When Rick Santorum said that only snobs believe in "college for all," nobody thought he was talking about community colleges.
Low cost and open to all, "community colleges are the Wal-Mart of higher education, or if you're lucky it's more like Target," writes Dean Kohrs in his book, Hacking College. There's no snob appeal.
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Forty percent of community college students came from families living on $30,000 or less per year in 2007-2008, the most recent year for which federal data are available. Sixty-one percent earned $50,000 or less and 79 percent earned less than $75,000.
The economic, social, and racial divides in higher education are growing, says Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, which has created a task force on "Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal."
If community colleges educate only the "have nots," they'll always be starved of funding, says Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade College and co-chair of the task force. "With no political power, you get [fewer] resources, less of everything."
Community colleges are underfunded "precisely because they serve nontraditional students, including adults, minorities and low income students," says Peter Sacks, author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. But he thinks community colleges should focus on the critical mission of enabling educational "have nots" to earn bachelor's degrees.
Along with more affluent students will come greater political clout and more funding, Kahlenberg believes, which will help all community college students. "It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game."
Some community colleges have drawn more affluent students by offering an "honors college" for well prepared students. In Florida, many two-year colleges now offer bachelor's degree programs that lead to high-demand careers, such as nursing. Working with universities to guarantee students will be able to transfer community college credits also attracts more middle-class students—and helps all transfers, Kahlenberg says.
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Some believe the class divide is closing, as rising college costs push more affluent students to start their studies at community colleges. There's been an increase in community college enrollment by students from families earning $100,000 or more, according to Sallie Mae, the nation's largest college lender.
"Word has gotten out that community colleges are incredible bargains," says Rob Jenkins, who teaches English on two campuses of Georgia Perimeter College. The influx of middle class, relatively well-prepared students has academic benefits, he adds. "It stimulates and strengthens the learning environment, which in a college-level course is a tide that tends to lift all boats."
As long as four-year schools keep raising tuition, community colleges won't have to do much to draw middle-class students, agrees Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst at Education Sector, an education policy think tank. But she sees a potential downside. Middle-class students "will be likely to have the savvy to figure out how to navigate community college deadlines for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment." In crowded classes, they could take seats away from first generation and low income students who aren't as good at figuring out the system.
Middle-class students, usually enrolled full time, are demanding services that less advantaged, community college students have often done without, reports Inside Higher Ed. Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, for example, updated and expanded its fitness center, remodeled the cafeteria, added sports teams, and created a first-year experience program.
It's about time, writes a community college dean on his Inside Higher Ed blog. "If the daughters of privilege start demanding the services that 'real' colleges offer, then the single moms who come here will have access to those, too." The risk is that commuter students with jobs and family responsibilities may help pay for a fitness center they'll never have time to use.
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College bargain hunters won't be enough to close higher education's class divide, the Century Foundation's Kahlenberg says. The rise in middle class, community college students has been dwarfed by a surge of low income students in two-year schools.
Community colleges remain the low status, discount option in U.S. higher education.
Joanne Jacobs writes Community College Spotlight for The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit education news site. Jacobs also blogs about K-12 education and is the author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.