Monday, August 1, 2011

Blog LXXXIX (89): Growth Industry

The poor economy is affecting all parts of society, education included. We are aware of some of the more basic issues, but one of the ones that has not seen a lot of attention is that community colleges are experiencing enormous growth right now. The article “High Enrollment Strains Two-Year Colleges” by Kevin Helliker appeared in February 9, 2011 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Since community colleges are growing, many new Ph.D.s should consider looking for work at these type of institutions. There are problems with this growth, though, as the article makes clear:
Community colleges, long regarded as the most accessible realm of higher education, are becoming more difficult to access thanks to record enrollments combined with belt-tightening by state legislatures.

A jump in enrollment helps to explain why Miguel Morales failed to get a seat in intermediate algebra this spring at Johnson County Community College in suburban Kansas City, Kan.

"You used to be able to wait until the last moment," said Mr. Morales, a 43-year-old part-time student at JCCC, where enrollment has reached new heights the past two years. "But it's getting to where you have to go online at three in the morning to get a spot in some classes." (A JCCC spokeswoman said few if any classes close out in a matter of hours.)

In a survey to be released Wednesday by the Pearson Foundation, a nonprofit educational think tank in Mill Valley, Calif., about 20% of 1,434 community college students interviewed in November reported difficulty enrolling in required courses for the fall semester. About one in three had trouble winning a spot in desired classes.

Those problems are mild next to enrollment caps that could be imposed in California and possibly other states. Budget cuts in California could force its community-college system—the biggest collegiate system in the U.S., serving about 2.76 million students—to turn away about 350,000 applicants next year.

"It's disturbing," said Thomas Bailey, director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center in New York City. But given cost constraints, "community colleges need to figure out some way of limiting their enrollment."

Like more expensive four-year state schools, community colleges rely on tuition and state money. They keep tuition low to be more accessible, but that means states subsidize a larger share of student costs; in the current economy, states are looking to limit spending.

Meanwhile, graduation and retention rates at junior colleges are lower than at four-year schools. The Pearson Foundation survey suggests that community-college students are less likely to establish a relationship with their schools, perhaps exacerbating the high dropout rates. In the survey, 74% of those who dropped out said they never discussed their intention to quit with an instructor or adviser.

The limits of community colleges have received little attention as politicians ranging from state governors to President Barack Obama have praised the two-year schools as a vehicle for increasing the number of Americans with advanced degrees.

Amid the recession, the percentage of high school graduates bypassing four-year colleges for two-year colleges has jumped.

In California, an admissions system that favors students who are already enrolled could make it difficult for incoming freshmen to win spots in classes. That has given rise to a proposal to place perennial students—those who accumulate credit after credit without ever graduating—at the back of the line.

Some educational experts are skeptical that community colleges will ever serve as an effective bridge to baccalaureate degrees. While the new Pearson Foundation survey and other polls consistently show a majority of community college entrants aiming for a four-year degree, a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that fewer than 12% of students who entered a two-year school in 2004 had a baccalaureate degree by 2009.

"Unless two-year colleges substantially improve their success at getting their graduates into four-year colleges and universities, the end result will be a substantial decline in baccalaureate degree attainment rates in future years," said Thomas G. Mortenson, an analyst for a think tank called Postsecondary Education Opportunity, wrote in a 2009 research paper and reiterated in a recent interview.

Many community colleges are scrambling to accommodate demand. Even with a tight budget, Johnson County Community College has added classes. Some junior colleges have added midnight courses to meet demand. A space crunch at CUNY, the New York City system of six community colleges, has led to a waiting list and creation of a one-month winter term for core classes.

To many in community-college administration, accessibility remains a near-sacred obligation. While conditions are more crowded at CUNY, for instance, a spokesman said, "Our two-year schools are open-admission institutions. They accept students who have high school diplomas."

Columbia's Dr. Bailey said some community colleges are considering establishing an academic bar. "They're saying, 'Maybe we should set a floor—a certain level of skills you need to have' " to win admittance.

1 comment:

  1. Hal M. Friedman, Henry Ford Community CollegeAugust 7, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    The article, as most pieces on community colleges do, states half the story but without finishing things.

    Yes, community colleges are straining, in part because the number of students returning to college in the wake of our worst recession since 1929 is unprecedented. But community colleges are also straining because they have limited budgets. Community colleges, by the way, have limited budgets because Federal and state largesse (what little is left) goes disproportionately to four year colleges and universities, especially large research universities that need it the least.

    It is also true that community colleges have low rates of success and transfer, but again for a number of reasons, not all of which indicate that community colleges and their staffs are at fault.

    First, many students don't attend community colleges to transfer to four year colleges or even take associate's degrees. Many students, especially at community colleges with vocational programs, attend for workforce retraining that might entail a few courses before entrance again to the job market.

    For those who do intend to transfer, a huge number are students who have high school diplomas or GEDs but don't really have college-level skills to have graduated a K-12 school (no, I'm not going to take pot shots at K-12 teachers here. They're being blamed for plenty that is also not under their control). Students who come in needing remediation, very often the majority of students at a community college, don't want to go through the remediation and drop out. If community colleges have low rates of graduation and transfer, it might be a problem, but then again it might mean that community colleges are holding the standards line and convincing students who shouldn't try to transfer not to.

    For those students who stay until they are ready for mainline courses or complete two year degrees, transfer then has to take place to four year colleges which often enunciate public rhetoric claiming they value community college transfers but often put up obstacles which make that transfer difficult. Dare I say that often four year colleges and universities don't think much about community college transfer students because they very often don't even think much about community college staff, though this issue of institutional prejudice is usually not explored in studies on this topic.

    The proof is in the pudding. For decades, studies have shown that community college students who transfer do better at four year colleges in their third and fourth years than students who were at those four year institutions in their first two years. Students who complete associate's degrees do even better.

    So much for incomplete analyses bases on stereotypes.

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