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2010 November 29 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Shifting Emphasis

Photo courtesy Ivy Tech Community College

Ivy Tech Community College ranks among the nation’s fastest-growing.

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

Shifting Emphasis
Completion Agenda Dominates Even as
Colleges Struggle with Enrollment Climb
By Paul Bradley

That enrollment at community colleges have skyrocketed to record levels since the Great Recession took hold in 2007 hardly qualifies as news anymore.

From coast to coast, the nation’s 1,200 community colleges are seeing record demand as the economy reels from persistently high unemployment, stagnant home prices, home foreclosures and tepid economic growth. Some economists believe that the economic downturn could last a decade or more.

A Community College Week analysis shows that enrollment at public two-year community colleges jumped 8.3 percent between 2008 and 2009, continuing a decade-long upward trend.

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But even as colleges have strained to meet the needs of their myriad constituencies, the discussion about their institutions has shifted. College completion — not merely access — is now the coin of the realm.

“We have been on a path to access,” said Mark Milliron, deputy director of postsecondary improvement for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Now, suddenly people are saying that it’s not all about access. It’s about completion.”

No voice has been louder in pushing the completion agenda than that of the Obama administration, which wants the country to produce another 5 million college graduates by the year 2020. Administration officials frequently note that the United States has fallen to 10th place among industrialized nations in educational attainment.

For community colleges, making a meaningful contribution to increasing the number of college graduates is a steep climb. Speaking at the STEMtech Conference sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College, Milliron said more than half of full-time equivalent students enrolled at community college eventually drop out of school.

For the at-risk populations who have been at the heart of the community college open-access mission — the poor, the academically under-prepared, ethnic minorities — the statistics are even worse.

“Billions of dollars are being spent on activities that do not lead to a credential,” Milliron said. “Millions of students try, but fail, putting their futures at-risk.”

Thomas J. Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, among the nation’s fastest-growing colleges, believes colleges must pursue their open access and college completion missions simultaneously.

“When you talk about the U.S. falling behind, that is an issue that can’t be ignored,” he said. “But if you talk about students who are in the pipeline now, you’ll only see incremental improvement. We need to focus on the adult learner, and that means the burden will fall on community colleges. We need more people through the door, and we need more completers.”

Community college enrollment in Indiana grew faster that any other state between 2008 and 2009. Enrollment jumped from 94,023 to 113,877, according to Community College Week’s analysis. Snyder said changes in the economy are sending students flocking to colleges.

“Indiana is in the lower quartile in terms of educational achievement, and that was fueled by the large number of industrial jobs that were available in the 60s, 70s and 80s,” he said. “But the economy has changed, and people are learning the value of education.”

But as the economic downturn persists, colleges are struggling between climbing enrollments and shrinking public resources.

“Community colleges enroll 54 percent of the public higher education students, and the students with the most challenges, while receiving 28 percent of the higher education local, state, and federal revenues,” George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, wrote in an email.

“The current economic downturn has put tremendous enrollment pressure on the colleges at the same time states are cutting their support. Community colleges are stretched to the breaking point, and too many students are being turned away or are not able to get the classes they need to complete their educational goals.”

Robert J. Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, saw enrollment increase by 18 percent between 2008 and 2009. The college is struggling to meet the needs of all those new students, he said. Like other states, Iowa has slashed higher education spending even as enrollments have climbed.

That means some of college’s most in-demand programs, like nursing and culinary arts, have long waiting lists.

“Our issue is capacity,” Denson said. “Sixty-five percent of our students come here intending to earn a four-year degree. But a lot of courses are full. We don’t have the money to do what we need to do.

“Businesses are hiring, but we are kind of the choke point, not because of anything we did, but because we don’t have the capacity. We have for-profits who are living off our waiting list, and students who go there pay four times as much.”

Elsewhere, examples of the strain on community colleges abound:

In California — which enrolls one-quarter of all community college students — students are facing new hurdles in finding the classes they need to graduate as campuses slash classes in response to budget cuts.

In New York, colleges stopped accepting applications Aug. 1 this year. Admission was first-come, first-served, and more than 1,000 students were turned away from LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

In Louisiana, where a major emphasis has been placed directing students to the state’s community and technical colleges, officials wonder aloud whether colleges are growing too fast and too soon, especially during times of paltry higher education funding. The overflow of students is occurring even though some colleges are expanding, LCTCS President Joe May said. “Our enrollment growth will outpace permanent infrastructure (growth),” May said.

Continuing Squeeze

The squeeze between rising enrollments and shrinking budgets has left community college leaders struggling to explain the need for more resources in a recessionary environment.

“It seems there can never be enough effort to help policymakers understand the double-edged sword: the vastly important roles that community colleges play both in increasing numbers of college graduates while closing attainment gaps across racial, ethnic and economic groups and in local and regional workforce and economic development. And at the same time, convincing people that it isn’t just the typical whining to assert the equally vast under-resourcing of their work,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, sees a larger concern beyond the immediate need for more classroom space and qualified teachers.

He believes the rapid enrollment growth has raised some fundamental questions for community colleges. He wonders whether the colleges’ equity agenda will fall by the wayside as colleges, awash in new students, try to balance their workforce development role with preparing students to attend four-year colleges.

“The workforce development mission at the community colleges has always had multiple constituencies, but never have the differences between these constituencies and their impact upon the colleges been so stark,” Jacobs wrote in a paper in advance of the White House Community College Summit. “The Great Recession has raised the following issue: to what extent does the community college system serve the needs of the middle class Americans who have suffered income loss and financial stress as the result of
the downturn of the American economy, or are the colleges to provide new opportunities for low-income people?

“The great recession has produced two waves of demand for the community colleges. First, and most obvious, the large numbers of unemployed and displaced workers, many of them without any post-secondary experience, who are looking for skills where they can obtain sustainable work. . . . The ability of colleges to expand their offerings and deal with the needs of these unemployed adults played a significant role in many communities.”

“However, there is another important wave of individuals who are currently coming to community colleges — and in the long run may prove even more vital to the future of these institutions. As incomes in American families continue to fall or experience no growth, and the price of college continues to rise, many parents are considering the community college as the first and essential part of their post-secondary plans for a four-year degree.”

“Community college enrollments are swollen with younger students, taking almost full credit hour workloads, who have as their main goal of transferring to a four–year college. They are looking at programs, courses in workforce areas that complement what can be found in four-year programs..... These are students who assume the college degree is a gateway to success and are less interested in short-term skills training for immediate employment.”

Not Incompatible

“These two markets are not incompatible, but serving both strains the community colleges programs and activities. In reality, unless there are strong ideological convictions to serve low-income individuals, coupled with funds, it appears likely that the college will find serving the mission of preserving the middle class will trump the demands of low income citizens. Maintaining the middle class poses fewer resources challenges, fits the image of the staff, and tends to reinforce the newly acquired status the community college has finally earned among our four-year counterparts.”

“These are not the only issues, but they are important for community colleges and policy makers to consider. One of the reasons the American community college has played such a role in the American economy is its ability to change and adapt to the new demands of employers, students and their communities. We appear to be at this juncture. The issue is whether we have a commitment, resources and the political will to take on some of these challenges and remain relevant to the needs of American society.”

It’s YOUR TURN. CCW wants to hear from you!
Q1: How is your college coping with its enrollment growth?
Q2: Do you think the two percent decline in Calif. is a trend?
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