As she negotiates one of the many common areas at Community College of Denver, Erica Rodriguez oozes friendliness as she passes out leaflets to the various clusters of lounging students. The flyers are invitations to a seminar explaining financial aid. For Rodriguez, now in her last semester at CCD, financial aid has been crucial to her ability to remain in school.
The fact that Rodriguez is even in school and planning the next step in her education is a small miracle. You see, she’s a high school dropout. But knowing she needed 21st century skills to take care of her two young children, she got a GED and entered CCD. She has just been accepted at the University Of Colorado College Of Nursing at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and begins classes in the fall.
Along with students like Rodriguez, community colleges – thirteen across the state – educate more than 140,000 Colorado students each year. Along with locations in large population centers up and down the Front Range, there are also colleges serving rural communities including Lamar, La Junta, Fort Morgan and Sterling (www.cccs.edu).
“Community colleges are about giving people particular skills,” says Colorado Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, one of the system’s biggest boosters as well as former president of Pikes Peak Community College. “Someone who gets skills at a community college is sometimes better prepared for a specific job.”
People use community college for certification, learning specialized skills and more and more, to better prepare themselves for the new economy, a frontier that doesn’t always require a bachelors degree.
For others, it’s the first step into their educational journey. And, for a lot of students – especially those from smaller towns – community college allows them to stay closer to home and family before heading off to a larger school.
“At a larger institution,” says Carmen Simone, Trinidad State Junior College President, “they may just get lost and not know who to reach out to for help.” Right out of high school, staying closer to home, “We can help them. It’s really a cool safety net.” Community colleges are also good starting points for many international students, many of whom begin their American education journey in places like Rangely, Lamar and Trinidad.
Community colleges, like TJSC, also shore up local economies. “It’s one of our biggest drivers in Trinidad,” says Simone. The school provides 160 full-time jobs as well as a number of part-time positions, including faculty adjunct instructors. TSJC also provides jobs at its Alamosa branch campus. And, perhaps, less quantifiable but as important, a local college provides a high quality bench for that inevitable time when older leadership steps aside.
“Our motto is, ‘Start Here, Go Anywhere,” says Community College of Denver President Everett Freeman. “We don’t tell our students to ‘rethink’ their career choice.” Instead, says Freeman, “what we tell them is, ‘we want you to be a welder because you want to be a welder.’” Or, anything else. CCD offers students degrees in more than 40 academic disciplines ranging from arts and humanities to math and science.
“I think one of the misconceptions (about community college) has been that we only have students that can’t hack it at a four-year institution,” Dr. Betsy Oudenhoven, President of Community College of Aurora. Also, says Oudenhoven, students who opt for a two-year college are often better prepared for college than those who go straight to a four-year program. “We have small classes, terrific faculty who love to teach. We have to provide a quality education because we’re never the end game.”
Rodriguez, who will head to nursing school next fall on scholarship, says she might not have dropped out of high school if she had teachers like those she’s had at CCD. “Here, there are like 20 students in a class. You can get a lot of one-on-one help and they care so much more.” And then, there’s the cost.
The College Board, which reports on, among other things, the cost of higher education says that tuition and fees in a community college is “just over one-third of the cost for a year at a four-year public institution.” It calculates that number at $3.131 per year. That also means far less post-graduation debt.
A recent study by Edvisors, a website dedicated to planning and paying for college, says the class of 2014 left school with the largest debt of any previous class in history. The average graduate last spring left school owing more than $33,000. Total U.S. student debt is estimated at $1.2 trillion.
While most of Colorado’s community college enrollment is along the Front Range and of the commuter variety, that is, students who drive to school and return to their homes or apartments each day, rural community college students get more of a traditional college experience. They are a true part of their community fabric, says Oudenhoven. “They have athletic teams, resident halls. They have an experience that more replicates a tradition. It’s a very different kind of experience. It’s very rich.”
But while students enjoy the benefits of community college, not all faculty can say the same. In many, if not most community colleges, faculty is adjunct. In the parlance of higher education, ‘temps.’ The instructors do not live in the same world as traditional college or university faculty.
“There is no question that both two and four-year schools are increasingly reliant on adjunct faculty,” says Garcia. The average salary for temporary faculty in Denver and Colorado is just over $25,000. Garcia says it’s not what he’d like to see. “It’s what we have to pay.”
With an improving economy, community colleges are going through a slight down turn in enrollment, including Colorado. Jobs are more plentiful and, with more trained workers, easier to fill. But the economy moves in cycles. A slowdown, which is inevitable, will once again spur a spike in enrollments.
Community colleges have proven their value. They turn out a well-trained workforce more than capable of serving the needs of a diverse economy. And, they also turn out quality as attested by the names of some community college alumni.
Among the most well know community college graduates are industrialist and billionaire Ross Perot, actor Tom Hanks, film maker and father of the “Star Wars” epics, George Lucas and astronaut Eileen Collins.
For both cost and quality of education, community colleges continue to be an excellent value. One out of four students who begins college in a two-year program will go on to a four-year school. Also, six out of every ten who starts at a community college will finish with their Associate Degree.
Community colleges have also been spoken about fondly by President Obama. In his State of the Union address and in a number of other forums earlier this year, the President spoke of one day seeing community colleges ‘free and universal’ to American students. “Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy without a load of debt.” It will be up to Congress to figure out a way to turn a dream into reality.
And, while community colleges across the nation continue to shine, one institution in Colorado has been selected as among the best of the best. As a result, Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, will deliver the commencement address later this spring for the Class of 2015 at Community College of Denver.