Community Colleges: Benefit or Burden?

Sarkis Ekmekian is a junior at USC majoring in communication. He’s taking four classes, is the show-runner for Speakers’
Committee, public relations chair at Trojan Pride, and is a campus centre consultant at the Ronald Tutor Campus Centre.

He also is a transfer student.

Ekmekian, one of 1,430 transfer students who enrolled in USC in fall 2013, transferred from Santa Monica College, a top feeder school for USC and the University of California. Community college transfer students have a strong presence at USC: 58% of the fall 2013 transfer class were community college students (up from 50% from fall 2012).

The California Community College system is the largest system of not only community colleges but higher education in the nation, with more than 2.1 million students and 112 campuses. According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “70% of state nurses and 80% of firefighters, law enforcement personnel, and emergency medical technicians” are educated at California community colleges.” Furthermore, most California community colleges have agreements with the UC and CSU system in regards to transfer students: 29% of UC and 51% of CSU graduates started at a California community college.

However over the last few years, California Community Colleges, along with the UC and CSU system, have suffered through severe funding cuts due to the Great Recession. Funding for California Community Colleges was “cut $1.5 billion – about 12% of its funding – between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 academic years,” resulting in about 25% of college courses to be cut.

As a result, there has been a significant decline in both the number of transfer applicants to four-year colleges and enrolment at community colleges in California. UCs received 1,653 fewer transfer applications from community colleges in the fall 2013 year, compared with fall 2011. California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office also reported that “enrolment [in California community colleges] decreased by more than 585,000 students to 2.3 million in four academic years (from 2008-09 to 2012-13) due to severe budget cuts.”

Now that the economy has slowly begun to recover, the California government has been looking to put more money back in state-funded institutions. But do community colleges offer a significant enough economic benefit to the economy to warrant reinvestment from the government?

The state certainly believes that community colleges provide significant economic benefit to the economy. Recently, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a budget which would increase funding to community colleges by $1 billion. The funding would freeze tuition rates at the current rate of $46 per unit and “allow colleges to increase enrollment by 3 percent. Enrollment [of new students] has been cut by up to 15 percent since 2010.” According to Brown, the additional funding would allow students to transfer faster by increasing the amount of classes, counsellors and academic resources available to students.

According to a report conducted by the American Association of Community Colleges, “in 2012 alone, the net total impact of community colleges on the U.S. economy was $809 billion in added income, equal to 5.4 percent of GDP.” Furthermore, “community-college graduates receive nearly $5 in a return on investment (ROI) for every dollar they spend on their education.” The report also found that associate degree completers earn an average of $10,700 more than someone with a high-school diploma at the midpoint of their career. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, the unemployment rate of those aged 25 to 35 drops from an average of 12.2% for high-school graduates to 8.1% to those with a two-year college degree. The report also found that on average, two-year college graduates will earn on average of $2,000 more than high-school graduates per year.

From an economic point of view, it is evident that it is the state’s best interest to encourage more efficient transferring and graduation rates. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, “U.S. taxpayers paid $44.9 billion to support the operations of America’s community colleges in 2012.” In return society will receive “$1.2 trillion in benefits, the sum of the added income and social savings that the 2012 student population will generate in the U.S. economy.” Furthermore, when students earn more because of their higher education, they also pay more in taxes: “federal, state, and local governments will collect a present value of $285.7 billion in the form of higher tax receipts over the students’ working lives [due to community colleges].”

The proposal for additional funding has been met with approval from community colleges, professors and students who have long suffered from severe underfunding. “We have been underfunded for a really long time compared to K-12 and the UC system,” explained Mary Mazzocco, who is the journalism department chair and advisor for school newspaper “The Inquirer” at Diablo Valley College. “Given how many students we serve, given that we are the gateway for non-traditional college students, and given our role in helping retrain people who lose their jobs… I do feel like that they should at least give us the money to allow us to do the job that they have given us to do. And I feel like they haven’t done that in a really long time.”

Statistically, students who manage to transfer to four-year institutions are successful. According to the University of California’s Accountability Report, “transfer students entering UC since 2004 have a 50 to 53 percent two-year graduation rate and an 85 to 86 percent four-year graduation rate.” By comparison, freshmen from the same cohort who enter the UC system have a four-year graduation rate of 60% and a six-year graduation rate of 84%. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials with a bachelor’s degree or more earn on average $45500 – compared to the average income of $30000 for those with an associate degree.

Rachel Ann Reyes is a student at Diablo Valley College majoring in communication. She has been accepted to UC Davis for fall 2014, and is awaiting responses from UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. When she transfers, she will be the first in her family to attend an American university. “I’ve personally really enjoyed being at a community college,” said Reyes. “I think that sometimes community colleges get a bad rep for being almost being a continuation of high school, but I think it’s a great opportunity for people who want to save money. If they are determined enough to go to community college to get their AA degree or transfer, I think it can be a really helpful tool at a great cost.”

However, there are also concerns about the efficiency of community colleges – particularly regarding the students who either take too long or don’t manage to graduate or transfer to a four-year college. In 2009, the average graduation rate from California community colleges was only 25.08%, while the transfer rate was an even lower 14.36%. An op-ed in the LA Times also criticized the inefficiency of community colleges and the burden that it places on the economy: “Community colleges are subsidized through direct state and local government appropriations and through student grant programs. Every student who drops out represents an investment loss by the taxpayers in that student’s uncompleted education.” Through further investigation, they found that “of the full-time, degree-seeking students who entered California community colleges in 2007, more than 35,000 had not earned their degrees three years later, and most of them were no longer enrolled in any postsecondary institution.”

The state has attempted to address the low transfer and graduation rates of community college by pushing “state law requiring guaranteed transfer pathways for graduates of the two-year institutions.” Furthermore, new bills would require the CSU system to accept a wider range of transfer degrees when possible, with the transfer pathways focused on “areas of emphasis rather than majors.”

While Mazzocco realizes the importance that community colleges play in transferring students and awarding qualifications, she also worries that the mission of community colleges has taken a turn for the worse – and that too much emphasis has been placed on just the economic benefits of an education. “Historically community colleges were not just for transfer students, but the state has adjusted our mission – we are now supposed to focus on certificates and transferring,” said Mazzocco.

The campus library at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill is nearly empty at the end of the day as the community college has suffered from budget cuts, its student population down 700 from last fall. Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

The campus library at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill is nearly empty at the end of the day as the community college has suffered from budget cuts, its student population down 700 from last fall. Photo: Brant Ward, The SF Chronicle

“There’s a certain amount of worry that the states push for us to become more efficient and to cut classes that are not high demand, and to focus on certain classes that transfer or go towards a degree,” Mazzocco explained. “For example we’ve added another Mass Communication class because now it’s a part of two or three different majors that transfer. But now I probably have to take feature writing out of the curriculum… because it doesn’t fit into the transfer degree that was agreed upon on the state level… and that’s happening with a lot of classes that are good classes. There’s value to be had to be taking them and offering them, but they don’t fit the pattern that’s being established and are being squeezed out.”

However, there is still a value in attending community colleges that can’t be quantified for some students. “If I had gone to a UC or university straight out of high school, I wouldn’t know what to do,” admitted Reyes. “I think my three years at DVC (Diablo Valley College) have really helped me discover who I am. I got the opportunity to take different classes in different fields and figure out what I liked and didn’t like at an affordable cost. Through that experience I fell into journalism and communication and that is something I really enjoy – I would have never found that straight of high school. Because of community college I am more prepared, and more willing and motivated to succeed at a university because I know what I want and I can apply myself to that.”



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