"The notion of access is wired in our DNA." That's how Norma Kent, senior vice president of communications and advancement at the American Association of Community Colleges, describes "the cornerstone" of the community college's mission.
It may be wired in, but access has become the No. 1 challenge now facing these two-year, government-backed institutions. In today's economy, the schools are increasingly serving as a vocational training ground for the unemployed, underemployed and traditional college students. But demand for slots at community colleges today is unparalleled, forcing many schools to turn away thousands of applicants -- something they've rarely had to do.
Increased demand is only one of the reasons community colleges are struggling to meet their mission. The other is drastic reductions in funding. Not only do they need additional resources to expand to meet demand, they are struggling to keep up with programs they already have.
Community colleges have long had a steady and deep base of students. More than 11 million students attend 1,200 community colleges nationwide. As is usually the case in an economic downturn, enrollments grow at the schools. The lower tuition of a community college draws students who might otherwise go to a four-year college; they may be unwilling to assume the high student loan that a four-year college demands. According to the College Board's 2009 Trends in College Pricing report, tuition alone for the 2009-2010 academic year at a public university was $7,020, bringing the total cost for one academic year -- which includes tuition and other costs -- to more than $19,000 and for four years, $80,000. A private four-year degree costs twice as much -- $160,000. In addition to those trying to keep tuition costs in check, community colleges are a draw for the unemployed looking for low-cost vocational training for new jobs.
But the recent surges in enrollment are unprecedented -- a 17 percent increase from 2007 to 2009. "Those are just the most recent numbers -- it might even be higher than that," Kent says, noting that the typical annual increase in enrollment is between 6 and 7 percent.
The current surge is clearly tied to the length and depth of the Great Recession. "The enrollments reflect what the situation is economically," Kent says. The colleges are seeing people who have been fired or laid off. They are admitting adult learners who are coming back to gain skills to get a new job or to ensure that they keep their current jobs. In addition, because family budgets are under stress, the schools are seeing traditional-age students coming back in greater numbers.
The enrollment surges are forcing community colleges to say no to applicants. In 2009, Maine's community college system denied 4,000 students from their first program of choice; Florida's had to deny 30,000; and California's turned away 200,000 students. "When they have reduced capacity, whether they institute a specified cap on enrollment, there's a de facto cap anyway," Kent says. "If they don't have enough teachers, rooms and resources to serve the numbers of students who are coming, those students will be turned away."
For-profit colleges like University of Phoenix and Chancellor University, among many others, often are thought of as alternatives to the overcrowded community colleges. But the cost to attend, as reported in an episode of PBS's Frontline called College Inc., is staggering. "I was surprised to learn how expensive tuition at the for-profits is -- five to six times the cost of community colleges and as much as twice a four-year state university," correspondent Martin Smith reported.
On the whole, community colleges can't admit more students without broadening their offerings, faculty and capacity -- and doing so, given recent and ongoing budget cuts, isn't easy. The squeeze starts at the top. State budgets, under stress, are cutting back on their support. Like most other state agencies and institutions of higher education, community colleges in Texas, for example, faced a 5 percent cut in state funding for 2010 and 2011. And Gov. Rick Perry has asked colleges and agencies to prepare for an additional 10 percent cut in 2012 and 2013.
To offset the budget cuts and keep up with demand, many community colleges are increasing tuition: In June, the Tennessee Board of Regents' Committee on Business and Finance approved an increase in tuition of 6.3 percent for university and community college students with 12 or more hours of coursework ; and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist approved an 8 percent tuition increase for all state colleges and universities.
Though the percentage increase is the same, the cost for community colleges is a drop in the bucket compared to increases at the four-year colleges and universities. And because most tuition fees at junior colleges are relatively low to begin with, the increase isn't staggering -- at Florida's Gulf Coast Community College, for example, full-time tuition is increased from $950 for the 2009-2010 school year to $1,150 for the 2010-2011 school year, a 28 percent rise.
Still, that's not something community colleges want to do. "We do serve low- to middle-income students," Kent says. "We really do everything we can to stay affordable. But in some cases, it's just not possible to do that without tuition increases." Even with tuition increases, the average annual tuition for community colleges is still only around $2,500 per year, according to the College Board's report.
The schools are also taking steps to keep their costs down. Kent reports that at many community colleges, there are likely to be travel freezes for personnel. If someone retires or leaves, they likely won't be replaced. In some instances, the schools have increased class size -- on the theory that it's better to let students attend a slightly larger class than to not have them attend at all.
Several colleges have gotten creative in finding sources of revenue to support at least part of their offerings. At Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, President Tony Zeiss has for years been resourceful when it comes to keeping classes open for as many students as possible. During the last recession in 2001, Zeiss called local business CEOs asking if they'd be interested in sponsoring classes. "I was just trying to offer more classes so I didn't have to turn away students, and I didn't have anyone turn me down," he says. "I got about 60 sponsors."
In the current recession, Zeiss expanded his approach. He needed to try something new because Central Piedmont had to turn away 5,000 students during the 2008-2009 school year. So instead of calling companies to sponsor classes, for this past school year he called two of his top donors and told them the dilemma. Their responses were affirmative. He got $200,000 from one and $300,000 from the other. With that $500,000, his school was able to offer additional classes this year. While not all students could take the classes they wanted because of scheduling issues, Zeiss says the school did not have to turn away many people.
He plans to use that tack again for the next school year, though he'll try working with other potential donors as well. "Timing is an important thing," he says, "and you don't want to strain relationships."
Other community colleges are partnering with local industries to keep their programs running: Bellevue College in Bellevue, Wash., partners with Microsoft; and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., partners with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, housing the railroad's training center.
These partnerships not only help keep community colleges afloat, they also help the schools meet another key mission: responding to a community's work force needs. In their earliest years, community colleges solely granted the associate degree, which typically took two years of full-time study to complete. This degree was intended to be the beginning -- the student would take traditional college-level courses that prepared them for further study toward a bachelor's degree. Increasingly however, community colleges are providing career training through vocational courses that lead to certification that validates skills in various fields, such as IT, industrial technology and renewable energy technology. (See A Hot Specialty.)
Remaining accessible for anyone who wants an education continues to be the main goal of community colleges. President Barak Obama and several leading foundations have identified them as key to increasing student completions and the number of students who earn credentials. Ever the spokesperson for her association, Kent points out that community colleges "are that critical link between public schools and universities, and that's a place where many people are going to have their access to college. To keep them operating, to keep their doors open, is vital."