Why Are So Many Community Colleges in Precarious Shape?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

Community colleges are the entry point to higher education for millions of Americans, but, according to Inside Higher Education’s 2017 Survey of Community College Presidents, their leaders report significant enrollment challenges and precarious financial support.

Six in 10 of the 236 community college presidents reported a decline in enrollment over the past three years. Their response often was to add new programs, increase strategies to support student transfers, grow their marketing budgets, add new online programs, and freeze or cut tuition. Significantly, most looked first to program enhancements designed to boost enrollment rather than cuts to cover deficits and meet expenses.

female student in cap and gown

The enrollment and financial difficulties faced by community college leaders reflect broader trends. Employment opportunities have increased with the improving economy, for example, causing some enrollment declines. Further, the tactics utilized to stabilize community college finances often reflect the approaches adopted elsewhere among four-year, graduate, and professional schools.

Community Colleges Often First Entry to Higher Education

But what’s most telling is that a uniform communications and marketing message has not yet taken hold to build a case for community colleges.

The plain fact is that community colleges are the defining point of access for most students in the American higher education system.

Well over 40 percent of American college students have some educational experience in a community college. For most of these, it is their first college experience.

If community colleges provide primary access in a world of shifting demographics, persistent income inequality, and the failing college and business and financial models that are causing open consumer revolt over sticker prices, should enlightened local, state and federal policies reward community colleges more deliberately for the public good that they provide?

Isn’t it time for policymakers to set basic parameters in place to offer an agenda that sponsors access and better supports the institutions like community colleges which provide it?

Higher Education is Lifelong Learning Experience

For policymakers to make a difference, they must first see what educational consumers already understand – education is a life-long learning experience “from cradle through career” and beyond — that creates a pathway along which citizens travel.

Education remains the great safety valve in American society, assimilating new immigrant groups and providing Americans in general with their best hope to secure a sustainable place in the American middle class.

But the pathway goes beyond access. Getting students into the educational pipeline, as free tuition plans in states like New York and Rhode Island propose to do, is not enough. The likely effect will be to jam the pipeline and blame the students or the institutions when retention and graduation rates do not improve.

Regardless of how the financial pieces are put together, community colleges must have reliable sources of revenue to do their jobs, ensuring that accepted students not only attend but persist and graduate in reasonable time.

A realistic community college operating model is not likely to suggest that they be like four-year colleges, offering a full range of residential and non-academic programming. There is a good case for public/private partnerships in areas like housing, dining, and wellness facilities, however, to support students who need basic services. But any new money that flows into community colleges must assist students to move along the education pathway at reasonable cost.

Community colleges are different from residential four-year institutions. It’s part of the secret to their success. It’s also one important reason why they remain more affordable than most other types of postsecondary education.

In the future, it’s essential to better position community colleges within higher education where internal infighting often erupts over questions of process and prestige. Community colleges are not junior colleges nor are they four-year wannabe institutions. They are the primary access point for most Americans seeking to live out the American dream.

For policymakers, it’s time to take a step back to avoid the pitfalls and costs of populist strategies, band-aid solutions, and knee-jerk, reactive panaceas.

Changes in American higher education must be systemic and systematic. It begins by understanding higher education, how it works, and how and why the pieces fit together.

American higher education institutions must change their operating models, which are now built too heavily on tuition and government aid. Determining new pricing strategies requires imagination and new thinking, but it does not absolve local, state, and federal governments from some measure of continuing support.

Since GI Bill, Higher Education Perceived as a Right

American society decided with the GI Bill after World War II that education was a right and not a privilege. In the minds of most Americans, this debate is over.

It’s time to understand instead that a successful and robust higher education system — one that includes community colleges — must be decentralized and well funded to be a continuing safety value.

Education grows the middle class, supports a well-educated citizenry, and develops an employable workforce. It’s not a solution built on incremental funding increases that don’t address, access, choice, persistence, graduation rates, and employability.

But it is an urgent question. How do you build and fund a life-long education pathway that best serves American citizens?

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation. 

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.