According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 49 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in 2015-6 had attended a two-year college somewhere along the way. Almost two-thirds of those enrollments lasted for three or more terms; this isn’t just a function of “visiting” students from four-year colleges picking up some gen eds over the summer.
That fact, all by its lonesome, drives a stake in the heart of the “dropout factories” stereotype of community colleges. They’re nothing of the sort. But they get that reputation because we measure the wrong things.
We look at colleges as self-contained units. There’s an obvious truth to that, at one level, but it misses the big picture. Especially at the two-year level, colleges are part of a much larger educational ecosystem. From a student’s perspective, doing a year at a community college before transferring to Flagship State may make perfect sense; the student who does that and subsequently graduates with a bachelor’s degree got exactly what she wanted from her time at community college. But she shows up in the community college’s numbers as a dropout, a failure.
That’s just miscounting.
Community colleges account for about 45 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in the United States. Yet they have a part in 49 percent of the bachelor’s degree graduates. Those don’t look like “dropout factory” numbers to me. They look like a pretty compelling argument for per-student funding parity.
This piece from my old hometown paper made me smile in recognition. It’s about job training programs that rely on Federal grants, with a particular focus on programs at Monroe Community College, in Rochester. It points out a contradiction that those of us in the community college world live with every day: the job training programs that politicians love to highlight are more expensive to run than traditional classes. Yet even while we hear ever-greater focus on jobs and career training, the money necessary to run those programs is drying up.
Hands-on vocational training in specialized fields is expensive for two main reasons. The first is equipment. Switching a classroom from Intro to Psych to American history is easy. Switching a classroom from Intro to Psych to, say, Intro to Culinary is much, much harder. Lab facilities dedicated to specific programs require expensive equipment, and require setting aside rooms that can’t easily be used for anything else. If enrollments in Automotive Tech go down, we aren’t going to start teaching algebra in the unused bays. It doesn’t work like that.
The other reason is class size. With expensive equipment that students actually use, you really can’t have thirty students to a professor at a time.
If we want community colleges to economize, we can have them focus on the liberal arts. If we want them to do vocational preparation, we need to be willing to provide the funds. Perhaps some of that per-student parity mentioned above might help…
Program note: next week is the final week of the Aspen presidential fellowship, so I’ll be off to Colorado (weather permitting). The blog will be back on Monday, April 10.