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Community colleges are bursting at the seams (but not with funding)

Ivana Estrada came to New York from La Paz, Bolivia, six years ago knowing barely enough English to sing along to her favorite American rock music. Estrada came here with the goal of attending college, something she felt was impossible in Bolivia because she couldn't earn enough money working there to pay for school. Her parents—her father a bus driver and her mother a housewife—couldn't help. Her sisters had tried college but never finished because they had to work.

She heard from a friend who had moved to the U.S. that it was easier to work and go to school here, so she decided to give it a try. She moved in with an uncle and took a job working at a 99-cent store in Queens.

She immediately started working on her English, writing down and translating the lyrics to Roxette's 1990 hit "It Must Have Been Love" and songs by the Eagles and Ozzy Osbourne. She spent time at the local library listening to English-language instruction tapes, and she searched through college guides. It was there that she first learned about community colleges as a much cheaper option than a four-year school. So she enrolled at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

Author Thomas Bailey: Fretting that community colleges 
are under too much budgetary pressure
photo: Mark Hartman
Author Thomas Bailey: Fretting that community colleges are under too much budgetary pressure

Starting out with English and math classes, she found that her command of the language quickly improved. After her first semester, Estrada was admitted to the international two-year-college honors society, Phi Theta Kappa. Her experience thereafter mirrored a typical student experience—for a good student, that is—at any four-year university: She decided to major in computer information systems, took honors classes, became a teaching assistant, and even spent a semester abroad in New Zealand.

Estrada was one of 16 students selected to take summer classes at Barnard, which inspired her to apply to the school as a transfer. Barnard admitted Estrada in 2003 and gave her a full scholarship. She graduated in December 2005 with a bachelor's degree in computer science. Now 24, Estrada works on Wall Street, helping develop financial software applications for Morgan Stanley's IT department. "One thing just led to another for me," said Estrada. "I never could have imagined it when I was in Bolivia."

Ivana Estrada attributes her success to LaGuardia. But her experience, while inspirational, is not typical of community college students nationwide. The reality, according to a new book on the state of American community college education, is low graduation and retention rates and fewer resources to handle increasing enrollments. In Defending the Community College Equity Agenda, researchers point out that community colleges are key in providing higher education and can serve as a bridge to the middle class for immigrants, people of color, and those in the lowest income brackets. But achieving that mission has been difficult, say the book's authors. Although four-fifths of the students entering community colleges say that their goal is to earn a bachelor's degree or higher, only 18 percent actually do that within eight years of their enrollment date.

That's not only very low but very troubling, considering that nearly 50 percent of all credit-earning undergraduates in the United States are enrolled in community colleges. "I think people are often surprised at that number," says Thomas Bailey, co-editor of the new volume and director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College. "These are institutions that aren't on the radar."

Besides having half of all students nationwide, community colleges enroll a disproportionate share of the country's poorest students.

Bailey points out that community colleges are more dependent on state budget agendas than any other institution—CUNY schools receive funding from Albany, through local property taxes, and by charging tuition—and overall funding has been dwindling since the early part of the decade.

In spite of less funding and low graduation rates, enrollment continues to grow at community colleges. Bailey explains this in two parts. First, there are simply more college-aged students in the U.S. now, a result of immigration and the echo boom (baby boomers' children). Second, the growing necessity of at least some post–high school training and the high costs of four-year schools mean more people are choosing community colleges because of their low cost and accessibility.

But the schools have trouble keeping up. "The students enrolled in com munity colleges are overrepresented by low-income, minority, and immigrant student—many of the types of students that education policy makers are concerned with," explains Bailey. "And these schools receive less funding per student than public four-year colleges and universities." Moreover, say the book's authors, community colleges must, in a sense, be everything to everyone. For students like Ivana Estrada with ambitions of bachelor's degrees and beyond, community colleges offer honor society membership and accelerated courses, and they work to ensure that credits will transfer to four-year schools. But the schools also provide remedial courses for students with weaker academic skills, English classes for immigrants, and GED classes for students who never graduated high school. "They have pretty much had an open-door policy," says Bailey. As a result of their inclusiveness, community colleges spend about $1.4 billion annually on providing remedial education, the book estimates.

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