Steve Moore didn’t expect to go back to college. He dropped out long ago, when he was a “20-year-old-hot-head” and landed a lucrative job at a friend’s start-up. At the time he figured he didn’t need college. Now he’s 29, but that company shut down, and he’s unexpectedly out of work. Though he almost scored a couple of gigs since then, his mentors say he needs a degree to move his resume to the top of employers’ lists.
So he’s now enrolled at a two-year institution,
Montgomery College, where he hopes he can spend a year getting an associate’s degree in business that will get his career back on track. And though he thought he knew the formula for success in business already, he admits that his courses are correcting some misperceptions he had—and giving him a much stronger foundation. “If you don’t have a solid foundation,” he says, “you’re going to blunder into something that’s going to cost you a lot of money.”
Moore’s story is just what lawmakers around the country seem to be hoping for as they promote
free-college programs that encourage students to refresh their skills and find a quick on-ramp to the labor force.
But the picture at many two-year colleges is far more complicated. 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 do what Moore is doing by heading 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
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.”
And the 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 can end up with crippling debt if they end up with no degree to show for their efforts. As Baum puts it: “You really can’t pay back anything if you’re working at the minimum wage.”
That’s why many community colleges are working to reinvent themselves, changing the way they measure their own success—shifting their focus from enrollment to completion. The key is working more closely with students to guide them through their options, and the buzzword of the moment is “guided pathways.”
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. “You want to be a nurse? Ok, here’s how long it will take you to get there. But there are some other certificate programs we have that don’t require you to get to the same level of math. So if you want to be a
phlebotomist, we can get you to a different program that requires less math. And we don’t do a good enough job helping students make those smart pathways.”
Meanwhile, community colleges increasingly face new competition in an increasingly crowded higher-education landscape.
In some cases four-year colleges are moving into their turf, by starting low-cost online programs. Arizona State University, for instance, has started a
Global Freshman Academy that offers students a low-cost way to do their first year of college study online. And new types of for-profit higher education, such as coding boot camps, could draw away some students who might have gone to community colleges for career advancement.
Some community colleges “may be displaced if they're not proactive,” says Karen Stout, CEO and president of the non-profit
Achieving the Dream, which works with community colleges to help them create a more data-driven culture. “But there are a lot of community colleges that are doing boot camps, and doing coding academies, and doing things in the high schools that are really innovative.”
Community colleges are also 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 a 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.
Despite such challenges, community college watchers say these two-year institutions may be entering their golden age.
“This is their moment because they are the access and equity engines of higher education,” argues Karp, of the Community College Research Center. “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 kind of jobs of the future, they’re in an ideal position.”
The Obama Administration lavished unprecedented attention on community colleges, and for the past eight years Jill Biden, the Second Lady and also a professor at
Northern Virginia Community College, was a high-profile spokesperson for the sector. But some imagine that the Trump administration might continue to be supportive.
“The Trump administration could end up being quite favorable to community colleges because of their key tie to workforce development,” says Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at
Seton Hall University.
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