Community college is the best option for millions of Americans who want to pursue a degree. At a time when the price of tuition is increasing significantly — at almost eight times the rate of inflation — students are starting to look for alternatives to traditional four-year universities. Community college has long been a strong option for first-generation students and those from lower-income households, especially those from minority groups, because it is generally more affordable. The average tuition price for a four-year institution in the 2018-19 academic year was $35,830, according to the Trends in College Pricing 2018 report, whereas the average tuition for public two-year colleges was $3,660. In addition, community college has also been frequented by students from middle-income households, who would prefer to start their college journey closer to home — this means they generally have to take out less debt.
But since 2011, enrollment at community colleges has been declining. Indeed, four-year for-profit institutions have realized the largest declines, two-year public colleges have also seen declining enrollment at high rates. Community colleges continued their enrollment decrease with a decline of 3.4 percent as of the spring 2019 semester. Why are students not considering community college as much?
College enrollments in general decrease when there are more jobs available — more workers can move back into the workforce full-time and earn a salary. There are many other reasons why community college enrollment specifically may have dropped. The main one is that many families — especially middle-class and wealthy families — consider “going away” to college to be a rite of passage, and a major event in their child’s life. Their definition of “going away” typically means going to an institution that is far away from home, or that means they will be moving out and living on campus most of the time.
Many families also continue to believe in the idea that going to college means going to a big institution with a strong track record and name recognition. But if a student does not attend a large university, the family cannot access the prestige that attending such an institution gives them. Community college is also often overlooked because of the lack of a campus life at some institutions. At four-year schools, there are many sports teams to support, clubs and societies to attend, study groups, and more. Community colleges typically have a different atmosphere and have less students engaged in extracurricular activities — this is, in part, because most students have jobs, and when they have finished their classes will go to work.
Despite community colleges being seen as less prestigious by many families, they play an important role in our higher education system. Community colleges are becoming more essential parts of four-year institutions’ student pipelines. There are three main reasons why community colleges serve an important role in higher education: they help encourage more people to attend college; they provide more flexibility for students who may not be able to commit to a four-year institution; and they are more cost effective for students, which makes them more likely to continue further education in the future.
Community Colleges Help Students Experience Academe
Community colleges provide an alternative to millions of Americans who are not ready to attend a four-year institution. Many people who are college-age are not ready to attend university, especially if that means living away from home, and starting with difficult courses that the student is not confident in. Community colleges allow students to get a sense of what further education is like, without having to commit to attending a four-year institution, or move away from home to do so. Students who attend community colleges can also develop more confidence in their own abilities who may not be ready for a four-year university yet. One important part of this is that community colleges are cheaper than four-year institutions, and many students are — rightly — reluctant to pursue university before they feel fully confident in their abilities. Of course, this means that many people never reach the higher education system, as the only way to refine your learning abilities in higher education is to actually learn in a college environment.
The average student loan balance for students in the Class of 2018 was $29,800, according to a study by Student Loan Hero. Community college students typically take out only a fraction of that amount of debt. Because they are closer to home, they depend less on federal aid or private loans to pay for living costs. In addition, many low-income students are eligible for Pell Grants, a type of financial aid given to low-income students that does not need to be paid back. Pell Grants can considerably defray the price of community college, which means that people need to depend less on other forms of aid such as federal student loans. Students who attend community college can earn credits toward their degree, while building more confidence in their own abilities. When they have this confidence, students can then transfer to four-year universities with experience in academe.
Students Can Transfer to Four-Year Institutions
It is important to note that enrolling in a community college is not a student’s final destination. Many students who start at community college continue to go onto further education, because they have more confidence in their abilities and feel better about pursuing a specific subject after acquiring more experience in that subject matter. Many two-year community colleges have agreements with other schools that allow their students to transfer their credits toward earning a full bachelor’s degree. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, almost 40 percent of community college students who started in a two-year institution had transferred at least once in a six-year time frame. Four-year institutions are starting to become more accepting of transfer admissions, too. For example, Princeton University reinstated transfer admissions in 2017, after placing a moratorium on credit transfers in 1990. This was part of a move to encourage applications from students from low-income backgrounds, who often continue their education at community college after high school.
Community Colleges are More Flexible
Community college also provides more flexibility for students. This manifests itself in a couple of different ways. Imagine if you had just taken out tens of thousands of dollars to attend a four-year university only to find out that the major you have declared is not what you expected. Indeed, you can change your major, but many of the classes you have already taken will not count toward your new one. There are many students who accumulate more course credits than necessary because they have switched majors, and some of those are not counted toward their new major. Community colleges allow students to test out being a college student at a lower cost than going to a four-year university, and give students more flexibility over their studies. Students can explore different classes and think about whether their chosen major is indeed what they want to study. Students may also realize that college just isn’t for them, and that alternatives such as bootcamps, technical colleges, or going straight into a job are better potential paths. If you go to a community college, the price of you dropping out will be significantly lower, whereas if you attend a four-year university, you will likely have a lot of student debt that still needs to be paid back.
In addition to giving students more flexibility over their studies, community colleges are also more accepting of students who may need to work in addition to attending college. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, 69 percent of community college students work while they attend school, and 33 percent work more than 35 hours per week. Further, many students have children, which means they have to manage their classes as well as being a parent. Community colleges understand the different challenges that students may face, and give students the potential to craft an educational experience around their unique circumstances. Community colleges often offer more night and weekend classes than traditional four-year university. Further, community colleges are also starting to offer more summer courses so that people can catch-up on their studies before the start of the next academic year. These options give people who need to work or take care of a child more flexibility over when they study, and make it easier for them to manage their busy schedules.
Campus Life is Changing
The student experience and campus life at community colleges is changing to become more like four-year institutions. Indeed, many people have the perception that community colleges offer less of a campus life — and, as aforementioned, this is true due to more students being employed and having other things to manage in their schedule. However, community colleges are investing more resources in developing similar student experiences as those offered by four-year institutions. Over one-quarter of community colleges now offer dorm rooms, according to a 2016 report form the American Association of Community Colleges. More community colleges are also offering extracurricular activities, and networking events to help students become more engaged on campus.
Community colleges have also invested a lot of resources in creating highly personalized offerings, which are often better than those offered by four-year institutions. Basic courses at a four-year school often have between 150 and 300 students, depending on the course. The same class at a community college — with significantly lower student rolls — may have between 25 and 50 students. That means students have more opportunities to interact with their professors, and can be given more personalized attention by their instructors. It is often easier for students to schedule one-on-one time with instructors because they have less students to teach, and when students need help they are more likely to be able to talk to their instructor to navigate their issues. Although the campus life and student experience at community college is still different to that offered by four-year institutions, this is quickly changing.
The Future of Community College
Community college students have a number of benefits for universities. Community college students are 75 percent more likely to graduate after having spent two years at a community college. Offering transfers also helps universities bring greater diversity to their student body, and allow more community college students — who often come from underrepresented backgrounds — to have a chance at attaining a four-year bachelor’s degree. Some college administrators remain reluctant to expand access to transfer programs for a variety of reasons — a fear that it will hurt the institution’s reputation, and that students may not be able to keep up with the pressure of a four-year university — but it appears as if these risks can be addressed, and either way community college will play a key role in the future of higher education.
Although the image of community college remains to be that they are quaint institutions that are not fit for some people, that image is incorrect. Community colleges act as a key pipeline for universities and give students the chance to explore their options before committing to a four-year institution. Indeed, community colleges may lack a big campus with lots of activities for students, but their flexibility is often more desirable than such activities. To facilitate a change toward making it easier for more students to attend community college, four-year universities need to form new partnerships to help their students transfer credits. As four-year institutions continue to become more expensive, community college will be seen by more people as a viable starting-point in higher education.