Community Colleges Squeezed by Financial Crunch

Eighteen-year-old Jenna Tibbitts has a near-perfect GPA, and her parents can afford to send her to the four-year university of her choice. But the New Jersey senior is opting instead to attend nearby Atlantic Cape Community College on a scholarship for two years before transferring to a four-year school so that she can reduce the overall cost of her education. "It just makes more sense," Tibbitts says.

Similarly, Sarah Tibbling, 18, an honor student from Vernon, N.J., plans to attend Sussex County Community College next fall, a move she sees as a stepping-stone on the way to getting her degree at a four-year institution. "[Community college is] more popular with students these days," she says, and that's reduced some of the negative stigma. "It's no longer considered a place for lower-level students."

Like Tibbling and Tibbitts, high-achieving high-school graduates nationwide are increasingly putting four-year institutions on hold and enrolling at community colleges for part of their education. According to a survey from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, nearly one-fifth of private colleges and universities reported a smaller than anticipated freshman class this fall. At the same time, the American Association of Community Colleges reports that community-college enrollment rose 8 to 10 percent. That's not unexpected—community-college enrollment usually climbs during a down economy as newly unemployed workers look to get additional training. But normally, the age of the average student rises, whereas this time around, the average age on campus has remained low because there are so many more traditional-aged students, say administrators. "The segment of fresh high-school graduates is growing fast," says Anson Smith, public relations coordinator for Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn.

Community-college administrators are thrilled to attract top performers, but they also worry that the influx of students who can afford other options is squeezing out the disadvantaged students such schools were built to serve. Most community colleges have open admission—no SAT or GPA required—but classroom slots fill up on a rolling basis. "Unfortunately for students who can't make plans in advance, they will get to the doors and find out there is no room," says Northern Virginia Community College President Robert Templin. Many students typically register for classes later on because they're unprepared to navigate the system, he says, and they're often first-generation college students or coming from underperforming high schools. While administrators like Templin have made efforts to reach out to less-advantaged students earlier in high school, he says it's difficult to offer individualized support to a burgeoning prospective student population. "Many community-colleges administrators are very fearful that middle class [students] will come and squeeze out poorer and moderate-income students," he says.

At most schools, the pressure is mounting. Community-college enrollment spiked this fall, but the schools were already experiencing a trend of increased enrollment. From 2000 to 2006, enrollment grew 10 percent, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, attributes the growth to changes in the general perception of community colleges. "Our reputation has continued to improve," he says. According to a 2008 report from the Department of Education, the proportion of high-school seniors with high standardized-test scores and strong overall qualifications enrolling in community colleges has grown since 1992.

The report also found that two-thirds of students who apply to community colleges intend to go on to earn a four-year degree at another institution. Still, some college counselors remain wary about advising high-performing students to take this route. "The community college may not be a good academic fit for [all] students," says Bob Bardwell, a guidance counselor in Monson, Mass. "Some complain it's not challenging enough." Furthermore, he adds, students often find it's not as easy to transfer into the four-year schools they want as they might have thought.

But just when their profile is improving and demand is climbing, community colleges are seeing their resources disappear. The struggling economy has prompted state and local government, the main revenue source for most community colleges, to cut back on budgets, which means freezing new hires and slashing class sections. "The funding gets cut at the worst possible time," says Boggs. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, 16 states reported that they lacked the capacity to meet the projected community-college needs of high-school graduates in their states. Leo Chavez, president of Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., is bracing for further budget cuts, though he already had to turn away many prospective students this fall. "We have students coming to us in droves," he says. "It's really a crisis. Applications are rising dramatically and, at the same time, we are reducing what we can offer."

As is the case nationwide, in California, applications are already pouring in for the fall 2009 semester; the state's Community College League estimates that up to 250,000 students will have to be turned away. Simone Thelemaque, 24, of Palo Alto, Calif., knows that frustration firsthand. She worked as a waitress to save enough money for classes at nearby Foothill College. But when she went to register in July, two months before the start of the semester, she was already too late. Her math and English classes were already at capacity. "It's really discouraging," she says. Unlike some other students, she can't afford to take classes anywhere else. But Thelemaque hasn't given up. She's hoping to get the classes this upcoming semester and if she can't, she'll try again next year. She's determined to get a college degree, because it's what she needs to get her dream job: she wants to be a teacher.