(3 of 3)
Saving Cash, Living at Home
Community colleges are used to doing more with less. But this recession has led to record enrollment surges at many two-year schools, in part because of the influx of laid-off workers but also because more members of the middle class are looking to save money on the first couple of years of their children's higher education. Among them is Bruce Anderson, an Austin attorney who has lost nearly a third of his savings since the recession began and doesn't want to sideline his kid while waiting for the market to come back. His son Tyler will start at ACC this fall and, as long as he lives at home, will save the family about 90% of the annual tab at a four-year residential college. "He can get his basic core courses out of the way at ACC and then do his focus for his major at a four-year institution," Anderson says.
But as more students like Tyler enroll, classes are maxing out. Community colleges, which pride themselves on being open to all, rarely cap enrollment outright, as state universities in places like Arizona and California will do this fall. Miami Dade College, the country's largest community college, admitted on May 28 that state budget cuts will force it to forgo adding hundreds of class sections. As many as 5,000 students will be unable to enroll, and 30,000 may be unable to take the classes they need in order to graduate. In California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger remains a champion of community colleges, having studied at one, as many as 200,000 would-be students may get squeezed out of higher education next year.
Taken together, skyrocketing enrollment and shrinking budgets could mean that just as record numbers of students seek out a community college, earning a degree from one may be harder than ever. Says Melissa Roderick, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies school transitions: "This group of kids will pay a high economic price if we don't step up as a nation."
What would stepping up look like? For starters, Congress needs to double the federal funding for these schools, according to a May report from the Brookings Institution. But, the report argues, to truly "transform our community colleges into engines of opportunity and prosperity," funding needs to be tied to performance in areas like degree completion a model some states, including Indiana and Ohio, are already trying. The City University of New York has rigged up an experimental program that requires its community-college students to take intensive remedial courses if they aren't prepared to do college-level work. Begun in 2007 with the goal of getting at least half of the study's 1,000 participants to graduate from college in three years, it's showing initial signs of success. Other colleges are redoubling their retention efforts. And last fall, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced up to $500 million in grants, aiming to double college-completion rates by 2025. As Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-author of the Brookings report, puts it, "Money speaks louder than anything."
Ultimately, community-college administrators hope their schools will emerge stronger from the downturn as it highlights their potential for juicing the economy. "In some ways, the terrible nature of the economic recession will actually help people understand [community college]," says Kinslow. "People are going to be forced into looking at it more carefully."