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Post Magazine: Rising interest in community college

In a difficult economy, more university-bound students are considering community college as an affordable gateway to a four-year degree.

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Norma Kent and Michelle R. Davis
Monday, April 12, 2010; 12:00 PM

As the economy continues to falter, job losses rack up and families' savings dwindle, more students who saw themselves going directly from high school to a four-year university are instead carving a path to their local community college. The image of the older student returning to community college to take a few classes or brush up on skills -- while still a significant portion of the student body -- is now morphing into that of a younger student who wants more than just a place to take a night course.

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Michelle R. Davis wrote about the growing interest in community colleges and how the influx of younger students is changing campus culture in this weekend's Washington Post Magazine. She will be online with Norma Kent of the American Association of Community Colleges on Monday, April 11 at 12 p.m. ET to take questions and comments.

Submit a question or comment now.

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Michelle R. Davis: Hi everyone! I‘m Michelle Davis, a freelance education writer in the area and I got the idea for this story after thinking about how the downturn in the economy might be affecting students who always assumed they would be heading to four-year colleges. I didn‘t know much about community college, but found that, in some cases, they can provide a lot of bang for a student‘s buck. Thanks for all your questions.

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Norma Kent: Hello. This is Norma Kent from the American Association of Community Colleges. I'm happy to answer your questions today.

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Washington, D.C.: Last Tuesday, DOE/NCES released a report (Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2008; Graduation Rates, 2002 and 2005 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2008) that showed for-profit colleges having graduation rates for 2-year degrees/certificates more than 3 times that of public community colleges (admittedly for "on-time" graduation which DOE defines as 2 years). While the rates improve for both categories of institutions when 200% completion time is considered (11.5% - 28.4% for publics vs. 42.1% - 65.4% for the for- profits), the difference in graduation rates is stunning -- and cause for concern.

I understand that IPEDS is a very flawed system -- especially where community colleges are concerned -- but even with its shortcomings, it seems that for-profit institutions do a much better job of graduating their students than public community colleges do. Notwithstanding the number of students who transfer prior to completing their degree (and what number or percentage is that?), what can and should the public community colleges do to improve their graduation rates?

Certainly the Lumina Foundation for Education, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have invested significant dollars (not to mention LEADERSHIP) in this issue, and the Administration is, in turn, paying greater attention to degree completion (and not just access to higher education), but what do colleges (and states) need to do to improve this situation? Is it a matter of students not being adequately prepared for college-level learning and thus needing excessive (and expensive) amounts of remediation or is it a more fundamental problem with the community colleges themselves?

I guess what I am really asking is:

"Are we pointing our fingers at others (insufficient preparation at the K-12 level; dwindling state appropriations; grossly distorted IPEDS data; etc.) when the public community colleges should accept some, if not most, of the responsibility for failing to graduate students who come to us with the hope of earning a degree or certificate?

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

Michelle R. Davis: Norma can probably give a more detailed answer on this one, but I do think that measurement of graduation rates for associates degrees and certificates may be a bit misleading. Looking at just those who earn an associates degree or certificate in two years might leave a lot of community college students out. Students are often attending community college because they have many outside considerations, like work, family issues, or finances. I would guess that many earn those certificates and degrees but it may take more than two years.

Norma Kent: There are many factors in success and some key points may not be known. For example most community colleges attend part time and, thus, take longer to complete than the period typically examined. And they come for many reasons, not just for transfer. But community colleges are putting a strong emphasis on completion -- whether that means to transfer or a one- or two-year certificate program. A program called Achieving the Dream is setting an excellent model for increasing completions, and community colleges in 22 states are part of that effort.

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Rockville: Many four-year universities struggle with the balance between how much time faculty spend teaching vs. other pursuits like publishing. Some contend it's a trade-off; others believe that a well-published faculty improves an institution's reputation.

What can or do community colleges do to establish a reputation for having a good faculty; or is that a lesser consideration, because most students aren't really shopping among community colleges, since the choice is largely geographically determined?

Michelle R. Davis: My impressions of the faculty that I came in contact were that they were earnest in their desire to provide a high quality education for students. They often noted that since they weren't doing research or publishing that they could focus only on the student and on teaching. I do think the quality of community college teachers is important to attracting particularly the type of young student coming right out of high school who has options in terms of higher education. If this student feels they can get a high quality education at a community college and then transfer into a respected four year college or university to get a degree, and pay half the cost, community college will be an attractive option.

Norma Kent: Actually community colleges put a premium on teaching, as opposed to other types of activities, and because that is their principal reason for being there, they are quite accomplished in their disciplines.

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Colorado: Hello,

I work at a small for-profit school. Students at that school often paid a high cost for a career-based certificate because the local community college wasn't able to offer much to non-traditional students (esp. child care). Does the growth of younger students looking to transfer threaten the career-training programs and resources for older students?

Norma Kent: Community colleges have multiple missions: preparation for transfer, career training and lifelong learning. They work to keep a balance of these emphases. Currently, with so many people seeking retraining or new careers to get jobs, they are offering a variety of programs geared to the needs of local business and industry. Students of all ages are important and subtantial resources are going into training programs.

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Anna Maria Island, FL: Pick a top-flight school like my alma mater the U. of Mich. Compare graduates who entered as freshmen direct from high school with those who entered as juniors from community colleges. What are the acceptance percentages at top-flight grad schools? Much difference?

Norma Kent: There are a number of studies that indicate community college students who transfer perform as well as "native" students over time.

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Laurel: In his recent Real Education, Charles Murray, echoes the sentiments of many conservatives that too many kids go to traditional four-year college. Murray claims only about 10-15% of graduating high school seniors will graduate college and then use the hard knowledge they gain in their career. Most either won't graduate, or will eventually work outside their major area of study using their degree as essentially a certification of the possession of "soft skills" like knowing grammar, doing accurate arithmetic, and keeping a schedule.

Assuming Murray is largely right, there's still a difference between an Associate degree and a non-career-relevant Bachelor's degree. How would either community colleges, or employer expectations, need to change to offer a degree that serves as an effective substitute for the latter?

Norma Kent: Community colleges are known for being pragmatic. They interface regularly with local businesses to know what kinds of education and training will be most in demand. Many business and professional leaders serve on advisory boards for the colleges and provide insights about the kind of preparation an employee might need. And community colleges are flexibile and adroit in identifying new market demands -- in the many emerging "green" fields, for example.

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Anonymous: How did you select the students that you profiled?

Michelle R. Davis: I was looking for certain students who fit a profile I had in mind: good students, who typically might have had options for higher education but either for economic or other reasons were considering community college when they never expected to. I talked to a lot of students and there were many who had never imagined that's where they'd wind up. Most were very surprised to learn that community colleges were more than a building you go to to take a class: that they had a college atmosphere that included clubs and organizations and sports teams. Some, especially those in the Montgomery College Scholars were very surprised at how rigorous the courses were.

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Anonymous: If attendance at community colleges increases, will these colleges be able to get money to fund their growth and where will it come from?

Norma Kent: That is a very compelling question of the day. Community colleges receive a much higher proportion of their funding from state and local sources, so they are very much affected by the deterioration of state and local economies. They strive to keep tuitions low to ensure access, so it's difficult balancing act. On average, enrollments at community colleges have increased close to 17% from 2007 to 2009; some are even higher.

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Arlington, VA: I went back to NOVA to get a degree in computer programming when I switched fields. I found that some of the professors were absolutely fabulous--already professionals in their fields, and giving back to those of us working to get in. Sure, some were so-so, but I found that at private colleges, too.

A lot depends on what you put into your education--the degree I got from NOVA has gotten me much better paying jobs than the higher degree I got from Georgetown years before. Hard to believe, but true.

Michelle R. Davis: That's very interesting. Thanks for your comment. I think like four-year colleges there are rigorous courses and teachers at community colleges and not so rigorous courses and teachers. Students should definitely do some research about the quality of the courses they're seeking at community college. But I do think in many cases, you're right. If you put in a lot of effort, you'll get a lot out of it. And, of course, if the course you're taking is at NOVA it costs a lot less than it does at Georgetown.

Norma Kent: The average annual tuition for community college is about $2,500 -- a good value for most families. Students can also live at home and continue to work part- or full-time, as so many community college students do.

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Michelle R. Davis: I'd like to chime in regarding the issue of rising attendance at community colleges. Several community college leaders talked about the issue of funding cuts in relation to a growing student body. Robert Temlin Jr., NOVA's president, told me the college was looking to bring in some new funds by increasing the cost for their English language classes, which are in high-demand by non-English speakers. So I believe community college leaders are trying to lobby for increased state and federal funding as well as trying to be creative.

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Anonymous: In your article you cited situations where the community college (CC) had a relationship with a 4-year college/university which served to facilitate transfer of CC students to the 4-year school. Among all CCs, how common are such relationships?

Norma Kent: Transfer agreements between two-year and four-year colleges in a particular region are very common. One university president once told me his whole marketing strategy was centered around transfers from community colleges. And some four-year institutions will have special programs and scholarships to attract well-performing community college students.

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Woodbridge, Va.: What are the downsides of going to a community college if you really wanted to go to a four year college?

Norma Kent: I think the individual needs to ask himself or herself what aspects of the college experience are most important. Community colleges are not going to offer the fraternity/sorority experience, but they likely have many other extracurricular and leadership options, as noted in Michelle's story. It's a case of doing your homework BEFORE you get to college.

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Woodbridge, Va.: It was really interesting to hear about how Northern Virginia Community College is offering more extracurricular. In addition to club lacrosse, what other sports are developing clubs at the college?

Michelle R. Davis: I know that NOVA has a number of sports teams, including club sports. They've got soccer, volleyball, basketball and co-ed ice hockey in addition to lacross. The school is trying to offer more athletics and extra curricular activities to provide students, particularly those coming straight out of high school, with a more stereotypical "college experience."

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Rockville: I attended MC back in the 70's, got an AA and transferred to Maryland to get a BS. I think you could have written the same story about that time period as well and seen a diversity of reasons why MC was good for students then as much as it is now. It was a great bargain, low tuition and a high quality faculty.

Michelle R. Davis: Thanks for your comment. Community colleges have always been a bargain, but what might different these days--particularly in this area--is that students who might never have considered community college may be forced to look closer now. One of the students I interviewed, Frankie Carufel, never imagined he'd be at community college. His mom had a great job making a six-figure salary until she was laid off. All of a sudden community college was his only option. I think there are a lot of students in that same boat these days.

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Ballston, VA: Sorry not every kid is a candidate for a 4 year college or university. Some kids are just meant to be carpenters, electricians, plumbers, vet techs or auto techs etc. I was a conversation with on of our administrative judges as we walked through Balsston Commons Mall about this. I pointed out that the autottechs from American Service Center at the journeymen level made as much or more than we do and they aren't burdened with ten of thousands of dollars of students loans. Two years in a program sponsored and paid for by Mercedes. After a few years of expereince they are getting half of the hourly labor rate. I also said I know a couple of techs that work in Formula One and make several hundred thousand dollars a year. Parents need to lsiten to their children espeically in this area and not put the pressure on them to go to a top 4 year U.

Michelle R. Davis: Thanks for this comment. I completely agree. Not everyone is suited for a four-year college or university, at least not right out of high school. And certainly those who earn certificates can do very well and have high-paying and satisfying jobs. But community college also can give someone who is not ready maturity-wise for the university experience, some time to grow and get themselves together. I talked to lots of students who said they hadn't planned on getting a bachelor's degree but after some time in community college, felt they now might be able to handle that experience.

Norma Kent: And it's not just for "kids." Community colleges welcome students of all ages. Some of our most outstanding students are looking for a second chance, often after being out of school for years. It makes for a rich mix of students in the classroom.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I know community colleges are generally less expensive, and therefore with the rise of cost of four year colleges, they are becoming financially more attractive. Yet, many four year colleges are offering good financial assistance packages. How are community colleges doing in offering financial assistance so they retain their financial edge over four year colleges?

Norma Kent: Well, it helps that the tuition STARTS a lot lower. But community colleges offer a variety of financial aid options, particularly the Pell Grant, which has increased significantly in the maximum amount over the last few years. There will often be state aid programs as well. Students need to make an appointment and spend some time talking to the financial aid experts at ANY college they are considering.

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Bryn Mawr, PA: Two-year colleges are consistently ignored in higher education media coverage (as the Post's Jay Mathews noted in 2008) so it was a treat to read Michelle Davis' in-depth article on NVCC. Two-year colleges perform an invaluable service and have earned lasting respect from students and alumni nationwide.

It should also be noted that there are many independent two-year colleges in the U.S. that offer significant advantages to students and served as models for the public community colleges. Independent two-year colleges generally have smaller classes, residential options, very focused career orientation and more extensive transfer options. It would be great to see Michelle follow up with a story on independent two-year colleges in the mid-Atlantic states.

Michelle R. Davis: Thanks for your comment. I started learning more about what community colleges were doing last year when I wrote a different story about how community colleges were partnering with four-year institutions in different ways: sharing faculty, creating joint courses and even renting out space to each other on their campuses. I heard about some very creative community college programs going on all over the country. I'd be interested to learn more about independent, two-year colleges as well.

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Philadelphia, PA: The students you profiled all seemed bright and motivated. You did not talk much about the role of the community college in providing remedial help for students who, for whatever reason, are not sufficiently prepared to function at a 4-year school. Do community colleges see this as part of their role and, if so, what percent of the student population at the community college falls into this category? Is this a growing or declining segment?

Norma Kent: Community colleges DO see remedial/developmental course work as part of their mission -- and they do a lot of it.There is a misperception that, because they are open door institutions, community colleges may have lower academic standards. However, the college is not going to put a student in college level course work if that student is not prepared for that level. But many of the students who require developmental work may simply have been out of the classroom for a long while and need help getting back up to speed.

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Michelle R. Davis: I'd like to add to the question about community colleges providing remedial help. I do know that both NOVA and MC have remedial classes and provide opportunities for struggling students to catch up. In one English class I attended at NOVA, the students had a typical class with their teacher and then afterward had a lengthy class in a computer lab where the teacher could work with each student one-on-one. From what I observed, there was an emphasis on helping struggling students get back on track.

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minneapolis: Hi Norma and Michelle -- Thank you for an interesting and important article. I teach at a large state university, and personally think a lot of my students would benefit from a two-year community college experience before coming to my school, and that our overall retention and graduation rates would be much better for it. In my experience, however, many students view community colleges as "remedial" and very much lacking in the "prestige" factor compared to the "glamour" of a large university with sports, social activities, etc. What can be done to enhance the reputation of community colleges and to communicate how important they are to higher education?

Michelle R. Davis: Great question. The majority of students I spoke with viewed community college as very lacking in the prestige factor. Many were embarrassed that they were enrolled there. Students who had done well in high school said they definitely got some negative comments from friends and family members. These high-achieving students said they often had to explain over and over why they were at community college instead of at a university. That said, many of these students came to appreciate what they were getting at community college and even became proud of going there.

Norma Kent: We're getting a lot of help these days in communicating the important role community colleges play. Multiple presidents, including President Obama have talked about the essential role the colleges play as points of access. Leading philanthropists such as Bill Gates are helping to increase understanding and awareness. Since community colleges enroll almost half of all U.S. undergrads, it's important they get the support they need to serve all the students who are coming. For an awful lot of students, the colleges may be the only option; for lots of others, they may be the best option.

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Greeley, CO: Hello,

With vanishing jobs at universities, how have community college faculties changed in the past few years?

Michelle R. Davis: Thanks for your question. I'd guess that with university jobs becoming scarce, there would be a lot more competition for community college faculty jobs. To me, that means that the quality of those chosen for the positions would be higher.

Michelle R. Davis: Thanks for your question. I'd guess that with university jobs becoming scarce, there would be a lot more competition for community college faculty jobs. To me, that may mean that the quality of those chosen for the positions could be higher.

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Degree Completion Statistic: I have always had a problem with this particular number crunch. It is about as artificial as automobile mileage ratings.

As previously noted, community colleges, with their multiple programs, cannot be totally focused on 'graduation' rates or certification completion rates. These other programs do not end with the awarding of a diploma or certificate, yet the student has completed their program of study. For example, I am aware of one exemplary student who attended a community college for one year and through testing and coursework, completed over 60 credits in one year, transferred to a four-year insititution to graduate one year later with a bachelors degree and two years later graduate from a third university with a masters degree. The second and third universities got "credit" for a degree completion. The community college did not get credit because the student did not take all of the required courses for the associates. The student clearly completed his program of study at all three institutions, yet the statistic does not track with this.

Perhaps, this degree/certification completion statistic should be modified to include all accepted "programs of study" regardless of the paper presented at the end of the program.

Michelle R. Davis: I think a lot of community college folks have similar problems with these types of measurements. You gave a great example of why they may not be the best way to determine the success of those who attend community college.

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Lorton, Virginia: Is there some concern about 'mission creep' in community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees? I look at what is happening in Florida with the majority of their community colleges having dropped the word 'community' from their names and instead becoming 'state colleges.' Does that change the character of the community college or are the colleges simply responding to a community's need to have a greater number of students trained in high-demand fields (such as teaching and nursing).

Norma Kent: Many community colleges are located in what are considered rural areas. In those areas, they may be the only viable option for students who must stay in that community. Some community colleges under those circumtances may see offering the baccalaureate (usually in very select programs) as an extension of serving their community. But our association is very concerned that the very nature of the community college mission not be blurred.

Michelle R. Davis: I think community colleges are understanding that they need to provide more rigorous courses and a wide variety of degrees and certificates. There's also a lot of cooperation and interaction between community colleges and four-year institutions these days. I don't know that this means that community colleges are becoming "state colleges." I just think that they're adapting to what students are seeking.

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Michelle R. Davis: Thanks to everyone for a great bunch of questions and for reading the story.

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Norma Kent: Thanks for being part of today's discussion. To learn more about community colleges, go to www.aacc.nche.edu.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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