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Report Dubs ’90s ‘Decade of the Community College’

Report Dubs ’90s ‘Decade of the Community College’
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Dubbing the 1990s the “Decade of the Community College,” a new report from the American Council on Education (ACE) says public two-year colleges saw a bigger enrollment boom during that decade than other higher education institutions did.
Enrollment at public two-year colleges jumped 14 percent between 1989 and 1999 — 5 percentage points above all of higher education, which experienced a 9 percent increase during that same time period, according to the report, “Choice of Institution: Changing Student Attendance Patterns in the 1990s.”
The report looks at distribution trends among college students. The growth in the two-year sector was especially notable among students who hadn’t traditionally chosen that route to higher education.
“The big message is that the ’90s was a big decade for the community colleges,” said Dr. Jacqueline King, the author of the report and director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis. “They increased their share of student enrollment among many categories of students, particularly amongst traditional-age students.”
That trend, King said, will most likely continue — and possibly accelerate.
For the first years of the 21st century, college costs have continued to soar and individuals have remained preoccupied by a questionable economy, prompting some experts to predict that the “community college decade” could yet be eclipsed.
Indeed those factors have contributed to a slow, steady decline in the average age of community college students. New high school graduates and their parents — particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed, or those whose salaries are too low to pay high tuition bills, but too high to qualify for financial aid — are increasingly seeking more affordable paths to a degree.
According to the report, nearly one-third of community college students in 1999 were considered “dependent,” referring to those 24 or under who aren’t married. The trend held even for middle-income families. The community colleges drew many of these students away from four-year institutions, where the proportion of dependent undergraduates dropped slightly, from 47 percent in 1989 to 45 percent in 1999. During that time, more of the so-called nontraditional students — those older than 24 and often married and working — enrolled in four-year institutions, accounting for 27 percent of their rolls.
Much of the enrollment increase at community colleges, however, appears to have stemmed from the significant drop in students at for-profit two-year schools. By the end of the decade those institutions had lost a third of their students, most likely due to the closure of 1,000 such schools, many that couldn’t meet increasing accountability standards for federal student-aid programs.
Now some state officials are encouraging, even requiring, more students to make community colleges their port of entry into higher education, arguing they offer the best value while reducing the need for remedial courses at four-year institutions.
“The image of the community college has improved over the years to the point where today, we’re very visible,” said Dr. George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. “People are recognizing the significant role our colleges play in opening up opportunities to students who might not otherwise have access to higher education.”
This spring, for example, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to a budget agreement with the University of California system to limit the number of freshmen accepted into undergraduate programs. That plan would guarantee admission at a later date to many of the students turned away — if they first attend and succeed at a community college. It’s the kind of partnership community colleges have been building for years, one that rests on their reputations for providing quality academic programs and preparing students for success in upper-level courses.
The proposition of steering more students to the state’s 109 community colleges without sufficient funding, however, could force the schools to bear more burdens, said Boggs, a former president of Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif. 
Last year the California community colleges had to turn away nearly 200,000 students due to fiscal constraints. Florida institutions also had to turn away students last year, about 35,000, nearly 10,000 of them at Miami Dade College alone.
The U.S. Department of Education is currently collecting enrollment data from higher education institutions for the 2003-2004 school year, King said, but those figures won’t be available to researchers until late this year.
But community college officials hope the attention being paid to the schools’ potential for ushering more students into higher education and preparing them for further study will convince lawmakers to make additional investments in them.
“This is a critical issue for higher education all across the country,” Boggs said. “We are hopeful that the economy will recover to a point that allows states to reinvest in them … there are already signs that that’s happening.”  

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