On April 8, 2011, the New York Times ran a piece on students making:
. . . a strategic financial decision to attend community college first as a cost saving measure.
The cost savings can be large (perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 over two years). But there’s a bottleneck problem:
Budget cuts are posing enormous challenges for higher education systems just as more people are trying to return to retrain and retool.
The resulting enrollment bottleneck has hit many community colleges especially hard.
The Times offered as an example a student at Santa Monica College:
Peter Reagan, a 19-year-old student at Santa Monica College, a community college in Santa Monica, Calif., hopes to be eligible for enrolling in a University of California campus this fall after just over a year at Santa Monica.
But it wasn’t easy to pile up the credits he needed. Many of the classes he had hoped to take were closed to online enrollment by the time he logged on.
So he scrambled. “During the first two weeks of classes, I was going to different ones all day every day trying to add the ones I needed, taking whatever I could get,” he said.
But if the students can get into the classes they want, they might find that they’re actually getting a superior educational experience. A student attending Shoreline Community College in Washington, according to the Times, has:
. . . been struck by how different his experience has been from those of his peers. “I’ve had so many friends who have taken a 500-person English 101 lecture, and for a lot of money,” he said. “I took that same class in a 25-person room and got a lot out of it.”
This student’s impression that he may have gotten a better first and second year education attending community college than his peers at four year campuses accords with an article at Inside Higher Ed by a community college dean:
One of the dirty little secrets of American higher education is that many universities run the intro classes as cash cows. When I was in grad school at Flagship State, the undergrad intro course in my discipline was taught in an auditorium to 300 students at a pop. Sitting near the back, as I sometimes did, I can attest that student attention was spotty at best. (And that was before the plethora of electronics that students have now.)
The better community colleges tend to run all classes relatively small. Yes, the adjunct percentage is higher than it ought to be, but candidly, you may be better off educationally with a long-time adjunct than with a brand-new graduate student who’s teaching the first class of her life. On the full-time side, since cc’s hire faculty to teach, rather than to do research, you tend to have fewer Inscrutable Geniuses and more solid teachers.
And the dean boasts of his own school’s record:
Every year my cc sends an impressive number of students to a number of strong four year colleges, including some that high-achieving high schoolers compete hard to get into. A gold-plated diploma at what amounts to half-price amounts to one of the best bargains in American higher education, and it sets those students up to have a wide range of enviable choices.
So here are two good things about community colleges:
- they make higher education more affordable to those in its surrounding community; and
- they deliver competitive quality in the process.
These are things to take into account if you’re just starting college (or if you’re a legislator contemplating the extent to which you want community college budgets cut in your state).