Strapped: Why America's 20 and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead
By Tamara Draut
If you've ever spent time on any of the nation's 1,132 community college campuses, one thing you're bound to notice is the diversity of students. And I'm not talking solely about racial diversity. Today, community colleges enroll 44 percent of all undergraduates attending colleges, and the breadth of learning and the diversity of students at our community colleges is quite amazing. You'll find fresh-faced 18-year-olds working on the first two years of their bachelor's degrees, recent immigrants learning English or studying for their citizenship test, and workers of all ages boning up on technical skills or learning new ones. You'll also find students simply trying to get the basic reading, writing, and math skills our public schools failed to provide. This smorgasbord aspect of community college can make it less than ideal for students whose ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree. Unlike universities, community colleges aren't geared solely to the needs of undergraduates.
Community colleges are guided by a commitment to serve the needs of the entire community-which means offering a wide array of classes all in one institution. A community college is often the only place for students who want to get more education or learn a job skill, but aren't academically prepared or financially set for a university. The problem today is that community college has become the consolation prize for smart kids who can't afford a "real college," which makes it much more likely they'll never get a "real degree." A 2002 survey of college borrowers found that 40 percent had delayed going to college or had gone to a less expensive college to avoid the burden of large student loans. A 2004 survey of recent high school graduates found that the majority of students would have chosen a different school if money hadn't been an issue.
Though community college is still considered a bargain, it's gotten harder to escape debt-free. Today, the average debt of a former community college student is $8,700.
Natalie, a white 26-year-old, had everything going for her when she graduated from high school. She had earned good grades, done well on her SATs, and gotten accepted by the college of her choice. She had chosen to go to Monmouth University, a small, rather selective private college in New Jersey. Natalie grew up in the suburbs and both of her parents attended college. Her mom has an associate's degree in nursing and her father is an engineer. But like many middle-class families, Natalie's parents couldn't provide much in the way of financial support. Monmouth costs about $27,000 a year, including room and board. Thanks to money she inherited from her grandmother, Natalie was able to pay $13,000 out of her own pocket for the first year. The rest she took out in student loans. Like most students her age, she was excited about living in the dorms and looked forward to the college experience. But after one semester of classes, Natalie's outlook changed dramatically. "I felt the classes were irrelevant. I was going to school with a lot of people who were there because they had the money, not necessarily the brains." Natalie said she "wasn't going to pay an astronomical amount of money for something she didn't feel was worth it." So she packed her stuff and moved back in with her parents.
Because Natalie knew she had to earn some kind of degree, she immediately signed up for classes at the local community college. For $1,000, she was able to take a full load of classes for a semester. After a half year of course work, Natalie decided to enroll in the Art Institute of Philadelphia to study multimedia and video production. The program takes three years and awards an associate's degree. Natalie loved her coursework and thrived in the nontraditional atmosphere. She felt passionate about the work and unlike with her one semester at Monmouth, she felt she was really getting her money's worth.
Since graduating from college in 1999, Natalie has had four different jobs, all administrative in nature. All told, she has $20,000 in student loan debt, plus a car payment. Her current job pays $37,000, but after taxes are taken out and her bills and rent are paid, Natalie is often short of cash. When that happens, she scrolls through a mental list of people she can call to lend her $10 for something to eat. Her landlord recently jacked up her rent by $133 a month, forcing Natalie to move back home. It's the third time she's gone back to the nest since graduating from high school.
Natalie has regrets about her college experience, but feels it's too late for her to start over. As Natalie told me, "I'd love more than anything to have a four-year degree. But it's not economically viable for me. I have a lifestyle I need to maintain now and bills to pay and I wouldn't receive much financial aid because I make too much money. But I don't make enough to pay for college. You're in a catch-22. There's nothing you can do about it. You just do what you can.
Natalie blames part of her situation on a lack of guidance or direction from her parents. But there's a long list of people who could have helped Natalie better navigate her way through college. First, Natalie took a full course load at community college without any interaction with a student counselor. She signed up, took the courses, and left. If someone had explained to her that she could have taken her undergrad courses there and then transferred to a state college or university, Natalie could have made a more informed decision. But because community' colleges are open-enrollment institutions, students can just sign up for classes willy-nilly. There's often no academic adviser to help plan a course of study or discuss your goals for enrollment, though some community colleges have begun formalizing their transfer programs to better meet the increasing demand for this type of education.
Even for students whose intention is solely to earn an associate's degree, the dropout rates from community colleges are sky-high. These students have chosen an educational path that is available only at community colleges, and yet most won't complete their two years. Why? Unlike students at four-year colleges, 18-to-22-year-olds at community colleges are more likely to be working lull-time and attending school on a part-time basis. Far too often, the pull of work wins out over school. Five years after entering community college, only about one in five students who enrolled with the intention of getting an associate's degree has accomplished that goal.
What Renee, Natalie, and countless others have learned is that there is no margin for error anymore in young adulthood. Those years that fall between adolescence and adulthood are supposed to be full of exploration and identity building. Young adults who go to college, study full-time, and live on campus have the luxury of structure, support, and guidance to exploit this life stage to its fullest. They can dabble in economics, psychology, sociology, and art history without having to choose between paying the rent and taking classes. No such padding exists for most community college students. Unlike four-year-college students, who attend institutions where the exploratory aspect of college is built in-a person can change majors three or four times and still graduate on time-community college students purchase their education one course at a time.
As the cost of four-year colleges has risen, more students are choosing to start down the bachelor's degree path at a community college. The research is mixed on the success of this strategy. One study finds that about 40 percent of community college students who enrolled with the intention of transferring end up doing so. Other studies find that students seeking bachelor's degrees who enroll in community colleges with the intention of transferring to a four-year college are much less likely to earn their B.A.s. Among students who start at four-year colleges, 53 percent complete their bachelor's degrees in five years. Among students who first enroll in two-year colleges and then transfer, only 26 percent earn a bachelor's degree after five years.