Don't Overlook Community Colleges

Think of it as an upside of the downturn. The economic tsunami that has shrunk endowments and family college funds alike has also triggered a new and growing appreciation for community colleges and the critical role they play in America's higher-education system. Since 2008 the country's 1,400 two-year schools have seen enrollment increase an average of 13 percent, according to a national study by the American Association of Community Colleges. Fans of the associate's degree hope this unprecedented surge—some community colleges have seen enrollment jump more than 30 percent—could finally end the unfair stigma that has traditionally dogged the schools. "Community colleges have always been this undiscovered gem, but now people are starting to take notice," says AACC president George Boggs.

Saving a load of cash is a universal virtue. But to students, the real attraction of a two-year school is the list of benefits that people on the outside never actually see. Schools differ by state, but junior colleges traditionally keep class sizes small: usually about 20 students for remedial classes like English and math. This makes for a more nurturing environment where instructors can be more attentive to individual students' needs. And those low costs—in the neighborhood of $25 per credit depending on the school—besides being good for the wallet, mean there is less pressure to graduate on deadline. Another pressure reliever: decidedly less of the fierce academic competition often found at four-year schools, which can make it easier for motivated community-college students to excel. "As a function of the economy, what we're seeing is a perfect storm for enrollment," says Norma Kent, who edits the Community College Times.

The main mission of community colleges—to offer skills to develop a workforce—hasn't changed much since the system was developed in the 1920s, when the schools were dubbed "open door'' institutions. The label has meant not only that anyone who clears some low hurdles is welcome, but also that it's the most affordable way to earn college credits. Yet bargain rates aren't the only attraction. Flexible hours and course schedules—night and weekend classes are common—make it possible for students to earn a degree while working full time.

The sudden surge in interest, especially from students who would not have looked to study locally a year ago, has some schools scrambling to open the doors wider. In order to accommodate a 17 percent enrollment increase in 2008 (with an even bigger surge expected in the fall of 2009), Gloucester County College in Sewell, N.J., hired 50 new instructors, all of them adjuncts, which makes them cheaper to employ than full-time faculty. At North Seattle Community College, limited classroom space has forced the school to look elsewhere to take on more students: namely, the Internet (see page 50). NSCC rushed in 2008 to train its faculty in digital instruction after online enrollment jumped 29 percent.

Still, ballooning Web seminars won't solve every problem. Shrinking endowments and the slowdown of state funding have hit community colleges, the lowest tier and most fiscally challenged segment of the country's higher-education system, especially hard. Schools vary by region and state economies, but some junior-college budgets have shrunk by as much as 10 percent, which means cutbacks just as the schools are enjoying some time in the limelight. "Ideally we don't want the students to know anything is different," says Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., who wrote a guide for his colleagues on how to keep all systems at full operation despite feeling the financial pinch. His suggestions: reduce administration positions, reassign staff to classroom-focused roles, and cut all overtime.

Attempting to make minimal cuts to students' academic experience, administrators at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla., decided to shut the campus on Fridays and move to a four-day workweek. That meant less flexibility for working students and a handful of positions cut or slimmed (including the president, who opted to forgo a $100,000 salary raise), but the change paid dividends. Counselors quickly noticed a livelier and more productive campus. The extra day off gave students and staff extra time to work or run errands, which made them more focused when they were on campus.

Of course, the real test of a community college is not how well it handles budget cuts, but how well and quickly its students advance, either into the workforce or in pursuit of a bachelor's degree. Transfer students (from two-year and other four-year schools) usually make up less than a third of graduating classes at four-year universities, but there are signs that the number could be increasing. Since the downturn started in 2008, says Michelle Wittingham, dean of admissions at UC Santa Cruz, outreach counselors have noticed many more students interested in transferring as juniors rather than as freshmen. "Usually those [older transfer] students come with a more focused idea of what they want to study," says Wittingham, who told NEWSWEEK that her admissions officers have given lots more attention to transfer applications.

A growing number of schools, including Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina, have expanded commitments to accept more transfer students. "There's a lot of talent in those local schools that we need to recognize," says Stephanie Balmer, head of admissions for Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

In some states, there's a blurring distinction between community colleges and the universities they feed into. Beginning in 2008, junior colleges in 17 different states were authorized by state legislatures to begin offering full bachelor's degrees to students who complete four years of study, the latter two in advanced coursework. Florida currently leads the way; 14 campuses including Santa Fe College in Gainesville and Miami Dade College (both dropped the "Community") now award the elevated degree in things like nursing and education. It's a discomforting trend for neighboring universities, which see their mission and fee structure undercut. But the junior colleges argue their purpose is not to compete, but rather to expand accessibility. There are few options, counselors say, for working students to earn a B.A. or B.S. at their own pace, without the pressure of a university environment.

For the hundreds of other community colleges, an associate's degree is still the limit, and transfer to a four-year school remains the chief goal. Increased enrollment naturally translates to increased competition to take the next step. So how can students with four-year ambitions improve their odds? "Don't be afraid to take academic risks with different subjects—it shows a leaning away from high-school work," says Dickinson's Balmer. In other words, it's not all a function of GPA. Tom Parker, admissions director at Amherst College in Massachusetts, says community-college students should get involved in campus activities so four-year schools they apply to will know what kind of contribution they'll make in a university setting.

Kristin Grenier never imagined that she would need such advice. As a high-school student in Maysville, Ky., she had her sights set on an Ivy. She had the grades, too, and probably would have qualified for some financial assistance from an elite university. But money was extra tight and she didn't know what she wanted to study. "I wanted to explore my options without plunging straight into the deep end," says Grenier. So she enrolled at Maysville Community College and soon enough was designing her own science degree. "The working title is environmental science, policy, and practice," she says with a laugh. In every way, it's an education on her own terms.