Community college enrollments have grown considerably over the last half-century, reflecting a general increase in demand for postsecondary degrees seen in this period. However, little attention is given to the fact that community colleges have quietly gained not only in enrollments, but in public institution market share as well. Community colleges held a 34 percent market share among public institutions in 1970, steadily escalating to 46 percent in 2007. The rising costs and debt loads associated with four-year institutions have subsequently decreased the opportunity cost of attending community college. That is, achieving higher wages by attending a four-year school is growing less profitable as a student is required to pay more out-of-pocket, take on more debt, and forgo years of employment. The benefits community colleges offer to the student are numerous and range from cost savings to scheduling flexibility, while public benefits include fewer tax dollars spent per student and positive externalities for local economies. Community colleges provide an alternative to those who wish to continue their education at a lower cost, with fewer entry requirements, and often with a higher level of convenience, while reducing the mounting costs to the taxpayer.
Community College Trends
Community Colleges got their first big boost in 1947 when the Truman Commission aimed to increase educational opportunities after high school by establishing a network of public community colleges around the country with little or no direct cost to the student. Additionally, military education assistance, such as G.I. Bills, work to promote higher education attainment among veterans who often opt for community colleges over traditional four-year schools. In the years since, their scale and scope has expanded. Dual enrollment options (where students take a class that counts for both high school and college credit) are becoming increasingly popular, with a large proportion of these students enrolling through two-year colleges and universities. Economic downturns are also believed to attract many students to community colleges, acting as a more affordable route to higher education at a time when money is tight and jobs are scarce. In 2007, 6.3 million students enrolled in community colleges in the United States, representing 34 percent of all undergraduates, and 46 percent of all undergraduates at public institutions. Community college enrollments have shown a steady average increase of 5.2 percent annually since 1963, compared with 2.6 percent at public four-year institutions.
Benefits of Community
Colleges Community college proponents cite a multitude of advantages in favor of two-year education, with a focus on five main points. First, community colleges provide postsecondary education at a fraction of the cost of their four-year counterparts. Students at public two-year institutions save, on average, $4,183 in tuition over public four-year institutions, and $22,741 when compared to private four-year schools. These numbers are particularly significant when extrapolated to four or more years of postsecondary education. This tuition differential has resulted in a substantial difference in debt accumulation between two-year and four-year students. A Department of Education survey showed that during the 2003-2004 academic year 64.5 percent of students graduating from four-year institutions took out student loans, and they borrowed an average of $18,417. Conversely, only 29 percent of students attending public two-year institutions took out loans averaging only $8,805 in debt.
Second, of the thirty fastest growing occupations listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only half actually require higher than a two-year degree. Four of the remaining fifteen require an associate’s degree as a prerequisite for employment, eight require on-the-job training, and three require a postsecondary vocational award. Examples of positions available without a fouryear degree include medical assistants, veterinary technicians, and dental hygienists. Third, community colleges often allow for a smoother transition between high school and fouryear colleges. This is due to a number of different characteristics intrinsic to community colleges. Professors at these institutions are rarely invested in outside academic research, a requirement at most four-year colleges, and subsequently have more time to spend with students. Flexible scheduling allows students to design a schedule tailored to their personal needs. Community colleges tend to schedule fewer students per class, allowing for greater student-teacher interaction.
Community colleges cater to those students wishing to transfer to a four-year school by offering general education credits at a lower cost. Community colleges enable students academically ineligible for traditional four-year institutions to pursue a degree. Open enrollments at most of these schools allow students with low test scores and/or GPAs to continue to further their education. This benefits not only the student, but the community as well. Individuals who graduate from community colleges are believed to be less likely to require unemployment insurance, as employment prospects are enhanced, and are also believed to be less likely to be incarcerated. Additionally, transferring from two-year to four-year schools seems to be a growing trend in higher education. While these transfer rates are notoriously difficult to measure, the main problem being competing definitions of transfer, the Department of Education’s 1999 estimates show that 26 percent of all students starting at community colleges formally transferred to four-year institutions.10 This percentage is likely to increase considerably in the future as the tuition gap between two-year and four-year schools continues to rise.
Fourth, community colleges are ideal for individuals seeking vocational or career-oriented degrees. Not only do community colleges offer postsecondary degrees at a lower cost, but many also confer certification in fields that do not require a bachelor’s degree, such as fashion design and cosmetology. Two-year colleges allow students to save money while spending less time on courses that are irrelevant to their desired career path.
Fifth, community colleges appear to provide substantial positive externalities to local economies. Community colleges spend the fewest dollars per student of any sector in higher education, equating to less money spent by taxpayers. While the exact amount of savings varies significantly by location, estimates by NCES indicate that public expenditures per full-time equivalent student (FTE) at community colleges are roughly one-third the amount of their fouryear counterparts. These tax savings are most evident when comparing two-year institutions to the first two years of a four-year institution, as spending per student is more comparable during these years. In addition, students who graduate from a community college realize a higher overall salary and therefore contribute more taxes than prior to receiving a degree. In 2008, individuals with an associate’s degree earned an average of $736 per week while high school graduates with no postsecondary education earned $591 per week. Additionally, unemployment among those with an associate’s degree averages 3.7 percent compared with that of 5.7 percent for those with no college education. This higher overall salary combined with lower unemployment can also lead to savings in government welfare and unemployment expenditures, as well as an increase in regional business productivity.
Limitations of Community Colleges
Those opposed to community college implementation cite four key flaws. First, community colleges have historically seen lower graduation rates than four-year colleges. Although community colleges spend fewer tax dollars per student, lower graduation rates mean more money spent on students who will not receive a degree. A handful of community college students take courses with no intention of receiving a degree.
Second, some education analysts believe community colleges may divert students from obtaining bachelor’s degrees. The argument is that high school students who “would” attend four-year schools instead choose community colleges, and are less likely to ever get a bachelors degree. A 2009 study by Tatiana Melguizo and Alicia C. Dowd acknowledges the effect, but shows it to be drastically overestimated. Which type of school to attend varies by the individual on the basis of budget, academic proficiency, and other external circumstances, thus a one-size-fits-all approach to two-year (and four-year) institutions is problematic.
Third, credits earned at community colleges do not always transfer to four-year institutions. Retaking, or waiting to retake, courses which do not transfer over can deplete any and all cost savings amassed by attending a two-year school and can, in some cases, actually create higher expenses for the student (and taxpayer) than if he or she had originally attended a four-year college or university. Although a small number of initiatives have been introduced to smooth the transfer process, it remains a barrier for many students.
Fourth, community colleges do not offer the “traditional college experience.” While proponents of two-year education argue that this is not the objective of community colleges, a few community colleges have already begun offering bachelor’s degrees as well as four-year programs, such as Miami Dade College. However, there is little doubt that non-academic experiences rank high in student expectations, and community colleges are often derided for lacking student meeting areas or providing a sense of community.
Increasing Community College Enrollment
Encouraging community college enrollment can be done in a number of different ways. First, affordability should continue to be the central focus of community colleges. This can be achieved by keeping overhead costs low and reducing or eliminating expenditures that do not directly contribute to educational outcomes. A common goal for community colleges is to maintain tuition at a certain percentage below local or regional four-year counterpart institutions. This provides a more tangible target for budgeting purposes as well as a sense of competition that is often absent in higher education. Economic recessions tend to enhance the value of community colleges relative to four-year institutions, as is evidenced by increased enrollments during these periods. These increases are largely attributed to the attendance of the recently unemployed in order to learn new trades or skills in order to become more marketable. Many of the country’s largest community college districts have reported record attendance numbers for 2008 and 2009. For example, Salt Lake City Community College, which serves over 60,000 students, recently reported a 33 percent increase in fall semester enrollment over 2008.
Second, transfer processes from community colleges to four-year institutions must become less problematic. Students who are confident their credits will transfer successfully are more likely to enroll in a community college. Bureaucratic barriers that prevent transfer of credit cost students time and money, resulting in a higher total cost than is necessary. Many state university systems are working closely with corresponding community college systems to ease transfer processes by aligning curricula within the state. Additionally, some community colleges now offer transfer advisory services to help inform students which courses are likely to transfer. Those schools and states that are not doing this already should begin to do so.
Third, community colleges should continue to work closely with employers to stay current on labor force demand. Since many of these schools act as vocational training facilities for local labor markets, it is crucial that faculty work to align course content as closely as possible with these markets. Employers pay close attention to institutions teaching in-demand skills, and are often willing to provide detailed input on regional or state-wide labor trends. Also, due to more flexible course guidelines, community colleges are often among the first schools to initiate courses which act to immediately address national labor demands, especially involving technology and trade skills. The provision of courses which students see as pertinent to a career acts to increase the attractiveness of a two-year education. The focus of community college curriculum for the most part has been, and should continue, to emphasize practicality and value.
Community colleges offer students the chance to complete a degree with fewer entry requirements, greater flexibility, and a lower sticker price than four year colleges. The use of fewer resources per student acts to decrease the regional tax burden, while simultaneously improving worker productivity and job access. Community colleges should continue to focus on low cost, accessibility, and adaptability in order to remain a high value-added option in higher education.