Community Colleges, the Enrollment Bottleneck, and a Dirty Little Secret

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).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Community Colleges, the Enrollment Bottleneck, and a Dirty Little Secret

  1. Cody Deitz says:

    Attending Antelope Valley College was one of the smarter moves I’ve taken in my high-education career. Considering I’ll be enrolling in an MA program in about a year, the money I saved at a community college will go to post-grad studies.

    And the quality of the professors was comparable, if not better than some of the lower-level undergrad professors I’ve run into in the Cal State system.

  2. joblessgrad says:

    But the problem remains: our educational system is growing faster than the job market can support.
    The result is a bottleneck of college graduates, already equipped with the pre-requisite skills and knowledge to enter their chosen career fields, but forced into yet another degree because the job market can’t absorb them – there aren’t enough jobs.
    This bottleneck has been around for a while, but it has become especially vicious since the Great Recession began. And with educational costs at an all-time high, the result is a college graduate population that is not only unemployed, but in debt to their necks.

    This is of concern to the student body, but my experience is that anything dealing with “college students” is dismissed as unimportant – give these “kids” a bitter taste of the real world. Good times.

    But our problem becomes clearer when you consider that we have an $830 Billion student debt industry. What happens when the unprecedented number of unemployed college graduates begin to default on their loans in unprecedented numbers?

    What we have is an educational bubble. We’ve created this illusion that a college degree is the marker of a good, productive worker. That without one, you must lack basic analytical abilities, reasoning skills, and advanced knowledge – all of which are not true. Why, learning is a human activity – not an academic one. We learn because we’re human, not because we’re in college. But somehow, we’ve created the illusion that college is the only mark of a good learner – and consequently of a good worker.

    The result of this illusion is that now everybody is trying to get a degree. Enter the bottleneck of college graduates who can’t find a job because there are too few jobs for all of them. And enter the epidemic of high education costs and high inflation rates – all attributable to the artificial demand we’ve created for “degrees”.

    The irony of it all is that we know that a degree offers limited value. That an educated worker does not equal a good worker. That it’s better to have someone of average intelligence with lots of perseverance and a hard-working attitude and good people skills, than it is to have someone of incredible intelligence with mediocre people skills who insists on working only on the most incredible problems in the world. You can’t encapsulate a person with a degree. A good worker is a lot more than his or her education, and some of the best workers have no college degrees – or they have college degrees which were useless to them.

    And it disturbs me that in all of this, we still insist that “more formal education” is the solution. That giving more money to schools with an outdated teaching philosophy is the way out of our mess. Are not in the “age of information”? Do we not have immediate and instant access to just about any topic we want? Do we not have the ability to learn from these resources by ourselves, and for free – or for vey cheap – instead of paying some overeducated lecturer to repeat what’s in these books, in a way that offers no added value?

    Education is an industry. And because we’ve managed to scare everybody into getting a degree – for fear of being unemployed – education has become an extremely profitable industry. Behind this “get a degree” philosophy that increasingly leads you to a jobless void, there are enormous industries making money hand over fist. Case in point, the textbook publishing industry which, at $200/textbook is still not satisfied; they will change a few inconsequential sentences in a book and call it a new edition, so that students are forced to purchase the new (full-price) version rather than buying a used one – and in many cases they do it almost every year.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Jobless Grad:

    I think you’re just flat-out wrong about your estimate of the value of a college education. The unemployment rate for college graduates is half that of the national average (around 5%). The unemployment rate of males with only a high school education is about 11%.

    In terms of surveys, when college graduates are asked if they are glad they went to college, the response is something like 95% responding yes.

    In terms of lifelong earning power, the difference between a college graduate and a high school-only graduate is something like a million dollars.

    My general advice to someone unemployed right now and with a college degree: go to grad school. Take out loans to do it. My bet is you won’t, ten years from now, regret the decision.


  4. joblessgrad says:


    You are wrong on many levels. Let me explain:

    Education is an investment, not only of knowledge and skill, but of time and money. Given a number of different alternative paths – e.g. college, trade-school, military career – college is demanding an increasing amount of time and an increasing amount of money before you can compete for an educated position.
    This is because (i) we have a bottleneck of graduates, and in order to compete effectively for the few positions available, you are pressured to pursue an advanced degree. This leads to even more educational debt, which arises from graduate student loans, expensive textbooks, and other educational materials – on top of your other life expenses, such as rent, groceries, gas, and miscellania. In addition, by going back for another degree, you forfeit earnings for 1-2 years if you pursue a Masters degree, which is a significant loss – even if you had been working at Starbucks. You also forfeit work experience which throws you back a couple years in terms of earnings potential. When you account for the uncontrolled rate of educational inflation in our country (4.36x the national average), we have a real financial burden on our hands.

    Your numbers tell you college graduates have unemployment rates which are half those of uneducated workers. But my sources, (e.g. T. Cassidy, Graduate employment status and health: a longitudinal
    analysis of the transition from student, Soc Psychol Educ (2008) 11:181–191) tell me that the majority of college graduates are forced into underemploed, interim positions, which do not necessarily require any education. You may be tempted to dismiss this as insignificant, but before you do so let me remind you that college is an enormous investment of time and money. Personally, I am $45K in debt – and this debt is only a small portion of the cost of my education (the portion which has not yet been paid off). And, in the pursuit of my B.S. and M.S., I have forfeited 6 (SIX) years of productive work elsewhere – that is 6 years of earnings, which at $8/hr on a full-time basis amounts to $99,840. And I have forfeited 6 years of invaluable work experience that would qualify me for senior positions. These are not trivial sacrifices.

    The point is that we need to moderate our insistence that college is for everybody. Because, increasingly, college is for nobody. Increasingly, college amounts to a 4-6 year hiatus, followed by a lifetime of making monthly payments to wealthy financial corporations – they own you. Your parents would sink themselves into this hole for a house. Today, we sink ourselves into this hole for an idea – an “education”.

    But worst of all, Santitafarella, is that you don’t realize that much of our problem today is this bottleneck of college graduates we continue to produce. We draw scores of kids int under the pretense of opening doors for them, overcharge them for textbooks, classes, food, and a room, and then throw them out into the real world – with no new doors open at all, but instead with a massive debt.

    You propose that the solution out of this bottleneck is more education. Take out more loans, sink yourself into even more debt that will fatten the pockets of wealthy financial organizations, and do another degree. But all this does is delay facing this bottleneck for a few years. You will come out better equipped to compete with the scarce jobs out there, but pretty soon everybody will follow suit. What happens when this bottleneck of college graduates goes back to college and finishes their M.S. degrees? They will go back to the job market and take those jobs which would in times past have been awarded to B.S. graduates. And so we’ve managed to make education both lengthier (6 vs 4 years) and more expensive simultaneously – only to provide you with the exact same opportunity you would’ve gotten in times past.

    And this bottleneck will continue to increase. What happens when your college graduates finish an M.S. and still can’t find a job – like me, with an M.S. in engineering from a good public school?

    Then we’ve effectively bankrupted them. Oh, wait – college graduates are not allowed to declare bankrupcy. That debt will follow you till the day you die.

    And my point is this: college isn’t for everybody. College isn’t such a smart decision – bright kids won’t waste 6 years and sink themselves into an enormous debt to go straight to the unemployment line. Oh, excuse me, as the low graduate unemployment rates tell you, you may be working at Starbucks instead, putting your “education” to good use.

    No – that is the path of the ultimate idiot. An idiot so big that, even though he had the capacity to digest complex calculus, he never stopped to think if it all made sense. If it was a smart move. Like it or not, you will need a roof over your head. You will need to feed yourself and a family – or maybe you will be forced through so many degrees before you can earn a living, you will miss the opportunity to start a family. There’s an easy solution to population control.

    Meanwhile, trade schools offer:
    1. practical training that offers skills industry needs (something which academia refuses to do)
    2. much shorter training periods – 1-2 years vs 6 years
    3. much smaller debt – by virtue of the lower cost of the programs, and their shorter duration
    4. much smaller forfeited earnings – only 1-2 years vs 6 years
    5. much less forfeited experience – only 1-2 years vs 6 years

    Or, even better, the military route:
    1. practical training with skills in demand in both military and industry (e.g. aircraft technician, air traffic control)
    2. short training periods (months – 1.5 years)
    3. paid training, free housing, free meals, free healthcare
    4. guaranteed job
    5. lots of invaluable experience
    6. upwards mobility, depending on your career field.

    Like college, these routes aren’t for everybody. But they are for a lot of people. And what we need to do is make these alternatives better known to our younger generations, and make them more attractive for them. Like it or not, the world doesn’t turn because an engineer solved a differential equation on MATLAB – it turns because somebody turned a wrench. And we forgot that in this country.

    I want to emphasize that, in the middle of this unhealthy, obsessive “college craze” we’ve created in the past few decades, it is primarily those special interest groups with a financial stake in education that stand to benefit – the student loan industry, the textbook publishing industry, and the educational institutions themselves. And what my eyes tell me is that it doesn’t matter to them that we’re simply dumping an enormous number of graduates out onto a jobless void – they make their money no matter whether you get a job or not.

  5. joblessgrad says:

    Let me address the question of “95% of all college graduates are happy they went to college”

    First of all, happy in what sense? Happy for the experience – the friends, the laid back atmosphere, the partying? Happy for the careers it opened up for them? Happy for the level of debt it gave them? Or maybe they weren’t thinking of that last one.

    But here’s the kicker: when you’ve invested so much of yourself – so much effort, so much hope and belief in your decisions, and so much money – it is both difficult and painful to accept you made a mistake. I know this. When I graduated with my B.S., depressed as I was that I couldn’t find a job, I could not accept that my degree had been a mistake.

    But the pretense of it all wears you down over time. I could keep that attitude up for maybe 9 months after graduating onto the jobless void. But after that I stopped pretending. I stopped pretending to myself that my degree had been a bright decision, and I stopped pretending to my friends and family too. Anybody who knows me will tell you how sore I am over just the word “college”.

    It sucks to admit you’re wrong. It sucks less when you’ve only spent 1 year and just a little bit of debt. But it sucks a LOT when you’ve invested 4 years and a lot of debt. And it sucks even more when you’ve put in 6 years, and even more debt.

    For the 4 years I did my B.S., I tagged along because of this idea that bright kids go to college and get degrees, and dumb kids don’t go to college and don’t get degrees. Admitting that a college degree was not only not bright but downright stupid, meant that I was not bright and downright stupid. That’s a harsh realization to swallow.

    And my point is this: those statistics don’t necessarily mean much. College graduates will stick by their degrees, because they represent their decisions, as well as their hopes. To say their degrees were a bad choice in life, is to say they weren’t bright, and it is to give on dreams they learned to believe very strongly while in college.

    I like to compare it with buying a car. You can buy a Nissan Altima, A Honda Accord, a Subaru Legacy, a Ford Fusion, a Toyota Camry, and so on. The car you buy reflects your decision, and consequently you. If you buy a Toyota Camry, and it turns out Camrys are a bad choice (hypothetically), to admit your Camry sucks is to admit your own incompetence. Nobody told you to buy a Camry, yet you insisted and made a big ruckus about how immensely cool this Camry car is. And then it turns out it is not so cool – maybe the engine needs rebuilding after only 110,000 miles – just past warranty – or maybe the engine, I don’t know, accelerates out of control by itself.

    To admit your Camry sucks is to swallow your pride and admit you made a bad decision – and that all that confidence and zest you had initialy amounted to nothing but huge displays of ignorance. That is a tough pill to swallow. You may eventually swallow it, but not right away. It will take some time before you get used to the idea of Camry’s not being so cool after all, and of Camry’s being a very bad investment. You will need to be able to frame your poor decision in a way that doesn’t make you an ultimate loser. And all that is a slow process.

    So when somebody tells me that 95% college graduates are happy with their experience – whatever that means – I shrug it off. Because I know that if it sucked, it would take a lot to admit it.

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