Community Colleges in Demand

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At Bunker Hill Community College, fall enrollment broke another record, topping 12,000 students. To accommodate so many students, the Boston school now offers five midnight classes; coffee is free.

 At LaGuardia Community College, philosophy has become a surprisingly popular course, with more than 4,500 students signed up for one of the 150 philosophy sections taught each academic year. Nearly four dozen students have declared themselves philosophy majors at the Queens, N.Y., school.

Guilford Technical Community College has just broken ground for its fourth campus, a 100-acre site to house the North Carolina Center for Global Logistics. In two months, another groundbreaking is planned two miles away for new classrooms and state-of-the-art simulation labs for the aviation-technology program, where enrollment is 450 students, about triple the number 10 years ago.    

At Valencia Community College in Orlando, more than 30,000 students have enrolled in Direct Connect, a program that guarantees associate-degree graduates admission to the nearby University of Central Florida. Next year, Valencia will join several other Florida community colleges offering four-year baccalaureate degrees in state-approved fields.

Miami-Dade College admitted its first four-year baccalaureate class in 2003; today, nearly 700 students have received bachelor’s degrees.

Community colleges, says Miami-Dade  President Eduardo J. Padrón, may not “fit the long-standing perception of college-going in America: pastoral settings, classic university architecture and football games on crisp autumn Saturdays.”

But the reality is that community colleges have become a “gateway to many who would not otherwise have the chance to attend college.” As a result, Padrón says, community colleges – with their commuter students hustling to evening classes after long work days – may now be the true American college experience. After all, community colleges “now serve close to half of the nation’s higher education population.”

Today, more than 8 million credit students, or 44 percent of all students enrolled in higher education, attend community colleges. Another 5 million are enrolled in noncredit courses, many for workforce training, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). And the numbers are steadily growing.

“From the early 1960s to the mid-2000s, community college enrollment grew by more than 700 percent,” according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based New American Foundation. By comparison, enrollment in public four-year colleges grew by 200 percent during the same time period.

Over the past two years, national enrollment at community colleges has jumped 17 percent. That’s partly because laid-off workers seeking new careers and/or skills are turning to these local institutions for job-training programs.

Yet increasingly, high-school graduates are choosing to begin their higher education at community colleges over the more expensive four-year colleges and universities. Community college annual tuition and fees total about $2,544, compared with more than $7,000 in yearly tuition and fees at a four-year public college, AACC calculates.

Along with the increased popularity and recognition – there’s even an NBC sitcom, “Community,” about a group of students at a Colorado school – comes newfound status. Today, community colleges are no longer the disdained stepsister of higher education, but rather, its Cinderella.

Raymond Yannuzzi, president of Camden County College in New Jersey jokingly notes, “We never got to go to the ball.”

But now community colleges are being sought out by businesses, foundations and even the White House, which held the grandest ball of all on Oct. 5: the Summit on Community Colleges. Heading the star-powered half-day meeting was the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, who is a longtime community college instructor. President Barack Obama attended much of the summit, and addressed its opening session.

Biden called community colleges “one of America’s best-kept secrets,” and Obama singled them out as “the unsung heroes of America’s education system,” making it clear that’s a status he plans to change. Again and again, Obama has pointed to community colleges as one of the major drivers in his administration’s efforts to revitalize the economy.

He is counting on community colleges to generate 5 million additional degrees and certificates in the next 10 years, part of an effort for the U.S. to regain the world’s top ranking in college completion.

To underscore the Obama administration’s goal, the White House announced a number of initiatives at its summit, including:

  • Skills for America’s Future, a new cooperative partnership to match major employers, including Gap, McDonald’s and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., with community colleges to develop job-training programs and skills to help graduates excel in the workforce.
  • A five-year, $35 million competitive grant program from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support higher community college completion rates; less than one-fourth of community college students earn a degree within three years of enrollment.
  • A $1 million annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence to recognize schools with outstanding academic and workforce outcomes.

These new programs come on top of earlier multimillion-dollar funding initiatives, including a $2 billion measure Obama signed into law earlier this year to boost sagging completion rates and job-training efforts. (Unfortunately for community colleges, it was one-sixth the amount Obama had initially requested.)

“Probably for the first time in this nation’s history, people in the government and local corporate leaders are realizing the community colleges are probably the graduate schools of the 21st century,” says John E. Roueche, professor of educational administration at the University of Texas in Austin. “As jobs come and go, people are going to have to be retrained and/or upgrade their skills to have a viable economic future. The result is that more people are seeing these colleges as worthy and valuable investments in public time and money.”

Educators attending the White House summit even dubbed community college students as the norm, tagging them “21st century students.”

J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive of the Association of Community College Trustees, adds: “There have been a number of sea changes in community colleges over the last 100 years, and I’d argue we’re in the midst of one of those again. We’re seeing philanthropies engaged in a way we’ve never seen before, as they’ve come to recognize that these institutions are central to economic life.”

Perhaps there’s no greater philanthropic acknowledgement of community colleges than Achieving the Dream (ATD), an initiative launched in 2004 with a $60 million grant by the Lumina Foundation for Education to improve student success rates. The reason behind ATD: Only half the students enrolled in community colleges – whether to earn a two-year certificate or transfer to a four-year institution – achieve that goal within six years.

Today, more than $100 million from two dozen major funders has been invested in ATD, which itself has grown into an independent nonprofit working with 130 institutions in 24 states and the District of Columbia, reaching more than a million students.

Demand and undersupply

Sadly, the increased attention – and demands – on community colleges couldn’t come at a worse time, as the downturn in the nation’s economy has meant budget cuts for most schools. As a result, schools are being asked to do more with less. “We’re stretched like a rubber band that’s going to break – and will break unless we find a new way to provide,” says Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), where Biden teaches.

In New York, community colleges had to stop accepting applications for the  current fall semester on Aug. 1, because they were filled. “We never had to do that before,” says LaGuardia Community College Interim President Peter Katopes, who has seen his school’s enrollment grow from 12,000 students five years ago to 17,000 today.

For the 2009-10 academic year, California Community Colleges – the nation’s  largest higher education system, with 112 colleges serving 2.9 million students a year – sustained  $520 million in budget cuts, about 8 percent of its overall budget. Another $1 billion in funding has been deferred.

The result is noticeable, Chancellor Jack Scott noted in a press release: “crowded classrooms, waiting lists of thousands and fewer course offerings.” At some schools, more students are on the waiting lists than in classrooms.

In California alone, as many as 140,000 students couldn’t sign up for classes. Nationwide, that number may be as high as 500,000, estimates George Boggs, AACC’s president. “This strikes at the heart of the community college value of open access,” he says.

Threats to open access

Indeed, financial pressures could threaten the open enrollment policies that up to now have allowed many students to attend community colleges even if they are not ready for college. Nationally, about 60 percent of the students who enter community college require some remedial coursework. But as funds tighten, some, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, are suggesting that remediation may no longer be the appropriate role for community colleges. Daley noted that his city’s community-college system of seven schools and 65,000 students spends about $30 million, or 6 percent of its budget, on remedial classes. “How can you take someone who has an eighth-grade reading level into a college?” Daley said to the Chicago Sun-Times. “If you want to make it a quality City College [system], you need quality. That’s the key.”

Daley’s comments concern many college officials, including NOVA’s Templin. “You can’t sit on the mountaintop and point down and say ‘they’ are the problem,” Templin says in a New American Foundation report. “If we’re going to be competitive globally, we need a greater percentage of people going to college.”

Still, the increasing demands on community colleges may mean higher tuition in the years ahead. Valencia President Sanford (Sandy) C. Shugart, predicts his school may have to boost tuition from the current $90 a credit hour to $120 over the next five years. “Over the next decade, tuition may have to double. Community college education may not be as cheap as it’s been, but it will still be cheaper than anybody else … and still a great value,” Shugart says.

A history of job training

The first community college, Joliet Junior College in Illinois, was founded 100 years ago. According to AACC, the first schools emphasized general liberal arts. Job-training programs started to become important only during the Depression and after World War II, when a hearty economy was seeking a skilled and expanding workforce. The GI bill further fueled demand for more higher-education outlets.

It was in the late 1940s, though, that the name “community college” became popular, after a presidential commission called for a network of public, community-based colleges to meet the needs of local businesses.

The growth of public community colleges really took off in the 1960s, when 457 were created, more than previously existed, according to the AACC. Baby boomers and a healthy economy were behind the growth, as were social concerns, especially the desire to address racial inequality and make higher education accessible to minorities. 

Today there are nearly 1,200 public community colleges around the country. While the curricula differ widely from school to school, the institutions share a key fundamental philosophy of low-cost tuition and open admission, accepting all students, even those who need remedial education before they are ready for college-level courses.

As much as community colleges have changed over the past 100 years, the adjustments they are making today are perhaps the most radical. From night-owl classes and remedial counseling to new degrees, even four-year bachelor’s programs, each school is reinventing itself to meet ever increasing – and changing – demand.

There’s no one formula for this reinvention; each school is launching different programs, determined largely by local business needs, state education officials and school leaders. Even so, there are some common trends:

Creating flexible schedules. Community colleges have long held night classes and, increasingly, weekend classes, but now they are manipulating schedules to use their facilities around the clock to accommodate students who have to work or take care of children.

At LaGuardia Community College, some classes start before 7 a.m. and some end past midnight. Camden County College in New Jersey offers The Weekend College for students who can’t attend during the week. The traditional 13-week format is squeezed into Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays during a semester. There’s also a “hybrid” format that combines Internet instruction with face-to-face instruction.

Accommodating younger, full-time students, particularly those planning to transfer to a four-year school. “Twenty years ago, our growth was among adult learners who came to take a class or two, then leave,” says NOVA’s Templin. “Now we have 18- to 22-year-olds who come and spend the whole day.”

Some schools, such as LaGuardia, have responded by expanding their traditional curriculum that centered on job training to include more humanities courses, even offering majors in English and philosophy. Other schools, such as Camden, have started honors programs to keep the strongest and most motivated students engaged.

Of course, having more full-time students creates a logistical problem for many campuses that were built with part-time students in mind, as NOVA’s Templin explains:  “When it rains, students have nowhere to go except the classroom hallways,  so to get to a class you have to literally walk over bodies with laptops.” Templin would like to build a student center, but right now, “the state has no money” for such a facility.

But NOVA is exploring a public/private partnership to build a dorm on one of its six campuses. “We had assumed most of our students were living at home, but they’re not. A recent student survey showed students are commuting” from far-out suburbs where the cost of housing is less expensive. Templin believes subsidized campus housing would enable students to switch to full-time status, which in turn could lead to a higher success rate because, he notes, “studies show full-time students are more likely to graduate.”

Developing new job-training programs and facilities. Community colleges have always been the training ground for the bulk of the workforce – nurses, police officers, automotive technicians, cosmetologists. As a result, they have become very nimble in developing new courses and certificates for the latest business concept; they were among the first schools to offer certification programs for green technology, health care and information technology.

“We’re always exploring new programs in technology,” says Camden’s Yannuzzi. Camden was the first school to offer an associate’s degree in video game design and development, and this fall, it added three new associate degree programs in electronic health record-keeping.

Guilford Technical is developing job training on a much larger scale as it oversees the creation of North Carolina’s Center for Global Logistics, a cooperative venture of 19 higher education institutions, including several universities. GTCC wants to make the school and surrounding area a job-producing epicenter on the East Coast, managing the flow of goods once the widening of the Panama Canal is completed and large ships from Asia can cross to the Atlantic. “There will be a tremendous opportunity for logistics jobs when that is done, and we’ll be in a position to get our fair share,” says GTCC President Donald W. Cameron.

Working with remedial students to improve their graduation rate. Keeping students motivated, particularly the 60 percent who require remedial work, has become one of the biggest challenges for community colleges.

“We’ve always been teaching developmental classes pretty much the same way we taught Western civ, freshman comp and biology,” says B. Carlyle Ramsey, president of Virginia’s Danville Community College. But DCC (and many other schools) concluded there has to be another way for developmental students “who need a lot of extra support, intervention and success earlier on.” DCC has broken down its math programs into smaller learning modules, and students can earn credit when each module is completed. “If they complete it in three weeks they get credit, but if it takes longer, they are not penalized,” says Ramsey.  

DCC offers additional mentoring and tutoring but no longer allows developmental-studies students to register late. “Coming into a learning environment late, when one already has an educational deficiency and perhaps confidence issues, is not in the interest of the student,” Ramsey says. There is also a continuous alert system that notifies an adviser when a student misses too many classes – and developmental students are no longer grouped as a separate division but rather part of the division of student success and advancement. “We didn’t want to stigmatize them.”

Helping students transition from high school to four-year college. To encourage more students to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree, a growing number of community colleges have entered partnerships with nearby four-year schools guaranteeing admission to graduates with specified minimum grade-point averages. 

In Virginia, students who graduate with an associate’s degree from one of the state’s 23 community colleges are guaranteed admission to more than 20 colleges and universities; students with grade-point averages of 3.4 or higher are eligible for transfer spots at the University of Virginia, while a 2.5 average earns a spot at Mary Baldwin College and Old Dominion University.

NOVA has been particularly proactive in guiding its incoming students from high school to a four-year school. Five years ago, it formed a consortium with local public high schools and nearby George Mason University, creating the “Pathway to the Baccalaureate” network to support students, particularly minority and first-generation college students,  through all three levels of schooling. In high school, targeted students receive special counseling to make sure they complete the courses they need to be college-ready. The support includes advice on how to obtain financial aid. Counseling continues as the student moves to NOVA, to make sure a 2.5 grade-point average is maintained for guaranteed admission to George Mason (a 2.75 average is required for non-Pathway students). More than 6,000 students have participated in Pathway since its inception five years ago, with 81 percent persisting in college each year. Associate degree graduation rates for Pathway students are double the college’s average.

At Valencia, more than 80 percent of the school’s associate-degree graduates transfer to the University of Central Florida, thanks to the four-year-old Direct Connect guaranteed admission program. “That guarantee is huge,” says Shugart. “Three years before Direct Connect was set up, out-of-district enrollment grew 3 percent; three years after it was created, out-of-district enrollment was up 30 percent; people are moving from all over to attend Valencia to gain access to the guaranteed degree.”

One result: Valencia is now considering changing its name to simply “Valencia College.” “We’re not abandoning our community-college roots,” Shugart says, but merely acknowledging that Valencia has come to mean far more than a two-year associate’s degree.

Offering four year bachelor’s degrees. As workplace shortages persist and four-year colleges fail to keep up with demand, community colleges are stepping in to fill the gap by offering four-year baccalaureates in selected fields. Florida schools are the most active, with more than 100 different four-year degree programs offered by 19 of the state’s 28 community colleges. The degrees are in fields that have a need for credentialed employees, such as teaching, nursing, public-safety management, electronics-engineering technology and radiology imaging.

State statistics show that most of the students earning the new degrees are considerably older than the traditional college student in a public four-year school. There, three out of four students are between the ages of 18 and 25; at community colleges, three-fourths of the baccalaureate students are older than 26; in fact, 40 percent are over 35.

“Offering these degrees is at the heart of our mission to be responsive to the needs of our community,” says Miami-Dade’s Padrón, whose school offers seven bachelor’s degrees. “The average age of the future teachers in the program is well over 30 years old. They have been able to enroll and succeed because of the flexibility and support the program offers.”

While the flexibility of community colleges has helped them turn into higher education’s current Cinderella, growth may ultimately have its limits, Padrón says. “We can’t be all things to all people, and we definitely need to prioritize the limited resources that are available,” he says. “But obtaining a college education should be a national priority, and community colleges are the key element in fulfilling that goal.”