Lily Monpemarano, a 22-year-old photography student at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, shuffled through the New York City public high school system without much enthusiasm.
"I had no profile, I had no experience, and my high school record didn't look good," she said.
In high school, Monpemarano said she just "went with the flow" and eventually became disinterested in school. A native Brooklynite and the granddaughter of Italian and Irish immigrants, she never expected to succeed in any educational system.
Yet she convinced herself of the importance of an advanced degree. "I got my act together and said, 'I want to go to college.'"
After getting her GED, a high school equivalency exam, through Kingsborough, Monpemarano graduated with an associate's degree in spring 2006 with a 4.0 grade point average and as the president of the school photography club. Now that she has an impressive portfolio of artwork and academic experience, Monpemarano has been accepted to the College of Visual Arts in Minnesota, Hunter College in New York City, and New York University, which is offering a significant financial scholarship.
In her experience, said Monpemarano, the community college teachers were often willing to help, regardless of the circumstances. "If you're willing to go the extra mile, they'll go the extra mile for you," she said.
community colleges are appealing to lost high school students
such as Monpemarano, said Katherine Hughes at the Community College
Research Center. "High school is a very infantilizing environment.
You have 17, 18-year-old adults who are treated as kids."
In a recent study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the top reason among high school dropouts for leaving school early was that the "classes were not interesting." Among those students who had high grades yet still dropped out of school, over half said it was because they were not motivated or inspired.
"Students are dropping out," said Hughes. "But that doesn't mean they aren't capable [of success in college.]"
The student body ... undecided, younger and diverse
"People are looking at community colleges very differently, as a viable option to move on," said Roberta Peruggi, president of Kingsborough Community College. "If you don't know what you want to do, go to a community college and you'll figure it out."
To young people who feel the intense pressure of choosing a career
path, community colleges can offer a reprieve with a less-taxing
At Kingsborough, the past nine years have seen a shift in its student population toward younger students, with close to a 10 percent increase in the proportion of students under 25 years old.
In recent years, states including Virginia and California have predicted exponential growth in the number of full-time students -- usually younger than 25 and without other commitments -- at their community colleges.
According to Peruggi, the shift in the student population comes from an influx of children in immigrant families; around 80 percent of students are the first generation of their families to attend college.
"[Kingsborough] gives a new picture of what this generation is like," said Peruggi.
Olga Fursova is a 21-year-old student at Kingsborough in her second semester as a liberal arts major, and another example of a high-school dropout who decided to attend a community college.
After immigrating to the United States from Russia with her mother when she was 12, Fursova languished in the public school system. "I spent two years doing nothing," she said. "But then I realized that eventually I want to grow up."
She enrolled in a GED program run by Kingsborough and is now a member of the honors society at the college.
This summer, Fursova plans to study on a full scholarship at Vassar College. She attributes her success to her professors who "trust us to do the work on our own."
Jim Jacobs, associate director for community college operations at the Community College Research Center, believes that Fulsova's experiences are typical for community colleges, many of which have seen a growth of "new Americans" in their classes.
"Historically, immigrants have been in the central cities. Now, new Americans are growing up in suburbs, and going to community colleges. They are the breadwinners of the family," said Jacobs. "They also have little expectations of what college is like, because no one in their family has ever been to college."
Jacobs has found that community colleges are one of the key battlegrounds
in the immigration debate. At Macomb Community College in the
suburbs of Detroit, where Jacobs is an administrator, many students
are recent immigrants from the Middle East.
Schools such as Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., and Miami
Dade College in Florida are among the top schools that award associate
degrees to Hispanic students.
There are six times as many Hispanic students enrolled at Miami-Dade
than there are in the entire Ivy League, according to Bob Margolis
of Education Sector.
The economic importance of a degree
Young adults differ from their parents in that a college degree, not a high school diploma, is becoming necessary for financial security.
The Gates Foundation study found that high school dropouts earn about $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates -- and were three times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed in 2004.
In 1980, males between ages 24 and 35 with a bachelor's or other advanced degree earned an average $7,200 (2002 dollars) more annually than their counterparts with a high school diploma or a GED, according to the National Center for Educational Studies.
In 2002, the difference was around $13,500.
Among women, the difference in average income between college graduates and high school graduates was about $8,200 in 1980. In 2002, that number practically doubled to $16,500.
It shouldn't be surprising then that a 2005 MTV and National Governor's Association poll indicated that 76 percent of young adults believe that a college degree is necessary for success in life, and that 87 percent want to attend college.
Is the benefit worth the cost?
The rising cost of what so many see as a mandatory college education has contributed to the resurgent popularity of community colleges.
"The money difference [between community colleges and four-year colleges] is so huge; it makes sense to go to community college at a fraction of the cost," said community college and high school instructor Bob Margolis.
In 2004, the average annual cost of education at a two-year institution was $6,700, according to NCES. At four-year institutions, the average cost is more than $15,000 -- and private institutions carry a $25,000 price tag, on average.
NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow reported in 2005 that the tuition at four-year colleges and institutions has risen about 51 percent over the past 10 years.
At Kingsborough, many students come from housing projects and enroll at the school because tuition is an affordable $1,550 per semester. "Our students are talented and bright, but poor, poor, poor," says Peruggi.
Despite the financial gap, Margolis believes that students are getting a better education at community colleges now than ever before. "Because of the tight job market for Ph.D. graduates, the faculty at community colleges is more educated as smarter professors trickle down," said Margolis. "My department head [at Ulster County Community College in upstate New York] is a Harvard graduate."
Other positive outcomes
evidence aside, the question still remains whether GenNexters
-- those in their late teens and early twenties -- are having
a beneficial educational experience at community colleges. Graduation
rates at community colleges are deceptively low -- a 2005 CCRC
study placed the number between 10 and 30 percent -- because students
do not necessarily graduate with an associate's degree before
moving to the next step in their education or career goals.
"Thirty-seven percent of students who start at a two-year school end up transferring to a four-year school. Of those, only one-third transfer with an associate degree," said Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector in Washington, D.C.
The low transfer rate shouldn't be seen as discouraging, however. There are many positive outcomes to a community college education other than transferring to a four-year institution, said researcher Jacobs.
"The only way to evaluate [community colleges] is how well they serve their community and understand their situation," said Jacobs. "Each community college caters their school to the needs of the community."
Community colleges have become a major source of nursing students (more than 60 percent, says Jacobs) and first responders. The Education Sector's Margolis sees many students come through his school and move onto the police academy or to work for local businesses.
"My job is done if they play an active role in society," Margolis said. "Even if you don't transfer to a four-year-school, maybe you've had your mind blown."
-- By Brian Wolly, Generation Next