THE INTEGRAL AND PRACTICAL ROLE TWO-YEAR COLLEGES PLAY IN HIGHER EDUCATION
By Dr. Richard Carpenter
If I told you that you had a choice of paying either $18,514 or $28,516 for a bachelor’s degree from a Texas public college or university and that you had a better chance of graduating with the lower priced option, which would you choose? Well, more and more students are choosing the lower priced option by starting their college careers at one of the 50 community colleges in Texas. We are seeing the same trend at the almost 1,200 community colleges nationwide.
It’s no wonder enrollment at Texas community colleges is growing at a record pace and much faster than enrollment at four year colleges and universities. Last fall, two year colleges in Texas enrolled 730,228 students, an eight percent increase over the previous year, while Texas public four year colleges and universities enrolled 557,550, a five percent increase over the previous year.
Challenges—Facilities, Funding and Faculty
The rapid increase in enrollment has put a tremendous strain on community college facilities, budgets and staffing. For example, Lone Star passed a $420 million bond referendum in 2008. In the days that led up to the passage of the bond, I often noted that the average size of a community college in Texas was about 5,000 students—and that Lone Star was adding 5,000 students every two years. But in just three short years, we have added over 22,000 students! Upon opening, all of that new beautiful space will already be filled and bursting at the seams. Operating budgets are equally strained.
The state has steadily decreased its funding to community colleges over the past 20 years from 66 percent of the budget in 1992 to 26 percent this year and that number is expected to drop to less than 20 percent by the end of the year. This steady decrease is state funding has dramatically increased the burden on local taxpayers and students, who are seeing record increases in tuition and fees. Moreover, the current economic downturn could not come at a worse time with its downward push on property values resulting in less local tax revenue.
Record-breaking enrollment growth, coupled with eroding state support, has also resulted in community colleges’ ever-increasing reliance on adjunct (part-time) faculty. And the advantages of adjunct faculty are many. They are paid less, bring real world perspective to the classroom, and their students successfully complete their classes at the same rate as those in classes with full-time faculty. However, SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) the accrediting body for our state colleges and universities, has begun to express increased concern as colleges rely more and more on part-time faculty.
Given current trends, more and more college students will choose to start at their local community college. Community colleges are an increasing viable pathway to a bachelor’s degree with a whopping 78 percent of all Texas freshmen starting at a community college; studies even show that students who start at a community college, receive an associate’s degree and transfer to a university are more likely to graduate than students who start at the university.
Most community colleges have a multitude of articulation agreements with their local colleges and universities. At our University Center at LSC-University Park, students who receive an associate of arts or associate of science degree at any Lone Star College are guaranteed admission to our university partners (Sam Houston, Texas State University, University of Houston and University of Houston-Downtown).
Florida and California essentially require transfer students to earn an associate’s degree before transferring. Texas has no similar incentive, so students can transfer at any point in their college career. The most economical option for students (and taxpayers alike) is to complete their associate’s degree before transferring, but without an incentive to do so, students will continue to take some of their courses at their local community college before transferring sans degree.
Nationally, the pendulum is swinging full force towards community colleges. The White House hosted a first time ever Community College Summit this fall, followed by four regional summits this spring, one of which was hosted at the Lone Star College System-University Park campus. State and national foundations are beginning to take increased notice of community colleges with notable examples including the Lumina Foundation for Education’s multi-million dollar funding of its Achieving the Dream project and the new $35 million Completion by Design initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In these troubling economic times, millions of people across the country are coming to realize the value of starting your higher education at your local community college, which positions community colleges as an integral player in educating the workforce of tomorrow.
The Faces of Community College
Dr. Richard Carpenter, is the Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer of the Lone Star College System and serves as one of the state’s senior advocates for higher education.
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