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Too Fast, Too Furious?

As community colleges grow in enrollment and appeal, some question their ability to serve disadvantaged students
By Lydia Lum

The growing number of high-achieving students choosing to attend community colleges has fueled this debate: Are two-year schools shortchanging educationally and financially disadvantaged students in the process? Answers aren’t easy, and of course, they vary widely among educators. But because community colleges are such a major portal of entry for Blacks and other minorities into higher education, the question cannot be ignored.   
Dr. Calvin Lowe, president of the historically Black Bowie State University in Maryland, doubts whether community colleges are the best place for Black students to start postsecondary studies. “There isn’t the same feel of an intellectual community there, as at a residential campus,” Lowe says. “It’s simply better for them to start at a four-year campus.” 
And with community colleges “changing so fast, growing so tremendously,” Lowe says, “it’s easy for students to get distracted in an environment where there seems to be everything for everybody, whether it’s people taking tai chi, auto mechanics, English composition or courses for certification.”
Some facts may bear this out. Regardless of ethnicity, students starting at four-year colleges are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years than students starting at community colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
But Dr. Brenda Simmons, president of the National Council of Black American Affairs, doesn’t believe demographic shifts and subsequent program changes at community colleges in recent years have hampered the schools from serving their core students — those with limited higher education options. In fact, the evolution helps disadvantaged students as well as minorities, she says.
“A community college is there to turn on a dime and respond to the needs of that surrounding community,” says Simmons, also executive dean at Florida Community College, North Campus. “There’s no disadvantage for any students, and our flexibility can’t do anything but help people, especially citizens of color.”
And surveys show that community college students have their share of ambition. Of those who entered a community college during the 1995-96 school year and later transferred to a four-year institution, 80 percent had either earned a bachelor’s degree or were at least still enrolled at the four-year school within six years, according to the NCES.  

Popularity on the rise
The popularity of two-year schools isn’t expected to ebb soon. In 2001, the nation’s 1,833 community colleges enrolled 6.2 million for-credit students while in 1984 they had 4.5 million, according to the Department of Education. In 2001, the most recent year that statistics were available, Blacks made up 12.3 percent of for-credit students, versus 10 percent in 1984. A significant increase in Hispanic enrollment also occurred in that time, jumping from 6 percent to 14.4 percent, mirroring their growing visibility in the general population.
But when factoring in non-credit students, which can include those taking courses in English as a second language; leadership skills and wine studies to name a few, the American Association of Community Colleges reports that more than 10 million students are enrolled across the country. Among all undergraduates, 55 percent each of Hispanic and American Indian undergraduates are at community colleges, while 46 percent each of Black and Asian undergraduates attend community colleges. Historically, the open enrollment policies and proximity of community colleges have made them havens for working students, parents, students requiring remedial classes, older people uncomfortable in classrooms of 18-year-olds, low-income students and a host of others who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” student who attends a four-year university right after high school. And with a growing number of U.S. jobs being moved overseas, employment experts and counselors are steering many displaced workers to community colleges for re-training or career makeovers.
Undergraduate enrollment at four-year schools is expected to grow at a faster rate than that at two-year schools for the next decade, according to the NCES. But, budget cuts in many states are driving students to the relatively cheaper community colleges while tuition at four-year schools continues to climb.
During the 2003-04 academic year, full-time undergraduates paid about $500 more than they had the year before, and $850 more than two years earlier. Lawmakers in some states deregulated tuition, sometimes sparking tuition and fee increases even higher than the national average. For instance, governing boards at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston, each approved increases in tuition and fees of at least 20 percent at those campuses for this fall semester. The three institutions are the largest in Texas and collectively enroll more than 103,000 undergraduates annually.
Elsewhere, state cuts have affected some students personally. The University of California rejected almost 8,000 applicants who qualified for admission, instead guaranteeing them transfers as upperclassmen to one of the 10 campuses as long as they attend community college for two years, marking the first time in more than 40 years that UC didn’t admit all eligible high school seniors statewide. “This squeeze on so many universities nationally is having the most profound effect on community colleges,” says Dr. Arthur M. Cohen, professor of higher education at UCLA.
Joining these re-routed students at two-year colleges are what AACC president Dr. George Boggs calls Tidal Wave 2 —  immigrants, low-income students and the children of baby boomers. While Tidal Wave 1 brought hordes of students in the 1960s, Boggs says that about 80 percent of Tidal Wave 2 are people of color.
While Cohen and other experts contend that many of the displaced students aren’t serious degree-seekers but casual consumers trying to sign up for a class or two at the last minute, Boggs insists that “access, as our No. 1 value, must be preserved.”
One of the more controversial moves by community colleges in recent years has resulted in a handful now offering baccalaureate degrees. Miami Dade College, one of the most visible and largest two-year schools with 59,000 for-credit students, now gives baccalaureate degrees in special education and secondary math and science education. Officials there plan more baccalaureate programs and have dropped the word “community” from the school’s name to comply with accreditation rules, leading Cohen and other longtime academic observers to call it a “hybrid.”
Boggs says he is “not a big fan” of the baccalaureate movement. “Community colleges are nimble enough to respond to community needs,” he says, “but we already have universities.”
The baccalaureate movement is only one of the challenges facing two-year colleges.
Dr. Janis Hadley, president of Housatonic Community College, worries about the relatively low numbers of minority Ph.D.s who can be tapped as teachers. “It’s a limited pool of teaching candidates who themselves have only so much experience,” Hadley says. “How do we grow our own so that our students have role models?”  
But most of all, community college advocates say they must continue marketing the value of the schools to the public, especially to the uneducated. “The community college age is here,” says Dr. Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Houston Community College System. “We’re still trying to reach individuals who think college isn’t for them and their children. We have a moral imperative to do so.” 

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