Community Colleges are Lowering the Cost of Education

Community colleges are positioned as an antidote to the staggering costs of most four-year schools. Here’s how they fill this growing need.

Going Free
In 2015, President Barack Obama broached the revolutionary idea that community colleges should be free nationwide. The call was picked up by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential race. It became a reality this semester in New York, with a few qualifications (earning 30 credits per year, for example). Tennessee plans to launch an expanded free-tuition program next fall.

But will it cross the Hudson—and should it? The state Senate’s answer appears to be: not at this time. In May, at the state Senate’s annual hearing on funding for higher education, Gabrielle Charette, executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, suggested that the idea needed further study. In fact, many needy students in the state are already getting free tuition in the form of scholarship and grant programs, most notably, federal Pell Grants, which offer qualifying students up to $5,920 a year to cover tuition, fees and, crucially, books, which can be nearly as costly as tuition.

Unfortunately, only 61 percent of community-college students nationwide apply for the federal aid, which requires lengthy questionnaires and supporting documents.

Free tuition would lift that burden—but it wouldn’t spare students the cost of books and fees. And, argues Will Austin, “More students would graduate if finances weren’t an issue,” he says. At the same time, he worries that if students don’t have financial skin in the game, they may find it easier to drop out when the academic going gets tough.

If additional funding is not forthcoming from the state, there will likely be more layoffs and cuts in programs and services. That could affect another of the colleges’ great strengths: their attunement to the needs of the surrounding community.

A Sense of Place

Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College, seeks partners from the business world to help students gain in-demand skills.

Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College, seeks partners from the business world to help students gain in-demand skills. Photo by Frank Veronsky

For New Jersey’s two-year schools, community isn’t just part of their name; it’s a central reason for being. The schools immerse themselves in their respective communities, tuning in to local needs and creating relevant partnerships with local businesses that benefit the businesses, the colleges and their students. After consulting with Cumberland County’s Center of Workforce and Economic Development, the tourism department and members of the brewery and wine industry, for instance, Cumberland County College launched a program in beverage tourism and tasting-room management, responding to state investment aimed at making the region a major winery and brewery destination. And to provide what Cumberland president Yves Salomon-Fernandez calls “a path of continuity for students,” the college is partnering with Stockton University in a beverage-tourism BS program. “Community colleges are able to adapt much more quickly than our four-year partners to develop new programs,” Salomon-Fernandez says.

Industry support often goes beyond advising the colleges about emerging employment trends. To help train qualified applicants in security-systems technology, Mercer County Community College partnered with the Security Industry Association and Axis Communications, a Swedish company, to construct and equip the Security Systems Technology Laboratory on the college’s Trenton campus—because, says Mercer’s president, Jianping Wang, “I don’t have the money to buy that fancy equipment and, if you gave me the money, I wouldn’t know what to buy.” SIA even flies one of their members in every Friday to instruct in the lab.

A new partnership between the community colleges and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development should strengthen the colleges’ symbiotic relationship with industry. It aims to increase the number of state residents with college degrees and/or certificates from 50.2 percent to 65 percent by the year 2025. The program allows manufacturers to work with community colleges to fill the many technical jobs that have gone begging for skilled workers in recent years.

A Diverse Student Body

Will Austin, president of Warren County Community College, says graduation rates would improve if finances weren’t an issue for some students.

Will Austin, president of Warren County Community College, says graduation rates would improve if finances weren’t an issue for some students. Photo by Frank Veronsky

In addition to understanding the requirements of local industries, the state’s community colleges also have to be attuned to the needs of their student body, which can differ markedly from those at four-year colleges. While recent high school graduates seeking a degree make up the largest portion of the colleges’ student populations, those students are more likely to come from lower-income and/or immigrant families and to be the first in their family to go to college. They typically need more help navigating the college experience and may also arrive at college with less academic preparation than their more affluent peers.
To make college life easier, notes Wang, Mercer County Community College has introduced e-advising and e-tutoring and trained seven employees working at its enrollment services desk to address the common questions of incoming students: How do I apply for financial aid? How do I register? How do I get my transcripts?

Dealing with students who may be academically unprepared—a situation compounded by the colleges’ open-access admissions policy—is a thornier issue. In its 2010 report on the quality of postsecondary education in New Jersey, the state’s Higher Education Task Force, headed by former governor Thomas Kean, noted that approximately 70 percent of first-time, full-time community college students took at least one remedial course in reading, writing, math or basic algebra, at a cost to the colleges of about $70 million annually. What’s more, according to a 2010 report by the Community College Research Center, many students assigned to remedial courses simply drop out before enrolling in college-level courses.

Warren County Community College is addressing the problem by placing fewer students in remedial (also known as developmental) classes. In 2011, says president Will Austin, “we were putting so many people in remedial ed, and no one was graduating.” But as fewer students at the school are required to take remedial classes—the number was 133 this year, down from 729 in 2014-15—graduation rates are rising. Austin’s explanation: “We were putting people into classes that made them feel as if they couldn’t be successful.” Now, students are taught instead how to study and how to succeed—“and that,” says Austin, “is the better model.”

Unlike degree students at four-year colleges, those at community colleges are more likely to attend school part-time, take a semester or more off in order to work, and take longer to complete their degrees. They are also more likely to be in high school: All of the colleges have programs that allow high school students to take for-credit, college-level courses so that they will have already started toward their associate degree before graduating from high school. (In fact, a few actually graduate from high school with a two-year degree in hand.) Currently, nearly 20,000 New Jersey students are participating in dual-enrollment programs; Nespoli believes that number could grow considerably in the next five years.

The partnership between community colleges and local high schools benefits colleges and students in another way. It allows high schools to construct their curricula to better prepare students for college, cutting down on the number who might otherwise have to take remedial classes.

Patricia Rodgers, left, enrolled in Mercer County Community College when she needed to change careers in her 50s.

Patricia Rodgers enrolled in Mercer County Community College when she needed to change careers in her 50s. Photo by Frank Veronsky

In addition to these youthful students, a significant part of the student body at most community colleges is made up of nontraditional, older students, including adults returning for a second degree, retraining for a new job, or getting their first degree while working or raising a family.

Patricia Rodgers is the embodiment of the nontraditional student. In her late 50s, she lost her job as an assistant manager at Pandora, a retail store in Atlantic City. While filing for unemployment, she learned that she could get a certificate in computer technology tuition free, thanks to a retraining grant from the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development. She enrolled at Mercer County Community College and ultimately decided to go for an associate degree, which she received this past May. This fall, she started her junior year at Rutgers New Brunswick, where she is majoring in philosophy and plans to pursue a master’s degree. “Mercer,” she says, “helped me discover my calling.”

A Diverse System
Like the students it serves, New Jersey’s community-college system is highly diverse. Among its 19 colleges, offerings and quality can vary widely. Like about 32 percent of state systems across the country, New Jersey’s community colleges are decentralized, meaning individual schools have a great deal of autonomy to develop their own curricula and administrative policies. That can be a good thing—it tends to foster innovation—but it also leads to disparities in the system. According to New Jersey’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, graduation rates in the 2015-16 academic year ranged from a high of 37 percent at Salem Community College to a low of 10 percent at Hudson County Community College.

And one school in the system, Essex County College, is in danger of losing its accreditation pending an investigation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the region’s accrediting body, into allegations of financial mismanagement and substandard governance, as well as poor retention of students (the college’s graduation rate is 13 percent).

Industry observers warn that graduation rates don’t necessarily measure success or failure. The rate—reflecting the percentage of first-time, full-time students who graduate in three years or less from the college in which they first enrolled—“is a limited measure,” says Nespoli. Half of all students at New Jersey’s community colleges, he notes, are part-time, and many have attended college previously. A large number take more than three years to graduate.

Many of the students who qualify as successes might also be considered nontraditional. Benjamin Volk was floundering after graduation from high school. He applied to several four-year schools, didn’t get in, then tried to join the military, but was turned down for being overweight. He took a year off, working as a night-shift security guard at a quarry in Glen Gardner, then enrolled at Warren County Community College. He graduated in May and is now enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, majoring in information technology and web science. He plans to pursue a master’s degree toward a career in systems architecture. He has no regrets about having attended a community college. “Since starting at Warren,” he says, “a lot of doors have been opened for me.”

Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a longtime contributor on health and education topics.

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