As I discussed in my June 25 blog (Occupational Opportunities for the Next Decade), the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook shows that 46 million jobs (30% of those in the U.S.) will soon require more than a high school education, but less than a four-year bachelor’s degree. The nation’s 1,200 community colleges are—and will continue to be—the primary source of this education as demand for individuals with two-year technical degrees grows faster than that for those with a full university degree.
These institutions, which enroll a total of 11.8 million, or 43% of the country’s undergraduate students, play five critical, but very different roles in our educational system, providing:
- Transfer Education, for students that will transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a BS/BA degree;
- Career Education, for those that will graduate with an Associate Degree and directly enter the workforce;
- Developmental Education, remedial education for high school graduates who are not academically ready to enroll in college-level courses;
- Continuing Education, which entails non-credit courses for personal development and interest; and
- Industry Training, which is contracted for by companies to provide training for specific jobs.
Of the 930,000 students who completed formal courses of community college study in 2009, 65% graduated with Associate Degrees (which typically require the equivalent of roughly two years of full-time study). The other 35% end up with certificates, such as a GED (General Educational Development) high school equivalency or Industry training certificate.
Engines of Social Mobility
Community colleges, however, do much more than confer degrees or certificates. They are also one of nation’s the most effective enablers of social mobility. community colleges, for example, have open admission policies, offering degree-track admission to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent, regardless of grades. And, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges, tuition at public community colleges costs an average of 64% less ($2,544) than those for public four-year colleges and 1/10th to 1/20th the cost of many private four-year schools.
They also cater to disproportionately higher percentages of ethnic minorities (40% of total enrollment) and first-generation college students in their families (42%). And since they are so geographically widespread, with campuses or extension centers within an hour’s drive of more than half of the nation’s population, they provide a critical source of education and vocational training to commuters, those who live in rural areas and those who must work part-time. In fact, according to AACC, 60% of all community college students are enrolled part-time (with 89% of these working either full or part time) and of those who do attend on a full-time basis, 80% work (with more than a quarter of these working full time).
Those students who attend community colleges—and especially those who graduate—are generally rewarded with higher-paying and more secure jobs than those who with only a high school diploma. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, for example, show that those students who attend, but did not receive an Associates’ degree from a community college, typically earn 13% more than those with just a high school diploma. Those who complete a degree earn 21% more. Both are also correspondingly less likely to be unemployed. Those who take, and ideally earn certificates and degrees in technically-oriented math and science courses, earn significant premiums (about 14 percent for men and 29 percent for women) over those in less technical fields.
Local Economic Development Engines
These schools also play important roles in helping their communities develop their economies. They do this by upgrading the skills of their community’s labor force, both in providing remedial and vocational training to “traditional” students who have just recently graduated from high school, and especially to older, non-traditional students. These include those who return to school to freshen or sharpen existing skills, homemakers or welfare recipients who are preparing to enter the labor force, immigrants looking to improve their language skills and displaced or dislocated workers who are seeking to retrain for a new occupation that offers better employment prospects.
Since many vocational graduates tend to seek jobs in their own communities, most of these schools tend to be highly attuned to the needs of local businesses, tailoring courses and curricula to the needs of local industries and often partnering with specific companies to:
- Provide customized or contract job training, as where they develop programs that are tailored to the needs of specific companies; or
- Develop cooperative education programs that combine classroom learning and practical (typically paid) on-the-job experience.
These colleges can also play much more proactive roles, as by partnering with state and local governments to provide business development services. They may partner with the state to create and operate entrepreneurial training centers or government-funded small business development centers (SBDCs) or participate in the creation of regional economic development plans. Colleges also actively partner with government agencies and Chambers of Commerce to attract corporations to build or expand facilities in their communities, by serving as a third-party training arm to teach local citizens the skills required by these new employers.
They may also play much more defensive roles, as by contracting with cities and states to retrain plant-closing victims for new jobs in totally different fields. The State of Michigan, for example, provides tuition assistance to community colleges that retrain displaced auto workers for careers in other industries—especially health-care.
On-Ramps to Higher Education
Community colleges also play another critical role in society: that of a feeder system to universities. A large percentage of students enter community colleges with the express intention of transferring to four-year universities and the recession is prompting growing numbers of four-year students to temporarily “drop down” to community colleges to cut costs.
Overall, about 29% of all community college students end up transferring to four-year universities and 17% of all bachelor degree holders had previously earned associate degrees. These transfer and “step-up” processes are facilitated by the existence of “articulation agreements” that specify which courses credits will and will not transfer to four-year schools. With careful planning, students can transfer most, if not all their credits.
The result is millions of low-income, minority and late bloomer high school graduates who would not have been able to afford to attend or get accepted by four-year universities, end up with four-year, and in some cases, graduate or professional degrees. And with university costs doubling over the last decade and rising at twice the rate of those for health care (see my July 11 blog “Is College Still the Best Road to the American Dream?”), the role of community colleges as a first-step to a four-year degree appears likely to increase.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Given the value community colleges provide, their popularity should come as no surprise. The growing demand for educated workers, combined with the rapidly growing cost of a four-year university education has led enrollment in these colleges to expand at about twice the rate as for four-year universities. Now, the recession is prompting more high-school graduates to enroll in college as a means of deferring entry into the job market, forcing more displaced workers to return to school to learn new skills, and enticing growing numbers university students to “drop down” from four-year to two-year programs as a way of reducing expenses and the long-term burden of college debt.
Total enrollment has exploded from 6.8 million to 8 million between 2006 and 2009 and applications for 2010 are likely to surpass those in 2009 to reach a new record. Unfortunately, this may be too much of a good thing. Unless something dramatic is done, the rapid growth of community colleges may well contain the seeds of the system’s destruction.