When Santos Enrique Camara arrived at Shoreline Community College, he quickly felt lost in the Washington state research engineering field.
“It was like a weird mistake,” recalled Camara, who was 19 at the time and had finished high school with a 4.0 grade point average. “Do you need help with classes and financial aid? Hey, take the number here and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”
Advocates for community colleges defend them as such dogs of America’s higher education systembut without the money to afford it the students who are most in need of aid are left. Critics argue that this excuse was made for poor luck and for bureaucratic indecencies that eventually brought Camara out after two semesters. He now works in a restaurant and plays in two bands.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of The College Dream Saver, a collaboration between . al.comThe Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
With little planning, many community college students end up wasting time and money on their course or not transferring what they don’t need. Although most aim to advance to bachelor’s degrees, only a small percentage succeed; Fewer than any half earn credentials. Even if they do, many employers don’t believe they are ready for the workforce.
But these failures come home to haunt.
Sacred colleges are far less expensive than four-year schools. Tuition and fees last year were $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities with many states making community college free.
But pain drives them away. The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% since 2010, or nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“The reason is here,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Center for Community Research at Columbia University’s Master’s College. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of the Teachers College).
Those numbers would be even more dismal if high school students did not include dual enrollment courses, according to the Community College Research Center. High school students make up about a fifth of community college enrollment.
However, since these colleges serve fewer students, the already lower success rates have worsened by at least one measure.
While four out of five students are starting community college, they say they are going to . as a bachelor’s degreeonly about six of them manage to do so. That’s nearly 15% by 2020, according to Home Defense.
Two-year community colleges have the worst completion rate of any type of university or college. Like Camara, nearly half of the students drop out, within a year, of the community college in which they started. Only a little more than 40% should be completed within six years.
These frustrated wanderers include a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic students. Half of all Hispanic and 40% of all Black students in higher education are enrolled in community colleges, says the Association of American Community Colleges.
The value of community colleges has implications for the national economy, which relies on their graduates to fill many jobs in which there are shortages. Those positions include nurses, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians, vehicle mechanics and electrical linemen, and in fields that include information technology, construction, manufacturing, transportation and law enforcement.
Other causes also contribute to writing declines. Strong demand in the job market for the people without the institutions of the college made many more beautiful to work. Thanks to so-called degree inflation, many jobs that require higher education call for bachelor’s degrees, where associate’s degrees or certificates are once sufficient. Public and private, regional and for-profit universities are competing for the same students in terms of their own enrollment.
Many Americans are more and more questioning the value of going to college at all.
But they are particularly rejecting community college. In Michigan, for example, the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in community college fell more than three times faster from 2018 to 2021 than the proportion going to four-year universities, according to that state’s Center for Performance and Educational Information.
Those who go complain about the red carpet and other vanities.
Megan Parish, a 26-year-old community college student in Arkansas since 2016, said she would wait two or three days to hear back from counselors. “I had to go out of my way to find people, and if they didn’t know the answer, they would send me to someone else, usually by email.” Hearing back from the financial aid office said it could take a month.
Oryanan Lewis doesn’t have that kind of time. Lewis, 20, is in his second year at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Alabama, where he is pursuing a medical assistant degree. And now it is behind.
Lewis thought he had lupus and more personal attention at a junior high school than at a four-year university; Chattahoochee has approximately 1,600 students. But he said he didn’t get the help he needed until his illness seemed to have slowed down.
He failed three classes and was placed on academic probation. Then he finally heard from the intervention program.
“I feel like they should talk more with their students,” Lewis said.
Opinions among teachers are mixed on the quality of the community college students who manage to graduate, according to a survey released in December by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Economics. They found that 62% agree or strongly agree with the common colleges graduates are ready to work.
Community colleges receive less money from the government, per student, than public universities: $8,695, according to the Center for American Progress, compared with $17,540.
However, community college students need more support than their counterparts at four-year universities. Twenty percent are the first in their families to go to college, 15% are single parents and 68% work in school. Twenty percent say they have had trouble providing food and 14% providing housing, according to a survey by the Center for College Student Affairs.
Community colleges that are failing these students can’t blame smaller budgets, said Joseph Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard University.
“The lack of resources within community colleges is a legitimate complaint. But many community colleges are doing extraordinarily well,” Fullo said. “It can’t be like that.”
Ellen Dennis for Seattle Times, Rebecca Griesbach of al.com and Ira Porter of the Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report.
The Society Press receives educational support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.
This story has been updated to correct the share of employers who found in the survey that community colleges produce graduates who are ready to work. Of the employers who agreed, a little more than 60%, about a third did not.