Crowded Community Colleges Hit Crunch Time

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Community CollegeThe community college is being asked to save America.

But like a small-town fire department straining to contain a big-city blaze, community colleges aren?t equipped to handle the huge job thrust on them, many experts say.

Many millennials ? a diverse demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds ? are looking to the schools to give them a fighting chance in a brutal economy.

A torrent of young people who realize a high school diploma means nearly nothing in the new economy or can?t afford four-year schools have pinned their hopes on these modest campuses.

For the young people who have swelled community-college classrooms, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Nick Fasciocco, 26, laid off from two jobs in recent years, is counting on Pennsylvania?s Delaware County Community College to give him the skills to land a steady job in a new career in respiratory therapy.

Rebecca Ellis, 19, has turned to Camden County College in New Jersey to give her an affordable start on her bachelor?s degree so she can transfer to her four-year dream school.

On any given day, Denzel Parker-Dixon, 19, checks in with his mentor at the Community College of Philadelphia?s Center for Male Engagement, a support program for young African-American men who face daunting odds ? a nearly 60 percent fall-to-fall, first-year dropout rate.

The Great Recession and changes in the American economy have heightened demands on community colleges. In addition to younger students, the colleges are also being sought out by legions of displaced workers needing to update their job skills.

At the same time, the colleges are being challenged to graduate more students. Nationally, of students who started in 2007, 22.5 percent graduated after three years.

As enrollments have soared and state funding in many places has not kept pace, community colleges are being challenged to educate more efficiently, to yield better results ? even if it means limiting whom they serve.

From New York to California, for better and some say for worse, change is coming.

?I think community colleges are going to have to make some tough choices,? said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. ?We can no longer afford to do everything for everyone all the time.?

But, it?s not just the students who are pinning their hopes on the colleges.

President Barack Obama has enlisted the schools as major players to make America more competitive by increasing its college graduates by 2020. He also recently proposed an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund to train two million workers.

But the institutions that have been historically open to everyone are struggling to meet growing expectations.

?We are asking too much of community colleges, given their modest level of funds, their missions, the people they are asked to serve,? said Davis Jenkins, senior research associate with Columbia University?s Community College Research Center.

A major part of their mission ? one that often involves more than half of their degree- or certificate-seeking students ? is providing remedial education to high school graduates who experts say are not ready for college work. And these campuses are attracting students who fear the crushing debt they would need to incur to cover costs at four-year schools.

And while many colleges have come to depend more heavily on tuition for revenue, community colleges remain a bargain. Those in the Philadelphia area, for example, cost on average $2,700 for tuition per year, compared with more than $13,000 at Temple University and about $10,000 at Rutgers for tuition alone.

Students with family income over $100,000 in public two-year colleges rose from 12 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 22 percent in 2010-11, according to the college lender Sallie Mae.

In some cases, a parental layoff alters college plans. For others, even two working parents might not be able to afford a four-year school, yet they earn too much to qualify for substantial aid.

For many of these students, community college is an economic godsend ? a way to make higher education affordable. Many schools have transfer agreements with four-year institutions that also include financial aid.

Some community-college leaders say these students have been a welcome addition and raise the academic bar. Within the past year alone, Gloucester County College in New Jersey initiated two new programs ? one to aid transfers to four-year schools and the other a scholarship to attract achievers.

?We are investing in our students,? said Frederick Keating, the college?s president.

Other observers see downsides. With high enrollments, a survey by the Pearson Foundation found, almost 4 out of every 10 community-college students were shut out of classes last fall.

In addition, these middle-income students tend to be more academically savvy and are more likely to register early. Some experts say that has had the unintended consequence of squeezing out other students.

Nationally, 58 percent of two-year public college students enrolled in at least one remedial course and only 28 percent graduated within 8.5 years, according to researchers with the City University of New York.

About 60 percent of first-time associate-degree- or certificate-seeking students are placed in remedial courses, and less than a quarter of them graduate within eight years, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia.

Many students give up before they get to college courses.

But frustration can carry a big price. According to a recent study by the American Institutes for Research, almost $4 billion in federal, state, and local government aid was spent over a five-year period on educating full-time community-college students who dropped out after their first year.

The colleges are quick to point out that such data do not address the many ?stop-outs? ? students who return to schools sometimes years after leaving.

Robert Messina, recently retired after 25 years as president of Burlington County College in New Jersey, cautioned against judging students such as his by four-year-college standards. He said the majority of his students also have jobs and other obligations. Many community-college students are also part time.

?They?re not sitting there having a beer blast at their dorms,? he said. ?They?re working 30, 35 hours. They work too much.?

Colleges welcome proposed federal rules that would give them credit for helping more students such as part-timers and more transfers.

Still, critics say the colleges need to be more fiscally efficient and educationally focused to prepare students and adults for jobs in today?s economy.

California, home of the nation?s largest community-college system with 2.6 million students, is already there.

In the past three years, ?we?ve had to endure severe budget cuts, and we?ve turned away hundreds of thousands of first-time students,? said Paul Feist, spokesman for the California community-college system. The state is eyeing changes that would give preference to students more apt to complete a degree, job training, or an academic transfer.

This fall, the City University of New York will open the New Community College aimed at getting more students to graduate. The structured program, which includes mentors and other supports, has a limited menu of majors: business administration, human services, information technology, liberal arts and sciences, and urban studies.

Another cost-saving possibility for some states is cutting the lowest level of remedial courses offered by community colleges ? another controversial limit on access.

These changes being considered by community colleges may end up pushing out the students who need them the most, especially because a college degree is virtually a must in this economy, warned Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

?If we don?t fully fund postsecondary education, we are destroying the social contract,? he said. ?Education is the key to the social contract. It wasn?t true in 1970. It is true now.?

The colleges know well the stakes.

?The work we do is the gateway to the middle class,? said Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania.

But in the face of limited funds and higher societal stakes, many experts including community-college leaders say the schools need to offer more structured programs of study that are aligned with locally available jobs or successful transfer to senior colleges.

Some states are experimenting with funding community colleges based on performance rather than attendance. And while many colleges usually have limited guidance staff, these students, often first-generation college attendees, need more direction and fewer choices, experts say. Part of California?s proposed reform agenda is requiring all students to have an education plan.

?Advising needs to be inescapable,? said McClenney, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

Indeed, a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., along with a bipartisan group of other senators, would require education counseling for all service veterans eligible for education assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Changing remedial education is crucial to improving graduation rates, critics say.

Two recent studies by the Community College Research Center found that as many as one-quarter to one-third of students who tested as needing remedial courses would have earned a grade of B or higher if they had gone directly into a college-level course.

At the same time, for some students, even the lowest level of remedial education is beyond their ability.

About a year and a half ago, Montgomery County Community College started referring those who test at the lowest levels to Link to Success, a YWCA basic adult-education program, rather than enrolling them in the college?s remedial courses.

Diverting those students away from college courses ?was a tough move for a college president,? said Montgomery?s Stout. Some see the change as the beginning of limiting access, she said, but it was intended to help the students attain at least some increased skills. Few of those lowest-level students, Stout said, ever advance to college.

But, when set up to move students along, remedial courses can also put students on a path to success.

A college remedial-education course was probably the last place Nick Fasciocco, 26, pictured himself when he graduated from Upper Darby (Pa.) High School in 2003.

Glad to be done with school and eager to earn, he went to work with his father in construction for about a year and a half but wanted a job with a 401(k) and benefits. Acting on a tip from relatives, he landed a job as a lineman for Verizon laying fiber-optic cable. After all the overtime, he said, he made about $80,000 in a year. He saved none of it, but he went on great vacations.

Then the work started drying up. He got laid off but quickly rebounded with a facilities job at Shire Pharmaceuticals in Wayne, N.J., a global company ? again, through a family connection. It paid less money, but the benefits were good. He went on more vacations. On New Year?s Eve 2010, he was laid off again.

?I had the least seniority once again,? Fasciocco said. ?I knew without any background or any particular education, this could continue to happen.?

Within weeks, he was enrolled at Delaware County Community College. He picked his major by doing a Yahoo search for what jobs with two-year degrees paid the most.

But a big disappointment was in store: Testing showed that he needed to take remedial classes in math and language arts.

Fasciocco is not unusual. Fifty-eight percent of DCCC?s first-year students take at least one remedial class, and at many community colleges the rate is even higher. Nationally, the likelihood of graduation for these students is slim. So in recent years, DCCC, like other local community colleges and many around the nation, has re-examined the way it delivers remedial education and has embarked on initiatives aimed at freshmen to keep all students in school and graduate.

At DCCC, over five years, the rate of freshmen who start in the fall and are still enrolled at the end of the spring semester rose from 68 percent to 73 percent.

?It doesn?t seem like a huge difference, but it?s hundreds, thousands of students,? said DCCC President Jerry Parker.

Chris Lamey, 25, a graduate of Sun Valley High School in Aston, Pa., is a liberal arts major at DCCC. His dream is to be a lawyer, but he knows that is ambitious. He returned to the college this past fall after a four-year break working odd jobs. A friend helped get him work putting up billboards, but he couldn?t take the heights. ?I was hugging the poles.?

In a previous stint at DCCC, he had to take remedial math. The course was a traditional lecture class, and he never completed it.

Last fall, he was told he had to take the course again. But this time, he was able to work at his own pace, with the professor there to assist.

Not only did he complete the course this time; he also learned something that had eluded him: He finally mastered long division.

?I don?t even need a calculator,? Lamey said.

Nick Fasciocco, as it turned out, was released from his remedial writing course when the professor saw he could do the work. He stuck with his remedial reading class and discovered that he could enjoy reading. He completed his remedial math class, too, with help from a peer-support program.

Now he wants to go on to earn a bachelor?s degree.

?You can?t be management without a bachelor?s,? he said.

Despite the challenges, community colleges still offer hope when other roads seem closed.

Source: MCT Information Services