community college for your teenager, it would be wise to check out whether it has these pathways spelled out and this kind of academic advising available.

The second idea aimed at improving community college statistics is making online coursework more available. Here is what the article said:

Community colleges are . . . starting to do more to offer online courses, says Rufus Glasper, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College. But they are more likely to offer blended programs and require at least some in-person attendance, rather than set up all-online programs, he adds.

“Community colleges need to do more with online so that we can have lower price-point options for our students as well,” he says. That can be especially tough for two-year colleges, though, since they often don’t have the resources to invest in new online infrastructure that it takes to start fully online programs. (quoted from the article)

On the other hand, I am wondering whether the fact that community colleges often offer blended courses instead of fully online courses is actually a plus. Quite recently, in Episode 107, we discussed the pros and cons of online courses for various groups of students. We remained concerned at the end of that episode about the ability of most freshmen to take important introductory or foundational courses online (like Calculus I or Composition 101 or Introduction to Sociology or Spanish I or Biology 101) and get everything out of them that they would get if they were in a classroom with a professor two or three times a week. Offering courses fully online to save the student money may backfire if the student cannot complete the course with a satisfactory grade or with a satisfactory amount of knowledge. We are going to remain concerned that fully online courses might not, in the long run, improve a community college’s graduation rate or successful transfer rate.

5. Where Does That Leave Us?

Toward the end of Mr. Young’s article, he again quotes Ms. Karp, of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College:

“This is their moment because [community colleges] are the access and equity engines of higher education,” argues Karp. . . . “In this age when we’re talking about how do we open up access to higher education but also make sure our labor force is prepared for . . . jobs of the future, they’re in an ideal position.” (quoted from the article)

Community colleges might indeed be in an ideal position in theory, but they are going to have to improve their results in practice. Those results are what continue to worry us as seniors choose their first step into higher education. Let me simply repeat what I said a few minutes ago: Unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about your choice.

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