Episode 135: Another Look at Community Colleges

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options looks at a big option–an option that we have talked about in quite a few USACollegeChat episodes and in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Most recently, we took a careful look at this option about five months ago in Episode 113. However, I have to admit that I am considering it again, based on a new opinion piece by LaGuardia Community College President Gail O. Mellow in late August in The New York Times. The option is community college. As we said in Episode 113, the community college is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality–or, at least, that has usually been our position.

If you are the parent of a high school senior, we know that some of you–perhaps many of you–are thinking about sending your kid to a community college next fall. Maybe that’s for financial reasons, maybe for academic reasons, maybe for maturity reasons, maybe for location reasons, maybe for some other reasons. Whatever your reasons, President Mellow has made us think again; so, let’s take another look.

1. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s quickly review some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s an abbreviated list of pros we offered back in Episode 113 (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 over four years, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply.)
  • 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, these students can likely get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • 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. That’s critically important if paying for college is a major concern for your family.

That last point about very low cost is perhaps the main reason that kids head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that community college is so much cheaper than any four-year option–and the fact that kids can live at home and save even more money–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.

2. 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 when it is being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. My own nonprofit organization has done market studies for quite a few community colleges interested in increasing their adult enrollment (that is, students over the age of 25) and in serving those adult students better. And, to be fair, community colleges are a great institution for getting adults into college study or back into college study. But, we are focused today on your kid, who is going to college right out of high school, and some of the statistics about community college completion rates and transfer-to-four-year-college rates are just plain scary.

You have to deal with this 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 just needed 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 have quoted evidence in previous USACollegeChat episodes that shows that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. That is clearly a reason against having your kid choose a community college for next year.

In addition to a 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 way back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is a 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)

Parents, we said in Episode 113 that we thought you should think hard about whether your kid is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented. Just being younger might not help enough. 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 great four-year college you say you are saving up your money for.

3. President Mellow’s Point of View

And now we come to President Mellow’s point of view. I have to admit that some of my attitude toward community colleges comes from my belief that kids who can get into a satisfactory four-year college and who can figure out how to pay for it (including through loans and other unpleasant devices) should go directly to that four-year college. I worry that kids who could go to a four-year college, but don’t, will get sidetracked into community college and never get out. But perhaps I have not given sufficient thought to kids who cannot go to a four-year college, especially for financial reasons.

Let’s look at some excerpts from President Mellow’s recent opinion piece:

You might think the typical college student lives in a state of bliss, spending each day moving among classes, parties and extracurricular activities. But the reality is that an increasingly small population of undergraduates enjoys that kind of life.

Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.

The typical student is not the one burnishing a fancy résumé with numerous unpaid internships. It’s just the opposite: Over half of all undergraduates live at home to make their degrees more affordable, and a shocking 40 percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full time and go to school full time. (quoted from the article)

Of course, some of these students who work full time and go to school full time are adult students over the age of 25–but, not all of them. For example, a lot of students who graduate from urban high schools, like the one we co-founded in Brooklyn, head off to college with both the intention and the necessity of working while they are enrolled. Marie and I worried that our students wouldn’t be able to do both successfully. We worried that they were going to have a hard enough time in college without spending 10 or 15 or 20 hours a week–or more–at a job. But, given their family circumstances, many of them had no choice, just as President Mellow writes.

She continues:

As open-access institutions, community colleges educate the majority of our country’s low-income, first-generation students. But public funding for community colleges is significantly less than for four-year colleges, sometimes because of explicit state policies. This means the amount that community colleges can spend on each student–to pay for faculty, support services, tutoring and facilities–is far less as well.

Tuition for low-income students can be covered by federal financial aid programs, but these students often have significant other costs–including housing, transportation, food and child care–that regularly pose obstacles to their education.

A recent Urban Institute study found that from 2011 to 2015, one in five students attending a two-year college lived in a food-insecure household. A study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that in 2016, 14 percent of community college students had been homeless at some point. At LaGuardia Community College in New York, where I am president, 77 percent of students live in households making less than $25,000 per year.

With financial pressures like these, studying full time is not an option. It is not uncommon for a student to take between three and six years to graduate from a two-year associate degree program. (quoted from the article)

And we can see why. Those statistics are sobering, and they do put community colleges’ lousy completion rates into perspective. Of course, you would still want your kid to come out of a community college on time so that he or she could move forward and transfer to a four-year college or enter the workforce and get a decent job. This is especially true if you, as a parent, can manage to pay the cost of attending a community college and keep distractions for your kid–like working a significant number of hours a week–down to a minimum.

Not surprisingly, President Mellow argues for a better financial deal for community colleges and their students, both in government funding and, interestingly, in philanthropy. She writes:

Community colleges need increased funding, and students need access to more flexible federal and state financial aid, enhanced paid internships and college work-study programs. Improved access to public supports, like food stamps and reduced public transportation fares, would also make a world of difference.

It’s not just that policy must change. Last year, more than $41 billion was given in charity to higher education, but about a quarter of that went to just 20 institutions. Community colleges, with almost half of all undergraduate students, received just a small fraction of this philanthropy. It is imperative that individuals, corporations and foundations spread their wealth and diversify where they donate their dollars. (quoted from the article)

I have to tell you that I was so embarrassed that my two alma maters might be on that list of 20 institutions that I didn’t even look at it–because obviously that is just the very definition of unfair advantage and privilege.

4. What’s Herb Alpert Got To Do with It?

Some months ago, I wrote a piece for my own blog, ParentChat with Regina, about the importance of music in a child’s education. But the really arresting part of the piece was about Herb Alpert, trumpeter extraordinaire and co-founder of A&M Records. (If you are too young to remember Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, go listen to Alpert’s signature style on YouTube. Start with “Tijuana Taxi” and “This Guy’s In Love With You”–and stay for all the rest.)

As it turns out, Alpert has done what President Mellow wishes more people would do. His foundation–co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall–has made a $10.1 million gift to Los Angeles City College (LACC), a two-year public community college. The money will create an endowment, which will be used to raise the number of music majors enrolled from 175 to 250 and to provide ALL of them with FREE tuition.

As reported by Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, Alpert said this about his gift:

LACC is a gem of an institution. . . . [My] biggest motivation was helping kids who don’t have the financial energy to go to a major college. At LACC, they’ve nurtured thousands of dedicated students every year. My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I’ve visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’. (quoted from the article)

Alpert noted that he was especially interested in supporting a public institution where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a college education. It’s as if he were simply channeling President Mellow.

5. So, What About Community Colleges?

So, where does all that leave us–or rather, you? Well, we are probably going to continue to worry when seniors choose a community college as their first step into higher education. We are going to continue to worry that some of them are going to have difficulty graduating from a community college in anything close to two years and/or transferring to a four-year college ever.

But we are also going to admit that financial constraints can cause families to choose a path that might not be as perfect as we would like for their own kids. If that is your situation, talk with your kid and think hard about the community college option. Think about how to keep working hours to a minimum so that study hours can be at a maximum. Talk about how important it is to stay on track and make progress toward graduation every semester. Help make the statistics better.

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Episode 64: Volunteers To Help in College Applications Process

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

This is our tenth episode focusing on news stories about higher education. When we started this series about what’s going on in the news, I really didn’t know if there would be enough to talk about. It turns out there has been quite a lot!

Today’s story is equally for families with kids going into their final year or two of high school and for families with kids going into their final year of community college—that is, families with kids who might be facing the process of applying to a four-year college in the near future.

1. The Problem with Completing College Applications

In a February 8 online article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” Hechinger senior editor Barbara Kantrowitz writes about an idea that comes to you from Karen Dubinsky, the chief engagement officer at LaGuardia Community College (located in Long Island City, Queens), one of the seven community colleges of the City University of New York. Dubinsky’s idea is something that should be replicated in every high school and every community college immediately.

We are not kidding. I can’t believe more high schools and community colleges do not do this one simple, but likely highly effective, thing to help kids navigate the college application process and get into college: Enlist volunteers from among the parents of kids who have recently helped their own kids through the college application process and who might want to lend a hand to a younger student.

The article quotes Dubinsky’s description of LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms as “women in New York who have spent a lot of time and energy getting their kids into college.” In point of fact, the women are Dubinsky’s friends, whom she recruited to start Pushy Moms (originally and more boringly called the College Advisory Board).

These women don’t work miracles, and they don’t have friends in high places in prestigious four-year universities. What they do have is experience, a certain amount of kindheartedness, and undoubtedly empathy for kids and parents struggling through the process.

Just to get some perspective, LaGuardia CC has tens of thousands of students (actually 48,000 students from 150 countries), and many are trying to make the transition from two-year LaGuardia to a four-year college when they graduate. Many of LaGuardia’s students—especially those who have come by themselves from all over the world—don’t have nearby parents or other family members to help them figure out the next step in their education, and many of them can’t afford to pay someone to provide that help. My guess is that the college counselors employed by LaGuardia CC are about as overwhelmed as high school counselors in big cities are. Providing one-to-one college counseling for every LaGuardia student who needs it just isn’t going to happen.

2. The Statistics About Completing College

Couple that situation with this fact, as noted in The Hechinger Report article:   “According to a recent 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). These statistics are astounding. Let’s just say it again: 80 percent of two-year college students say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, only about 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year college so that they can do that, and only 17 percent finally get the degree that they transferred for.

Parents, we know that we have said that starting out in a community college might be just the right thing for a variety of students—students who have no idea what they want to study in college, students who need to improve their basic academic and study skills, students who need to get better grades on their record before they apply to a four-year college, students who need to mature a bit before committing to a four-year program of study, and students whose families want or need the financial break of far cheaper tuition than four-year colleges.   We have said this and more in many episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our new book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available electronically and in print from Amazon). We have praised community colleges for lots of things, including the fact that adults over 25, some of whom are returning to finish a college degree they started years before, can often find a truly good fit at a community college.

But looking at these numbers—from 80 to 25 to17 percent—I have to say that I am beginning to think twice. It is true that there are legitimate reasons for this decline between the declared intentions of newly admitted students and the realities of where they end up. Because many community college students are older than typical college freshmen, it is likely that adult responsibilities get in the way—part-time and even full-time jobs, spouses, and children. It is also true that some students who try a community college right out of high school do so as a last resort—that is, their grades or test scores wouldn’t get them into a four-year college, even a less-selective public one. Such students might have trouble all the way through their community college careers.

I am not faulting community colleges here. I believe they serve an important purpose for a significant percentage of graduating high school students, especially for students who need a little extra time to become fully college ready or who need to keep costs for the first two years of college low enough that they can actually finish. But numbers are numbers, unfortunately, and these should make any educator or parent think again.

Just to be balanced, you might recall that we offered some different, but equally disturbing, statistics in our last episode (Episode 63: College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority). We noted that graduation rates from four-year colleges were so bad that the Obama administration has pledged to spend the next year trying to figure out what has been going wrong. In a recent U.S. News & World Report article (“Education Department to Prioritize College Completion,” January 21, 2016), reporter Lauren Camera quoted statistics from 2013 from the National Center for Education Statistics. She reported that only 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. Not four years, but six years. That’s first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program—in other words, these are the kids just coming out of high school and starting college full time in a bachelor’s degree program. These are kids like your teenager. After the community college numbers we just talked about, this 59 percent figure is really no consolation.

3. One Solution to the College Applications Problem

But let’s get back to LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms. One of Dubinsky’s solutions to the precipitous drop between the 80 percent of two-year college students who say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college and the approximately 25 percent who actually transfer to a four-year college is Pushy Moms.   Pushy Moms solves the problem of students who want to transfer to a four-year college, but cannot figure out how to negotiate the application process—which, by the way, is likely to be far more demanding than the application it took for them to get into LaGuardia as a public community college.

What exactly do the Pushy Moms do? Well, they do what moms do. They talk with LaGuardia students individually and over time about which four-year public and private colleges to apply to, about which colleges have the student’s desired major, about how to visit those colleges, about how to write any essays that might be required (and about how to revise and improve those essays, I’m sure), about any admissions tests that have to be taken, and about how to stay on schedule in getting transfer applications completed and submitted on time.

The Pushy Moms aren’t meant to replace the college counselors at LaGuardia, but I bet they often do. That’s how great the need for this kind of support is. The statistics are proof of that.

4. Next Steps

So, if you have a kid at a community college right now and want to see him or her make that transfer to a four-year college and you both need some help in order to make that happen, see whether the community college has a support service like Pushy Moms. Maybe you will be lucky.

But, what does Pushy Moms have to do with high schools? Simply this: There are a lot of pushy moms and dads (they can be pushy, too) who have helped navigate the college application process for their own kids in the past few years. Some of them have younger kids at home, who still need their help. But others don’t. The ones who don’t might have a little free time and might actually miss interacting with high school kids (yes, some are glad they are gone, but others of us wish they were still around).

These moms and dads could make up an effective volunteer corps to help students applying to colleges from your teenager’s high school—where they already know the principal and the teachers and the counselors and even perhaps some of the younger kids. I can already see this idea playing out in suburban high schools all over the country, especially in those suburbs where high school graduates go off to college and come back to live and raise their own families.

Of course, these moms and dads could also offer their services to schools that really need them, especially some urban high schools full of potential first-generation college students, who lack the family resources and family background necessary to put together winning college applications. As we all know, these urban high schools rarely have the number of counselors that would be needed to support all of the students who need help.

That is really the reason that Marie and I started this podcast. We were trying to make up for a lack of school counselors, and I was a mom who had recently gotten three kids of my own through undergraduate and graduate school admissions processes. Marie and I had also gotten a couple hundred high schoolers through the application process as they graduated from the Early College high school we co-founded in New York City. We knew how daunting it could be for families without any experience of their own in navigating college waters.

I recently wrote about this same topic on my blog for parents, called ParentChat with Regina. At the end of my ParentChat articles, I usually give parents some “marching orders,” which usually involve going to talk to the school board and/or their child’s school principal about current practices in the school district and the schools and possibly improved future practices. Here is what I said about the Pushy Moms topic.

High school parents: It is time to take a look at how parent volunteers are used in the college application process in your high school:

Ask your school board to talk about whether it has a policy on using parent volunteers in this particular way in your high school. Most boards will have a policy on volunteers, but this is a specific case, which could be endorsed in such a policy.

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity first to meet with the superintendent, high school principals, and counseling staff about current practice and about the desirability of adding this practice.

In addition, talk to your high school principal about starting a parent volunteer group like Pushy Moms. You don’t need to have a board policy to do it. It could be a project of your PTA, if you have a strong PTA, or it could be set up and run by your high school administrators or counselors.

Offer to help by recruiting parents of current students you know. Or offer to call parents of recent graduates to recruit them (teachers and counselors can probably point you to parents who did a good job for their own kids in the college applications process). Offer to help with the logistics of scheduling meetings between parent volunteers and seniors (meetings can be held in school facilities or, as with Pushy Moms, at local coffee shops and other public venues).

Stay focused in pulling this off in your high school. This is an idea with no downside.

As Marie and I often say, it is rare to find an idea in education that has no downside. We think that Pushy Moms—or Pushy Moms and Dads—is one. Don’t miss it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Making a community college experience more like a four-year college experience
  • Considering the case of Guttmann Community College
  • Enlisting the help of PTA members who no longer have kids in K–12 schools

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.