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Crowded Community Colleges Hit Crunch Time

May 1, 2012

Rita Giordano

community college student  

The 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.

You might have said four years of the Crimson Tide was Rebecca Ellis' birthright.

In football season, a 10-foot-tall blow-up of Elephant Al, mascot of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, holds dominion over the lawn of Ellis' Haddonfield, N.J., home.

Her father went to the school. So did his father. Her mother went there, too.

"It really is a family legacy," said Ellis, 19.

And for a graduate of high-performing Haddonfield Memorial High School, a spot at a four-year college was almost a given.

But Ellis isn't at a four-year school. She is in her first year at Camden County College. Her hope is to transfer to Alabama in the future. Money shaped her choices. The cost of attendance at UA for a nonresident is nearly $36,000 a year, including room and board. Instead, she lives at home and full-time tuition costs about $2,700 a year, not including fees.

"In sophomore year, my parents and I sat down and talked about it," Ellis said. "My parents were very honest with me. My grades were not fantastic, so there wasn't going to be big scholarships, and I didn't do sports."

Community colleges say they are seeing more and more students like Ellis - middle-class students, including those from achieving high schools where expectations tend toward the Ivies and other elite universities.

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.

Source: (c) 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.

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