Community Colleges Not Serving the Community
A key pathway to success for low-income citizens isn't working.
For a variety of reasons, most press coverage of higher education focuses on a handful of elite universities that serve the top 1 percent of students. Very little goes to regional teaching colleges that serve most students, while almost none goes to community colleges and technical schools that serve as the entryway for so many.
AP (“Community colleges are reeling. ‘The reckoning is here.’“):
When Santos Enrique Camara arrived at Shoreline Community College in Washington state to study audio engineering, he quickly felt lost.
“It’s like a weird maze,” remembered Camara, who was 19 at the time and had finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average. “You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”
Advocates for community colleges defend them as the underdogs of America’s higher education system, left to serve the students who need the most support but without the money to provide it. Critics contend this has become an excuse for poor success rates and for the kind of faceless bureaucracies that ultimately led Camara to drop out after two semesters.
With scant advising, many community college students spend time and money on courses that won’t transfer or that they don’t need. Though most intend to move on to get bachelor’s degrees, only a small fraction succeed; fewer than half earn any kind of credential. Even if they do, many employers don’t believe they’re ready for the workforce.
Now these failures are coming home to roost.
Community colleges are far cheaper than four-year schools. Published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, with many states making community college free.
Yet consumers are abandoning them in droves. The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“The reckoning is here,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Teachers College.)
Those numbers would be even more grim if they didn’t include high school students taking dual-enrollment courses, according to the Community College Research Center. High school students make up nearly a fifth of community college enrollment.
Yet even as these colleges serve fewer students, their already low success rates have by at least one measure gotten worse.
While four out of five students who begin at a community college say they plan to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six of them actually manages to do it. That’s down by nearly 15% since 2020, according to the clearinghouse.
Two-year community colleges have the worst completion rates of any kind of university or college. Like Camara, nearly half of students drop out, within a year, of the community college where they started. Only slightly more than 40% finish within six years.
These frustrated wanderers include a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic students. Half of all Hispanic and 40% of all Black students in higher education are enrolled at community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges says.
While none of my degrees are from community colleges, I have some experience with that tier. My late father got his associate’s in police science at what we then called “junior college,” at Lee College in Baytown, Texas back in 1975. I taught at what was then Bainbridge College in Bainbridge, Georgia during the 1997-98 academic year. And my stepson has been attending Northern Virginia Community College (colloquially “NoVa”) the last three years.
I don’t have much recollection of my dad’s time at Lee College, as I was 8 and 9 years old when he attended, but he was an Army sergeant first class in his early 30s, so rather self-sufficient.
At least from the faculty perspective, Bainbridge was incredibly supportive, going out of our way to make classes available to students when and where they needed them. I personally taught classes in the daytime, evenings, on Saturdays, and at a high school 30 miles down the road. We were quite well-resourced, owing to the Georgia lottery funding, and had a pretty significant support staff.
Of course, those experiences are 48 and 25 years in the past, during an era when state support for higher education enjoyed strong, bipartisan support.
I have indeed noticed a different experience, albeit vicariously, at NoVa. While it’s generally regarded as quite excellent for its tier and seen as a low-cost pathway to the state’s elite public universities (the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Virginia Tech), the level of institutional support has been shockingly poor. In order to schedule classes, my stepson has to drive to at least three different campuses that are 40 minutes or more away (there are six total, and I know he’s taken classes at Alexandria, Annandale, and Woodbridge). There is indeed a higher degree of “go and figure it out” than I’ve ever seen in a college setting.
The spurning of community colleges has implications for the national economy, which relies on their graduates to fill many of the jobs in which there are shortages. Those include positions as nurses, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians, vehicle mechanics and electrical linemen, and in fields including information technology, construction, manufacturing, transportation and law enforcement.
Other factors are also contributing to the enrollment declines. Strong demand in the job market for people without college educations has made it more attractive for many to go to work. Thanks to so-called degree inflation, many jobs that require higher education call for bachelor’s degrees where associate degrees or certificates were once sufficient. And private, regional public and for-profit universities, facing enrollment crises of their own, are competing for the same students.
Many Americans increasingly are questioning the value of going to college at all.
But they are particularly rejecting community college. In Michigan, for instance, the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in community college fell more than three times faster from 2018 to 2021 than the proportion going to four-year universities, according to that state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.
That’s truly a pity because community college is such a bargain, comparatively. Alas, there is something of a stigma associated with them, with most in academia not considering it “real college” or an associates a “real” degree. (Indeed, I’m somewhat bemused when I see an applicant for a faculty teaching job, which requires a Ph.D., listing an associate’s on their CV, as most consider it a mere waypoint to a bachelor’s.)
Those who do go complain of red tape and other frustrations.
Megan Parish, who at 26 has been in and out of community college in Arkansas since 2016, said she waits two or three days to get answers from advisers. “I’ve had to go out of my way to find people, and if they didn’t know the answer, they would send me to somebody else, usually by email.” Hearing back from the financial aid office, she said, can take a month.
Oryanan Lewis doesn’t have that kind of time. Lewis, 20, is in her second year at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Alabama, where she is pursuing a degree in medical assisting. And she’s already behind.
Lewis has the autoimmune disease lupus and thought she’d get more personal attention at a smaller school than at a four-year university; Chattahoochee has about 1,600 students. But she said she didn’t receive the help she needed until her illness had almost derailed her degree.
She failed three classes and was put on academic probation. Only then did she hear from an intervention program.
“I feel like they should talk to their students more,” Lewis said. “Because a person can have a whole lot going on.”
While I’m always skeptical of the use of personal anecdote in news reporting, as there’s no way of assessing how typical the cases cited are—or even how fully the anecdote is fleshed out—they do comport with what I’ve seen at NoVa. Part of the problem is that so many of the faculty seem to be itinerant. Almost by definition, they have little stake in the school or incentive to engage in unpaid student advising. By contrast, permanent faculty at a teaching-oriented university not only naturally see that as part of their job but acquire enough familiarity with the larger institution to offer useful input.
Employers, meanwhile, are unimpressed with the quality of community college students who manage to graduate. Only about a third agree that community colleges produce graduates who are ready to work, according to a survey released in December by researchers at the Harvard Business School.
I’m not sure what to make of that factoid.
The survey compares the responses of employers and community college educators. It would be far more useful to see how employers compared community college graduates to those with only a high school diploma and those with a four-year degree in the same field. For all I know, this is just a sign of grumpy employers.
Community colleges get less government money to spend, per student, than public four-year universities: $8,695, according to the Center for American Progress, compared with $17,540.
Yet community college students need more support than their counterparts at four-year universities. Twenty-nine percent are the first in their families to go to college, 15% are single parents and 68% work while in school. Twenty-nine percent say they’ve had trouble affording food and 14% affording housing, according to a survey by the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
Here, we get useful comparative information:
While the difference isn’t a stark as I would have guessed (but perhaps that’s a function of including dual-enrolled high school students, which would radically skew the data?) it’s still significant. Given the demographics, it seems obvious that resourcing support systems would be a high priority.