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All Is Not Lost

Casualties of the ongoing FAFSA debacle continue to stack up, even as Federal Student Aid Director Richard Cordray leaves the situation behind. While the U.S. Department of Education works to fix the broken system, it’s time for community college leaders to remind Americans that these important institutions exist. Experts predict that huge numbers of students won’t go to college this fall — we can head that off by reminding them that college decisions need not be made in spring, and no matter when they learn about their eligibility for aid doors to higher education remain open. All is not lost if only we embrace the expansive and flexible opportunities offered by our community colleges.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-RabResponsive and committed to meeting their communities’ needs, public two-year colleges are everywhere, offering all the popular majors, a range of class times and term lengths (there are even 10-week courses), and many types of credentials – even bachelor’s degrees. There are historically Black community colleges, rural community colleges, and technical colleges, even some with residential housing and other amenities that allow students to go “away” to school. Yet they are perpetually overlooked and undermined by a popular yet shortsighted narrative that “college” means a four-year institution – even though 40% of people with bachelor’s degrees started at community college. That idea hurts everyone, especially in times like these.

We needn’t act like if college counselors and advocates don’t throw their summer plans aside to help every student access a university, all those college dreams must disappear. That will only happen if we refuse to tell students there are plenty of accessible, affordable colleges that will allow them to start college this fall, even if they register at the last minute. Among the seven million students attending community colleges, most enroll in late summer or even fall, and many complete their aid applications once enrolled.

I know some folks continue to think they are too good for community college. Heck, I attended a college prep high school, where suggesting that someone attend community college was an insult. I’m so glad that my career has brought me a much more informed understanding of the sector. These days I teach at the Community College of Philadelphia, and what I’m learning has led me to strongly recommend it to my own college-bound son (whether he listens is another matter — the culture of elitism here is strong).

My last sociology class at the Community College of Philadelphia included 36 students, ages 16 to 36, with many parenting kids while in college, others working full-time, and several coming from the military. Classmates learned from each other, as well as from me, and that array of backgrounds meant everyone had something new to share. To be frank, it was a far richer learning environment than the ones offered to my former students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University.

It’s important that every student has a shot at a bachelor’s degree if they want one, and the return on investment is clearly most important for the Black, Brown, and Indigenous students whose dreams are most likely deferred by the FAFSA mess. Recognizing that should commit us to helping them get there via the transfer pathway that starts at community college. While current transfer rates aren’t great, decades of research (including my own) show that is mainly because the students who usually start at community college are there because multiple interlocking constraints keep them from attending universities. That’s not the case for this current cohort of students – they have the academic preparation and support to attend a four-year college, but if–thanks to FAFSA problems – they start at community college they still have very high odds of success.

Helping students recognize that community college is a smart, viable path and supporting their success on the way to four-year institutions will be good for students, good for high school counselors, and good for families and communities everywhere. Two-thirds of undergraduates already enroll at a college within 25 miles of their home.  We should create more incentives for universities to build better relationships with community colleges. There’s never been a more important time for people to learn in small classes with other students from different backgrounds and ways of thinking, and community college students are the most varied in their perspectives and experiences.

If the bachelor’s degree remains the goal and the local community college doesn’t offer it – though more should since there’s no reason those degrees should belong to universities – the community college path can make it more affordable. Articulation agreements between community colleges and universities help credits transfer; while they don’t always work, that’s where high school counselors should put their energy. Tell upcoming graduates how to start at a community college, take the right courses while saving some money, then successfully transfer to a four-year school in a term or two. Commit to checking in with them later to make sure it happens. Partner with community colleges to personalize that guidance and get students where they want to go.

Should students need to delay the start of college from fall to spring, that also doesn’t have to be the end of the world. The key is making sure they have a productive plan for the intervening months and what to do to begin in spring. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, last year 340,000 students started college for the first time in the spring, with 60% of those students beginning at community colleges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, spring enrollment was even higher. The FAFSA should be operational long before year’s end.

We should always worry when peoples’ educational plans might be derailed. Education remains important to our health, economics, and happiness. Supporting those plans requires moving beyond a narrow-minded view of a single path to degrees, set around specific months in the calendar, and dependent only on a fraction of institutions. Tell students about community colleges and the many good options they provide. Consider sending your own child there. And if you want to support their efforts, as they once again adapt to help communities avoid a crisis, write them a check too.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is an independent scholar of higher education policy and inequality who currently serves as Senior Fellow at Education Northwest and an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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