The Good That Community Colleges Do, Part 1

Recent studies on the value of two-year colleges were contradictory because what we do well is hard to measure

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 30, 2014

In a classic case of dueling studies, the American Association of Community Colleges recently issued a report showing that most community-college students see a significant return on their financial investment. That was in response to an earlier report, produced by the American Institutes for Research, indicating that for some students, the value of a two-year degree is less than that of a high-school diploma.

The release of those two apparently contradictory studies within a few months of each other prompted a fair amount of finger-pointing, thinly veiled accusations, and claims and counterclaims. In other words, it was business as usual in the dog-eat-dog world of higher-education policy debate.

I don’t doubt that both groups had the best of intentions, and that both reports make valid and important points that policy makers would do well to consider. I applaud both efforts to evaluate what community colleges do in concrete terms because I understand that in our current regulatory environment, such empirical measures are necessary.

And yet, as someone who has worked at community colleges for 27 years, I can’t help but think that neither study manages to tell the real story. Because the truth is, so many of the things that community colleges do for their students and communities are difficult to measure empirically. Here are a few of the things I have in mind:

Open doors. Most two-year colleges around the country maintain open-door policies, meaning that they accept any students with a high-school diploma or GED, regardless of their grades or test scores. Some even offer GED programs on-site, so that students who want to attend college but never finished high school can do so.

It’s true that many of those students—OK, most of them—place initially into precollege, "developmental studies" courses, designed to improve their academic deficiencies and bring them up to college-level work.

I don’t necessarily disagree with those who say, "They should have learned those things in high school." Of course they should have. But the fact is, many students didn’t. Maybe they were just lazy and unmotivated at the time, as teenagers can be. But maybe their high schools were subpar. Or maybe they had personal or family issues that interfered with their studies. In any case, there’s nothing community colleges can do except help those students try to overcome their deficiencies. If they’re willing to put in the time and effort, so are we.

I should note: Some debate the benefits of developmental studies. Many believe, and some research indicates, that certain students actually do better when they go straight into college-level courses, despite placing into developmental courses. Other students, however, clearly do not have the skills for college work, especially in math and reading.

It’s also true that, for students who start out in developmental studies, graduation and transfer rates are very low—less than 30 percent, according to some studies.

But for me, the real question is not "How many students who began in developmental studies went on to earn a college degree?" It’s "How many of those students would have ever earned a college degree if it weren’t for a local community college that offered them courses and support?" I suspect the answer is somewhere not far north of zero.

We often hear politicians and pundits talk about "equality of opportunity," as opposed to equality of outcome. Fair enough. They ought to be big fans of community colleges, then, because that’s exactly what our colleges provide: opportunities for those who wouldn’t otherwise have them. What students do with those opportunities is up to them.

Second chances. There’s another group I didn’t mention on my shortlist of academically deficient students: the ones who haven’t seen the inside of a high school in a decade or more. They are either entering college for the first time or going back after dropping out years earlier. Maybe they’ve been in low-wage jobs and want to increase their earning power. Maybe they’ve been raising a family and haven’t had time for school. Or maybe they just want to fulfill a lifelong dream of earning a college degree and entering a specific profession, like nursing.

For many of them, starting out at a four-year university is out of the question. Besides whatever academic weaknesses they might have after years away from the classroom, they’re also intimidated by the admissions process and by the idea of having to take, or retake, a college entrance exam. For them, community colleges, with their open-door policies, are a perfect fit.

That’s why the average age of community-college students, despite falling slightly in recent years, has hovered in the upper 20s for nearly three decades. What other type of public institution can say that?

I would be remiss if I did not mention one last group of students that benefits from the second chances that our colleges offer: those who go off to a university right after high school and find themselves in over their heads—socially, academically, or both.

My college, like most two-year campuses, sees a fair number of such students each fall. A year earlier, they would not have given us a first glance, much less a second. Now they’re "back home," trying to get their grades up so they can return to the university. And a fair number of them do make it back. But how would they do so without us?

Early entry. At the other end of the spectrum from the students who aren’t ready for college when they graduate from high school are the ones who find themselves ready long before they graduate. Community colleges offer those students early-college programs that go by many different names but are mostly referred to as "dual enrollment."

Community colleges aren’t the only institutions that offer dual-enrollment courses, but in many states they are the primary providers of such programs. My own two-year college has, by far, the largest dual-enrollment population in the state, with more such students than the top four state universities combined.

I’ve been teaching these courses since I first began in this business. I’ve also helped to administer our dual-enrollment program, and I have three kids who have gone through it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best-kept secrets in American higher education, and I don’t understand why more families don’t take advantage of it.

Although some critics have questioned whether dually enrolled students are getting ahead of themselves, my experience has been that the vast majority are indeed ready for college. Most end up transferring their credits to state universities, where they do quite well. Arriving with up to a year of college-level work under their belts, they are much better prepared for the academic rigors of university life than typical freshmen are. Meanwhile, because the state picks up most of the tab, the financial savings to them and their families can be considerable—and, in many cases, quite welcome.

Once again, without the local two-year college, far fewer people would have the opportunity to reap those benefits.

Economic value. Dual-enrollment students aren’t the only ones who save money by starting their higher education at a community college. In many states, tuition and fees at two-year institutions are less than half what students would pay at a four-year university, and they can save even more by living at home.

Considering the vast and growing amount of student debt, that’s not a bad option. In fact, if it weren’t for community colleges, tens of thousands of our high-school graduates probably wouldn’t be able to afford college at all.

I know what some of you are thinking: You get what you pay for. It’s probably true that, as some studies have shown, the quality of a community-college education can vary from state to state and from campus to campus. But generally speaking, most community colleges these days are either part of the same state system as four-year institutions, or else have detailed articulation agreements with them. Either way, representatives from both two-year and four-year campuses have probably spent years working through quality-control issues by developing common course numbering systems, outlines, and standards.

In other words, in most states, English 101 at the local community college is the same course as English 101 at the state university.

Moreover, community colleges actually offer students certain advantages, academically speaking. For one thing, class sizes tend to be much smaller in most core courses. Instead of 400 people in your biology lecture at a university, for instance, you are more likely to have 40 students in that same class at a community college. And whereas many entry-level courses at the university are taught by relatively inexperienced graduate students, most of those same classes at the community college are taught by well-qualified, seasoned instructors.

I’m not saying that community colleges are better over all when it comes to general education than four-year universities. I’m not even necessarily saying we’re better for most students. But it’s clear that we’re the better choice for many students, and the only way they will have the opportunity to earn a degree.

As a visiting dignitary once said of my two-year college during commencement, "If this institution did not exist to serve this community, somebody would have to invent it."

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.