As a top student in high school, Amy Miramontes-Franco knew she was destined for college.
But she surprised even herself when, for financial reasons and because she hadn’t yet decided on a major, she began her higher education at a local community college.
“In all honesty, I had this mentality where I had worked so hard, I didn’t see myself going to a community college because of my negative view of them,” Miramontes said.
Having since graduated from Long Beach City College, a California community college, with a 4.0 grade-point average — at a fraction of the cost she would have paid to go to a four-year university and with faculty support she said was much more personal — Miramontes will enter UCLA this fall as a junior majoring in communications and economics.
“Now that I’ve experienced a community college, my perception is completely different,” she said. “They’re very underestimated.”
Long the Rodney Dangerfields of American higher education, community colleges are suddenly getting some respect.
Not all community college students have as good of an experience as Miramontes. Largely open to anyone who applies, they continue to suffer low graduation rates, for instance; just under four in 10 community college students finish a degree within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this. And while community colleges attract 45 percent of all of the nation’s higher-education enrollment, only 15 percent of high-income students choose them, the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University reports.
So bad has the perception been of community colleges that they themselves are dropping the “community” from their names in many cases. Yet they remain the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and in other popular culture.
“If I wanted to learn something,” said the character Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, on the television sitcom “Community,” “I wouldn’t have come to community college.”
But at a time when there’s huge pressure for reform in higher education, many community colleges are proving more responsive than their four-year counterparts.
Community colleges in 21 states have added four-year bachelor’s degree programs in high-demand fields, for example, and those in California will follow suit next year. They’ve connected closely with local businesses, and provide education so much more in tune with workforce needs that people who have bachelor’s and even master’s degrees return to community colleges for training that will get them jobs. Among students who transfer from four-year public universities, more than half now go in the opposite direction of Miramontes and switch to a community college, the National Student Clearinghouse says.
One reason for this may be that nearly 30 percent of graduates of community colleges make more money than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees, other research by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce shows. And while that advantage narrows by mid career, it’s also true that the community college graduates who benefit from it pay much less on average for their educations — $3,264 per year for tuition and fees, according to the College Board, compared to $8,893 per year at public and $30,094 per year at private four-year colleges and universities.
Their bachelors degrees, many students have discovered, “didn’t focus on them getting the job they need,” said Michael McCall, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. “Whereas they can get an allied health degree from us and go out and make $60,000 or $70,000 a year.”
Community colleges in Tennessee will go completely tuition-free next year, and the same idea is under study in Oregon and being discussed in Indiana, and has been proposed in Texas. Only one in five community college students has to take out loans to pay for school and other expenses, and the average debt for those who do is a comparatively low $2,000 each, The Institute for College Access and Success calculates.
Private foundations have been helping community colleges make themselves more desirable in other ways, too, by underwriting innovations such as programs that speed up the time students take to get degrees, and the federal government has allocated billions to help them train laid-off workers for new high-skill jobs and team up with businesses to create apprenticeships.
But a significant portion of the activity at community colleges has not resulted from money coming in. It’s been caused by money running out, as states cut back on spending for public higher education. Enrollment, too, has begun to slide; after jumping nearly 25 percent between the 2007-2008 academic year and 2010-2011, the number of students in community colleges fell nearly 4 percent from 2012 to 2013 and another nearly 3 percent since then, the American Association of Community Colleges reports.
Those realities, along with greater scrutiny and criticism of their performance, mean community colleges have “had to be innovative, had to be entrepreneurial, had to be very creative,” said Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.
“All of these things have come together all at once to force our community colleges to change,” said Eloy Oakley, president and superintendent of the Long Beach Community College District in California, which includes Long Beach City College.
“We have all had to innovate to meet the challenges of the economy and the challenges of state funding cuts. We’ve had to become more efficient, we’ve had to change the way we deliver education, and we’ve had to deal with the increased pressure not only to provide more access, but increase the number of degrees and certificates that we confer.”
The community college turnaround has not gone entirely unnoticed, especially by public universities in some states. Those in Colorado and Michigan unsuccessfully opposed letting community colleges give bachelor’s degrees. In California they blocked community colleges from offering four-year degrees that are already available from nearby state universities. And public universities in Tennessee resisted making community college there tuition-free.
“We had four-year schools that were going, ‘Wow, it’s going to be hard for us to compete with free,’” said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who helped push the idea through anyway.
Universities historically haven’t paid much attention to their lower-level counterparts, said Debra Bragg, director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Now it’s, ‘Golly, what are they doing over there at that community college?’”
Since President Barack Obama made community colleges a centerpiece of a campaign to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees, “That balance of who’s getting attention has shifted,” Bragg said. “A lot of the college completion agenda has been focused on the community colleges, because that’s where policymakers have seen the most room for growth.”
And, she said, the most room for improvement, given their poor graduation rates and other problems.
“‘We’re the underdog, but we can do it, we can innovate. We’re more nimble than the universities.’ That’s their culture and their image of themselves. Some people may look at that and say, ‘Not so much.’”
But the scrutiny seems to be having an effect.
“The leadership in community colleges has said, ‘Hey, we’re in the spotlight, we’d better start doing a little better job here and pay attention to retention and completion,” Bragg said. “They had less choice. They had to start doing something different.”
Or, as Oakley puts it, “However we got here, it’s a good thing.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.
PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.