Education Funding

Amid Tight Budgets, Two-Year Colleges Play Growing Role

By Sean Cavanagh — June 09, 2004 9 min read
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When her classmates at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento were sending off applications to state universities across California, graduating senior Dzoara B. Ceron wondered whether that was the right option for her.

She worried about rising tuition at those four-year institutions. She thought about whether changing majors at some point would cost her time and money. And she was sure that going away to college would mean she would miss her family.

The 18-year-old’s concerns led her to enroll at Sacramento City College, a community college a short drive from home. After two years she hopes to transfer to a four-year California State University campus and earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

California leaders are encouraging other high school graduates this year to follow a similar path. Faced with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state higher education officials are trying to relieve the burden on the state by redirecting several thousand high school seniors from California’s public four- year universities to community colleges for their first two years of school— like it or not. The California effort emerges as state and federal leaders across the country increasingly are touting the potential for community colleges—a low-cost option that many teenagers have seen as a last resort—to accommodate the expanding ranks of high school graduates seeking a higher education.

Nationwide economic and demographic forces are also guiding more students into community colleges—in particular, the rising price of four-year institutions and the expanding pool of college-bound high school seniors, many of them from low-income families.

Over the past year, many community colleges have struggled to absorb the influx of students, at a time when their state funding hasn’t grown fast enough to accommodate the new demand. But many states are continuing to turn to their two-year-college systems to meet their specific needs.

New Name, New Appeal

In California, elected officials see community colleges as an underutilized, inexpensive alternative to four-year institutions. In Maine, advocates say two-year colleges can serve students who otherwise might not consider any kind of postsecondary education. In other states, dual-enrollment programs allow teenagers to earn community college credit in high school—and allow the states to move students through the education pipeline quickly.

For Ms. Ceron, community college offered several advantages, some long-term, some immediate.

Attending Sacramento City College allows her to live at home, and keep her part-time job at a Mexican restaurant. She can schedule work around her classes. And the low cost— $216 in tuition fees per semester, plus books and expenses—will allow her to save for a four-year college such as California State’s Sacramento campus.

“It sounded like a really good trade-off,” said Ms. Ceron, who was scheduled to graduate from Kennedy High on June 8. “It’s an intermediate step between home and college. I don’t think it’ll be a drastic change.”

In Maine, state officials and campus leaders believe their community colleges can serve teenagers who so far have been unwilling to consider postsecondary education.

Despite a relatively strong high school graduation rate, Maine officials estimate that only 55 percent of the state’s students seek some form of higher education, compared with 60 percent nationwide and 71 percent in adjacent Massachusetts. Enrollment in community colleges, in particular, lags behind national and regional averages, they say.

Last year, Maine lawmakers approved far-reaching changes to the state’s two-year-college system, aimed at luring more high school graduates and adult workers in need of retraining to the system’s seven campuses. Some pieces of the overhaul were cosmetic, such as removing the “technical” school title from the schools and renaming them community colleges. Other changes were more substantive, such as changing the academic programs to meet the needs of local employers, and expanding curricula in arts and sciences, to try to attract more high school students who hope eventually to transfer to four-year colleges.

Maine officials are aware of the view among some parents and students that two-year colleges aren’t rigorous academically and focus solely on trade and vocational work. School leaders hope to defeat such stereotypes, said John Fitzsimmons, the president of Maine’s community college system.

“We all understand there’s a pecking order,” he said. “But I think for most people, they realize that where they start out is less important than where they end up.”

Where community college students end up, Mr. Fitzsimmons argued, is with stronger grade point averages and more confidence upon transferring to four-year colleges.

National Growth

Nationwide, estimates of the success of community college students in transferring to four-year institutions and earning bachelor’s degrees varies. A 1999 U.S. Department of Education study found that only 26 percent of students who begin their postsecondary educations in community colleges shifted to four-year schools. But among such transfers, 70 percent ended up earning bachelor’s degrees, compared with 60 percent of students who attended only four-year institutions.

Overall, the number of community college students is growing: About 7.8 million students attend two-year institutions today, compared with 6.2 million in 2001, accounting for about 45 percent of the postsecondary student population, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. More growth seems likely, given that the number of high school graduates is projected to increase in the years ahead.

Community colleges continue to attract students with no immediate plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

High school senior Neil T. Wooley plans to attend Kennebec Valley Community College (formerly Kennebec Valley Technical College) in Fairfield, Maine, a short drive from his family’s home in Vasselboro. With yearly tuition and fees of $2,740, Kennebec was affordable, and it will train him as a lineman who will repair telephone equipment. After graduation, he believes he will earn between $18 and $20 an hour—more than his father now makes as an optician. Both his parents wanted him to continue his education after high school.

“They didn’t go [to college], and they regretted it,” said Mr. Wooley, 19. Kennebec Valley Community College, he said, is “the cheapest way, and it’s a good education.”

Two-Year Delay

While Maine is encouraging students to attend community colleges, California is offering a more forceful incentive. As part of a budget deal worked out with Gov. Schwarzenegger, the University of California—the state’s top-tier system—agreed to reduce freshman admissions by 3,200 students for the coming fall, while the California State University system will trim admissions by 3,800 students.

But to meet that goal, UC, with nine undergraduate campuses, and CSU, with 23 undergraduate schools, have agreed to defer applicants who were otherwise eligible for admission. Those applicants are being guaranteed admission to UC or CSU two years from now, if they attend one of the state’s community colleges first. That process will allow the state to pour less funding into the four-year systems and chip away at its estimated $15 billion budget deficit.

An estimated 1,357 students have said they will take UC’s delayed-admission offer. Students were chosen for such deferrals based on how they fared under UC’s race-neutral admissions policy, which evaluates each applicant’s academic, extracurricular, and personal qualifications. As of last week, the California State system had not yet sent out notices to rejected applicants indicating who among them would receive deferrals.

Officials from both systems say they expect the policy to be temporary and not in place for fall 2005 applicants. But the deferrals mark a clear departure from California’s Master Plan, a long-standing state policy that has guaranteed generations of students a spot on a UC or CSU campus, based on their high school records.

“It’s deep in the psyche of parents and students and citizens in California,” said Michael A. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor, of the Master Plan. While he calls the redirection of students “the best of a lot of bad choices,” given the state’s budget situation, Mr. Kirst said the deferrals will be hard to accept for many California parents, many of whom received admission guarantees in their day.

“It’s unfair to a group of students who are caught in this three- or four-year period,” Mr. Kirst said. “They’re getting less opportunity.”

Robert McCabe, a former president of Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, predicts that many of the California students who are being redirected to two-year colleges will receive more individualized attention than they would at four-year campuses, and will still have access to challenging courses. Yet many students and parents will be reluctant to accept the two-year option, he believes.

“That kind of thinking prevails: ‘If anyone can go, how can it be any good?’” said Mr. McCabe, now a senior fellow for the League for Innovation in the Community College, which is based in Phoenix. “We have that up and down the system.”

No Room?

Some California community college administrators, meanwhile, question whether their schools can accommodate more freshmen. This academic year, the state’s 109 public two-year colleges turned away an estimated 175,000 students because of limits on enrollment and class space, and higher fees, said Cheryl A. Fong, a spokeswoman for the chancellor’s office of the California Community College system.

In addition, some courses students need for transferring to UC or CSU are already full for next year, Ms. Fong said. The governor’s latest budget proposal would increase community college funding in fiscal 2005 by $325 million, to $5.3 billion, according to estimates from Ms. Fong’s office. Still, officials worry that the influx of deferral students will force two- year schools to choose between serving them and more traditional community college students, she said.

Other states have felt a similar crunch. In 2003- 04, Florida’s 28 community colleges were forced to turn away an estimated 22,000 incoming students, said Harry T. Alberton, the chief executive officer of the Florida Association of Community Colleges. Buoyed by $115 million in additional state funding for next year, the system, which has 300,000 full- time students, is expected to recover and accommodate all but 2,000 undergraduates, at most, he said.

Some California teenagers might be turned off by deferrals of admission to a four-year school, said Delores Curry, the president of the California School Counselor Association.

“I wonder about some students losing their dreams and aspirations,” said Ms. Curry, a counselor at Bloomington High School, which has a student population that is 83 percent minority, predominantly Hispanic. Her school is part of the 24,000- student Colton Unified School District, east of Los Angeles.

“We’re putting more pressure on students to get into college and get a higher education,” she said, “and at the same time, we’re putting more criteria in place to limit who gets into those institutions.”

Jennifer Cohen, 17, applied to Consumnes River College, a two-year college in Sacramento, with the hope of transferring to UC’s San Diego campus or San Diego State two years later. But because she did not apply to one of those four-year colleges this year, she did not receive a deferral offer. Now she wonders if that will hurt her when she’s applying to get into a UC or CSU campus two years from now.

“Why would they want to take me when there are all of these other kids that should have been going there all along?” said Ms. Cohen, who like Ms. Ceron attends Kennedy High, in the 52,000-student Sacramento district. “It’s going to make it a lot harder for me to get in.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as Amid Tight Budgets, Two-Year Colleges Play Growing Role


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