As high unemployment rates and company downsizing have left many Americans discouraged and unsure of the future, community colleges across the country have experienced a tremendous surge in enrollment over the past few years, with a diverse range of students, from high school graduates to older, displaced workers, all seeking marketable skills to survive in a competitive economy.
With open admissions policies, affordable tuition, flexible schedules, and remedial classes, education experts say community colleges fill a gap in the educational pipeline for many people who would otherwise be locked out of the higher education system, especially minority, low-income, and first-generation college students.
In October, the White House recognized the critical role these institutions play in the higher education system by holding the first-ever Summit on Community Colleges. The event brought together college administrators, faculty, students, and business and philanthropic leaders, as well as federal and state policymakers.
The summit was important for what it symbolized, says Professor Bridget Terry Long, who attended the gathering at the capital. "Community colleges rarely receive much attention, are given so little and asked to do so much, and then people do not respect the heavy lifting they are doing. For the White House to focus on these institutions acknowledges what they are accomplishing, and that they have been a fantastic option for students to enter the higher education system at a very low cost."
In the past decade, America has fallen from first to ninth place worldwide in the percentage of people with college degrees, said President Obama in his summit address, citing the The College Completion Agenda 2010 Progress Report by the CollegeBoard Advocacy & Policy Center. Yet jobs requiring at least an associate's degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs that don't require a college education, and if a trained workforce isn't available, the country's economic strength could falter in the global marketplace. The summit highlighted a new resolution on the part of government, private foundations, and businesses to invest in developing community college programs to meet the demands of the evolving labor market.
For Long, the presence of both the Secretary of Education and Secretary of Labor at the summit was particularly significant, indicating a new link between the departments. "To see education and labor together -- particularly when community colleges are such a focal point for workforce retraining and trying to deal with unemployment -- signals future joint thinking with particular programs and legislation and how we approach trying to deal with social problems."
Community colleges often are at the forefront in responding to the changing workforce needs of local businesses and industry. Julie Johnson, Ed.M.'06, deputy to the CEO at the Community College of the District of Columbia (CCDC) says, "We don't create a new degree unless we have a group of industry leaders who are helping to inform the creation of that program. They partner with us to make sure it really does meet their needs and there are jobs at the end of the line." These business leaders remain involved with the college, ensuring the programs integrate any changes or new developments within their industries.
"We're trying to create an institution that is innovative, forward-thinking, and entrepreneurial," says Johnson, who was part of leadership team that created CCDC in 2009, "and is based on the best practices and models out there so that we can meet the needs of today and tomorrow's students."
Although community colleges comprise the largest part of the nation's higher education system, with a growing enrollment of more than 6 million students, degree completion remains an unobtainable goal for the majority who enter these campuses. Two-thirds of community college students attend part-time, often balancing classes with work schedules, and struggling with difficulties such as transportation, childcare, and financial hardship. And, because of the institutions' open access mission, 60 percent of incoming students require some form of remedial education, slowing down their academic progress.
"There are lots of little ways we fail students," Long says, "whether we make getting financial aid too hard, or there aren't enough seats in the class, or we don't give enough counseling at the beginning about which courses are transferrable to a four-year institution. If we made little changes around the edges, we could improve a lot of students' outcomes."
Retaining students and guiding them to achieve their degrees is a priority at CCDC. "The focus is on how [to] get our students to persist," Johnson says. "We're removing barriers that make it difficult for a student to succeed, and trying to improve the efficiency of our systems. And, we are creating a culture of expectation, letting the students know that we are invested in their educational goals, and we want them to make it all the way through." The college created an early alert system to identify those students who are not attending or doing well in classes, to help them get the assistance they need to finish the semester.
However, many community college students are able to meet the challenges and do make it through to completing a degree. Nationwide, half of the students who receive a bachelor's degree attended a community college in the course of their undergraduate studies.
At the University of California, Irvine, Santana Ruiz, Ed.M.'97, associate director of the Center for Educational Partnerships, is seeing a growing pool of potential transfer students that are more academically prepared than the traditional community college students have been in the past. "The new trend is that due to the competitive nature of admissions to the University of California and the California State University systems, more and more eligible students are not getting admitted, and choose to go to a community college, eventually transferring to a four-year institution."
Financial considerations, Ruiz says, are also leading students to regard community colleges as the beginning of their pursuit of a bachelor's degree. "There are many students from middle-class families who are getting in to four-year institutions, but aren't getting financial aid and can't afford the tuition. They then opt to go to a community college, save money, and transfer in two years."
Obama has set an ambitious goal of once again leading the world in the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, including an additional 5 million community college graduates. In March, he signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, investing $2 billion over four years in education and career training at community colleges. Private foundations are also stepping up to pledge support and help meet this challenge. After the Summit, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it is investing $34.8 million over five years in competitive grants to groups of community colleges, with the goal of dramatically increasing the graduation rates.
"Community colleges are really the critical piece of the postsecondary system that needs to be strengthened," says Academic Dean Robert Schwartz. "After 20 years of serious effort at reform we have barely budged the needle in terms of the proportion of kids who arrive at their mid-20s with a postsecondary credential." His Pathways to Prosperity Project is exploring multiple options to get young people into adulthood with the necessary set of skills and credentials to function in the workplace. The solution, he believes, lies in building stronger collaborations between high schools, community colleges, and employers.
"We have amazing institutions at the high end producing graduates who will go on to great leadership positions and innovate in important ways," Long says. "But the average citizen is coming into contact with less selective institutions and community colleges, and to reach our goals it is going to be key to make sure those are the institutions that do well and improve."