The value of community colleges
Those of us who work in community colleges could perhaps be forgiven if we feel like the step-children of the education system.
Community colleges are often caught in the middle. We’re considered higher education, but unlike most four-year colleges, we don’t get to choose our students. As one of my colleagues is fond of stating, we take “the top 100 percent” of students. Any high school graduate or anyone over the age of 18 who has the “ability to benefit” is admitted.
Although we are ostensibly higher education, most California community colleges got their starts as part of K-12 districts. Given this, many of our rules and policies are similar to those that govern education for the very young.
Unlike other systems of education in California, community colleges do not have a strong lobbying presence. This shows most vividly in our funding. California community colleges get about $5,400 per full-time equivalent student. This compares with $11,500 at California state colleges and universities and $21,500 in the University of California system. The K-12 system gets $7,708 per student.
With that minimal funding, community colleges serve an incredibly broad mission. We get some of the best and brightest students in the country. We also get some who simply aren’t prepared for college work. We get students looking to transfer to four-year colleges, those needing an associate’s degree, those looking for specific job training and those trying to improve their basic skills.
Historically, community colleges have also served a vital community role, providing lifelong education and recreational opportunities often not otherwise available in the communities they serve. With recent cuts and legislative scrutiny, this aspect of our mission has been largely de-emphasized, though not officially removed.
Now, there are proposals to transfer responsibility for adult education to the community colleges. This has mostly been done by K-12 districts, but a recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office rightly highlighted the muddled responsibility for and lack of focus on adult education in the state. Whether moving responsibility to the community colleges is the right idea or not, I’m not sure, but a renewed focus on adult education is a welcoming sign.
It isn’t just in California that community colleges face challenges. A recent article by Andrew Crookston and Gregory Hooks in the journal “Sociology of Education” examined the history of community colleges between 1976 and 2004 with a particular focus on their role in employment growth in rural areas.
One trend is clear: Community colleges are increasingly competing for resources with other parts of the public sector. Between 1960 and 1980, there were 253 new community colleges established in 247 rural American counties, along with 77 new prisons in 69 rural counties. But, between 1980 and 2000, just 31 new community colleges were established in 31 rural counties, compared with 434 new prisons in 340 rural counties.
One of the ironies Crookston and Hooks point out is that not only are community colleges much stronger generators of economic growth than prisons, but colleges often face the largest budget cuts at the time in which enrollment demand is strongest.
We see this clearly in California and especially locally. When the housing bubble was at its peak about five or so years ago, we were begging for students. Classes had difficulty filling. Now, with wait lists overflowing, we’ve had to cut back course offerings to an unprecedented degree. Community colleges are being forced to ration opportunities and are doing everything they can to find ways to move students through their programs more efficiently.
And, while some argue against community colleges, suggesting that they take students away from four-year schools, where they think — mostly erroneously — that they would receive a better education, this simply doesn’t apply to students in rural areas. For many rural students, it isn’t a choice between community college and four-year universities. The choice is between community college and nothing.
Perhaps most interestingly, Crookston and Hooks found that very strong links between community college funding level and local employment growth in rural counties. Where funding grew rapidly, employment also grew; as funding was cut, rural communities suffered a greater loss of jobs.
Given that community colleges are more dependent on public funding than their four-year counterparts, this is an important argument for maintaining funding levels even — and perhaps especially — during difficult economic times. Community colleges are often where unemployed workers come for retraining, so it makes sense that economic growth would occur where investment in them is placed.
Crookston and Hooks close with an important call to politicians: “It remains to be seen if and when cash-strapped state governments will reinvest in community colleges ... if they do reinvest, rural counties housing community colleges may enjoy significant economic gains. For policy makers looking beyond the next election cycle and committed to promoting the viability of rural communities, community colleges might generate long-term benefits.”
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.