Community Colleges in America

Reforming the nation’s community college space

Published 8 months ago in North America and Opinion

community college higher education

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Los Angeles Trade Technical College near downtown L.A. on Feb. 21, 2018. (Los Angeles Times)



I attended high school in Idaho, a state that few even know exists and for those that do, probably only because of the potatoes that the state is famous for. I lived in a close, tight-knit community, one that I often describe as something like a bubble. There was a unique way of life that I haven’t found anywhere else, and families tend to remain there for generations. As a student, I was constantly exposed to local possibilities for college, particularly the option of attending a nearby community college. In high school, I took many community college classes, and many of my peers elected to attend community college after graduation. At this time, many of those peers have already completed their community college degrees or are just about to. Their accomplishments made me reflect on the importance of the community college system in the United States and a few of the problems that are plaguing it today.

What are community colleges?

Community colleges play a vital role in the United States’ postsecondary education sector. They initially sprang up as a niche to serve underprivileged students for whom attending a traditional four-year institution was impossible. Today, many students have turned to community colleges as a flexible and accessible pathway to a college degree. In the fall semester of 2014, 42 percent of all college students were attending community colleges.

Community colleges differ significantly from their traditional counterparts. Programs are typically designed to be completed in two years, upon which students graduate with an associate’s degree and can enter the workforce. Many community colleges also offer shorter certificate programs for specific vocational fields. Alternatively, the student can choose to transfer to a four-year institution and pursue a bachelor’s degree.
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These schools are truly designed with the community in mind. There is no on-campus housing available as students are expected to attend the community college geographically closest to their residence. Furthermore, most community colleges are open access, meaning there is no competitive admissions process to enroll in the school. As a result, community colleges are often better choices for part-time students or for students with less academic preparation. Lastly, community colleges have lower sticker prices, or total cost of attendance before financial aid, than traditional four-year institutions, making them much more affordable.

How are community colleges doing?

When evaluating the performance of a community college, two of the most widely used metrics are the program’s student enrollment and graduation rate. Historically, enrollment in community colleges is negatively correlated with the state of the economy. When the economy is healthy and unemployment is low, enrollment tends to be lower, mainly because many students view higher education as a means of finding employment. The easier it is to find a job, the less of a need to go to community college. Hence, while enrollment in community colleges has declined in the past few years, it comes as no surprise as the economy has steadily been recovering from the last recession.

More alarming is the performance of community colleges. They are failing at their core objective: to graduate students. Two-thirds of first-time community college students fail to obtain an associate’s degree or certificate after six years. Moreover, only 12 percent of those students will obtain a bachelor’s degree after six years. This can be attributed to many different factors: a lack of accountability from school officials, students who are underprepared for college-level academics, poorly structured programs with superfluous courses and convoluted graduation requirements, etc. It is impossible to identify one dominant factor; instead, numerous factors contribute to the poor graduation rates found across the country.

The problem, however, isn’t that these schools don’t know how to turn these numbers around. A simple Google search will find a multitude of academically-supported and empirically-proven strategies for improving graduation rates at the community college level, like providing better guidance counseling to help navigate through course selection and academic preparation or offering targeted tutoring services to struggling students. Rather, the problem is the lack of necessary funding to implement those strategies.

In the past, the budget of community colleges have followed the 1/3 model: student tuition, local funding, and state funding all contributing equal amount. Recently, however, states have drastically decreased their contributions, leaving many schools struggling to stay afloat. Not only has this contributed to the declining outcomes of community colleges, but several schools have also been forced to increase tuition to compensate for the lost funding. While sticker prices are certainly still less than those found at traditional universities, the tuition increase has nonetheless impacted students’ abilities to attend these schools. For instance, there is now a growing concern over student debt at the community college level. Although community college students are less likely to borrow money, the default rate is 19 percent for community college students while only 6 or 7 percent for traditional students. 

Current attempts at reshaping the community college sector

The budget cuts come during a national movement to reform the higher education space. Led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed the PROSPER Act among partisan lines. The proposed legislation would roll back regulations on for-profit and online schools and reallocate funding towards career colleges and apprenticeships. One key idea of the bill is to direct funds towards higher-performing institutions and to penalize lower-performing ones. More than half of the states have already taken to this idea, citing performance-based funding models as justification for the overall budget cuts to community colleges.

However, academic research indicates several flaws with performance-based funding. To begin with, community colleges faced with outcome-based budgets push students towards one-year certificate programs rather than associate’s degree or transfer programs. Certificate programs are cheaper to produce and have higher graduation rates, which make them the most cost-effective way to secure this kind of funding. However, certificates yield few labor market benefits in relation to advanced degrees. Additionally, community colleges serving poorer and underrepresented communities naturally suffer under a performance-based funding model. On a per-student basis, these institutions on average lose significant amounts of funding. One estimate finds that minority-serving institutions on average lose $763 per full-time student once they are subjected to performance-based funding.

Democrats have their own ideas for reform in the community college space. President Obama first dreamed of making community college free for all students. Then, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, candidate Bernie Sanders advocated for making attendance at public four-year institutions free for students from households making $125,000.00 or less annually. These plans would certainly serve to increase enrollment in higher education programs and alleviate student debt.

Nonetheless, proposals for free community college suffer from key drawbacks that make them unviable in the current education system. The most obvious one is the cost: the Obama administration estimated that their proposal would cost over $60 billion over the next ten years, and an independent study estimates it could cost more than $130 billion. Furthermore, covering tuition for all students is inefficient. Many middle-income and upper-income students do not need this assistance, while lower-income students still need to cope with non-tuition costs like room & board and school supplies. 

Moving forward

Ultimately, it may be the case that no federally-led reform of the community college space can be effective, because there is much variation in community colleges at the state level. The fact mentioned earlier regarding the 42 percent enrollment of all college students at community colleges is merely a national average of state-level data ranging from 20 percent in South Dakota to over 65 percent in California. Average tuition ranges from less than $1500 in California to over $7500 in Vermont. In the last five years, average tuition hasn’t increased in eleven states but increased by over $1000 in five. 94 percent of community college students in South Carolina receive some form of aid, while less than half do in New Hampshire. The demographics and circumstances of the student population attending community colleges similarly changes from state to state. Because of such heterogeneity across different states, it would behoove the states and even local cities to implement their own approaches at funding community colleges that take their own circumstances into consideration.

Today, 17 states offer free community college in some capacity. College promise programs are quickly populating the country to varying degrees of success and sustainability. In my local context, community colleges offered a plethora of sports scholarships that allowed my friends to simultaneously achieve a college degree for free and continue to pursue their athletic dreams. The jury is still out on  the best way to reform the nation’s community college space, but community colleges are certainly suffering from a budgetary crisis, and it is up to the communities to initiate a solution.

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