When Santos Enrique Camara arrived at Shoreline Community College in Washington state to study audio engineering, he quickly felt lost.
“It’s like a weird maze,” recalls Kamara, who was 19 at the time and graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Need help with your tuition and financial aid? Well, there you go, get a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.
Defenders of community colleges defend them as the outsiders of the American higher education system, left to serve the students most in need of support but without the money to provide it. Critics say it has become an excuse for poor grades and the kind of impersonal bureaucracy that ultimately led Kamara to drop out after two semesters. Now he works in a restaurant and plays in two bands.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from Solutions Journalism Network.
With little guidance, many community college students are spending time and money on courses that won’t transfer or that they don’t need. Although most intend to go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree, only a minority succeed; less than half earn any credentials. Even if they do, many employers don’t believe they are ready for the workforce.
Now these failures are coming home to enjoy.
Community colleges are much less expensive than four-year schools. Published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860, compared to $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, with many states making community colleges tuition-free.
Yet users are abandoning them en masse. The number of students at community colleges has declined by 37 percent since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Research Center.
“The bill is here,” said Davis Jenkins, senior research fellow at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent arm of the Teachers College.)
Those numbers would be even bleaker if they didn’t include high school students taking dual enrollment courses, according to the Community College Research Center. High school students make up nearly one-fifth of community college enrollment.
Yet even though these colleges serve fewer students, their already low success rates have worsened by at least one measure.
While four out of five students who start at a community college say they plan to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six of them actually make it. That’s down nearly 15% from 2020, according to the clearinghouse.
Two-year community colleges have the worst graduation rates of any type of university or college. Like Kamara, nearly half of students drop out within a year of the community college where they started. Just over 40% graduate within six years.
These disillusioned drifters include a disproportionate share of black and Latino students. Half of all Hispanic and 40 percent of all black students in higher education are enrolled in community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges says.
The rejection of community colleges has implications for the national economy, which relies on its graduates to fill many of the jobs that are in short supply. These include positions such as nurses, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians, vehicle mechanics and electrical installers, and in fields including information technology, construction, manufacturing, transportation and law enforcement.
Other factors are also contributing to the decline in enrollment. Strong demand in the labor market for people without a college education made it more attractive for many to go to work. Thanks to so-called degree inflation, many jobs that require higher education now require bachelor’s degrees where diplomas or certificates once sufficed. And private, regional public and for-profit universities, facing enrollment crises of their own, compete for the same students.
Many Americans are increasingly questioning the benefit of going to college at all.
But they especially reject community college. In Michigan, for example, the share of high school graduates enrolling in community college declined more than three times faster from 2018 to 2021 than the share going to four-year universities, according to the Center for Educational Outcomes and Information this state.
Those who go complain about red tape and other frustrations.
Megan Parrish, 26, who has been in and out of Arkansas Community College since 2016, said she waited two or three days to hear back from counselors. “I had to go out of my way to find people, and if they didn’t know the answer, they sent me to someone else, usually by email.” A hearing from the financial aid office, she said, could take a month.
Oryanan Lewis doesn’t have that kind of time. Lewis, 20, is a sophomore at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Alabama, pursuing a degree in medical assisting. And she is already lagging behind.
Louis has the autoimmune disease lupus and thought he would get more personal attention at a smaller school than at a four-year university; Chattahoochee has about 1,600 students. But she said she didn’t get the help she needed until her illness nearly derailed her degree.
She failed three classes and was placed on academic probation. Only then did she receive information from an intervention program.
“I feel like they need to talk to their students more,” Lewis said. “Because many things can happen to a man.”
Meanwhile, employers are not impressed with the quality of community college students who manage to graduate. Only about a third agree that community colleges produce graduates who are job-readyaccording to a study published in December by researchers at Harvard Business School.
Community colleges receive less state money to spend per student than public four-year universities: $8,695, according to the Center for American Progress, compared to $17,540.
Yet students at community colleges need more support than their counterparts at four-year universities. Twenty-nine percent are the first in their families to go to college, 15% are single parents, and 68% work while they study. Twenty-nine percent said they had trouble affording food, and 14 percent had trouble affording housing, according to a survey by the Center for College Student Engagement.
Community colleges that are failing these students can’t just blame their smaller budgets, said Joseph Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
“The lack of resources at community colleges is a legitimate complaint. But a number of community colleges are doing extremely well,” Fuller said. “So it’s not impossible.”
Ellen Dennis for The Seattle Times, Rebecca Griesbach of Al.com and Ira Porter of the Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report.
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