Community Colleges in Crisis

Whether you want to become a dental hygienist, earn continuing education credits as a nurse or build a stepping stone to a 4-year degree, community college may be the place for you. However, the economic problems over the past few years have put a major strain on these schools when they're most needed.

College students at graduation

By Jeff Calareso

Community Colleges in Society

Community colleges serve a multitude of roles for people of all ages. These institutions specialize in 2-year associate's degree programs, transfer programs and occupational training. This is where you go if you want to earn a degree but you can't afford a bachelor's. In other cases, you may need this type of college to get your grades up before transferring to a 4-year college. You might also go here if you need to learn one of many trades, from nursing to automobile repair, that can be mastered in one or two years of study.

As the name suggests, a community college serves its local community. Because most of these colleges don't have on-campus housing, they're intended to benefit local students. They also typically have relatively undemanding admissions policies that strive to open classes to all those who are interested.

The Paradox of a Weak Economy

When the economy is struggling, you may be more likely to seek out a community college. Its affordability can be very appealing next to the debt you could incur while earning a 4-year degree. It's also a great way to broaden your resume, enhancing your skills for a tough job market. You may want to get continuing education credits in order to avoid a layoff, or learn a new trade in an area with higher demand than your current field.

Yet the economic problems that might lead you to a community college may also prevent you from getting into the classes you want. Over the past few years, enrollment has been peaking while funding has been falling. This has meant long waiting lists, limited support and possible tuition hikes.

Community College student

The Crisis in Focus

A recent study by the Pearson Foundation found that 20% of community college students struggled to get into at least one essential class in the fall of 2010. In California, which has been hit particularly hard, more than 140,000 students were turned away from over-crowded community colleges in the 2009-2010 school year. Even as Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, fights for increased funding, the school at which she teaches in Virginia has faced cutbacks and layoffs of faculty.

As states struggle to close budget deficits, there is little optimism that community colleges will receive the funding they need. In most states, continued faculty layoffs are expected. Counselors are also losing their jobs, resulting in less help for students trying to most effectively prepare for their career.

For more on Dr. Jill Biden's work on community colleges, see our article on the White House Summit on Community Colleges.

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