Community colleges are an accepted option to provide a relatively affordable education to a broad number of students with diverse economic, academic and ethnic backgrounds. Granted, their inability to successfully graduate the majority of their students has become under increasing scrutiny, yet this discussion will only focus on the challenge of attracting students to enroll in the first place. One of the more perplexing challenges community colleges face is the fact that a significant number of students, especially non-affluent, non-Caucasian or Asian, as well as those who are academically under-prepared for any college study, do not enroll in their local community college. Despite the clear financial benefits, many of these students choose for-profit, vocational/professional schools, which often comes at the cost of high student loan debt.
What factors can be attributed to explain such a choice against seemingly common self-interest? One answer may be found in the fact that many students who are in search of a middle-skills oriented career qualification , which arguably should be a key agenda for community colleges, find that for-profit CTE institutions provide a better service. The steep divergence in graduation rates between the two kind of institutions may support such an assertion.
However, most students do not actually research graduation statistics when applying for college. So, why then, do so many students, who would save thousands of dollars in loans, choose to forego their local community college?
The answer lies in student service and support as well as institutional focus. First-generation college students and those whose families are unable to guide and support their college journey, encounter many procedural and institutional obstacles between their first point of contact with an admissions recruiter until they actually take their first class. Admittedly, this complex problem may be well documented and has begun to be addressed through innovations that are part of the Guided Pathways initiative as well as others, such as the Lumina Foundation for instance. Nonetheless, many community colleges remain heavily moored in arcane bureaucracies, unnecessary institutional silos that are however thoroughly entrenched, and a new found over-reliance on technology, which may be efficient but not user-friendly nor "smart" enough to address anything but the most standardized problems.
Students who are not at all familiar with even the most basic steps of the college enrollment process, i.e. almost everyone, are often frustrated and end up being under-served in their particular learning interests, as well as losing out on financial support, which may help explain why so many students do not graduate from public 2-year colleges.
As a longtime community college faculty and dean and parent of now two children who have or are attending community colleges, I can attest from both professional and personal experience, that becoming a student at one's local community college is not an easy feat. Navigating the obstacle course that constitutes the enrollment and registration process requires perseverance, an immunity to frustration, unending amount of patience and a general knowledge that most people outside of higher education simply do not possess. That so many students simply give up, or accept whatever they are assigned by a distracted staff member, cannot be surprising to anyone.
One of the significant differences between most community colleges and for-profit colleges is the lack of customer service versus its active application, respectively. Students who have a mentor/advisor assigned to them, dedicated to guiding them from first contact to their first course throughout each step of the process will not only choose the better study path for them individually, but more likely maximize on financial support and early on develop a sense of professionalism and loyalty to their program, which will bolster their persistence towards completion long term.
The other difference between the two type of institutions lies in the clear identity as a CTE institution that 2-year for-profit institutions have, contrary to the often diffuse mission of many community colleges which try to be everything for everybody. Some even mistake themselves as liberal arts colleges and aim to compete with 4-year colleges in their academic programming. Examples of community colleges having 20+ degree options in the Humanities, or 5 Education Associate degrees in a state where only 6 credits in Education actually transfer, while others refer to themselves as the "Harvard on the Hudson" are not uncommon.
Counter case in point: Successful community colleges clearly understand their primary purpose of preparing students for either one of 2 options, namely direct career entry via a vocational degree or apprenticeship or providing the first two year of the largely general education centered studies, necessary for transfer and completion of a 4-year degree somewhere else. Such institutions have robust graduation rates, excellent corporate and public sector partnerships and are able to offer their students what is most essential, the skills and knowledge to succeed in their respective career paths.
Community colleges are a great and highly valuable component of the overall higher education landscape. In light of the current enrollment decline experienced by so many institutions, it is imperative to acknowledge that the for-profit sector offers not only real competition but also can serve as a model for adaptation and innovation. The primary mission after all remains maximizing student success and education equity. In pursuit of that goal, all options need to be considered.