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Community Colleges: Higher Ed, Lower Cost

Giovanny Martinez didn't enroll in a community college because he was worried about paying for his education. After four years in the Marine Corps, he had the GI Bill to cover his costs.

Brookhaven sign
Brookhaven sign

Instead, he did it because he needed a new kind of training -- on how to be a student again. The time that the 25-year-old native of Colombia spent in uniform meant he'd gotten out of the habit of studying and test-taking, and that's why he's now at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas.

"I came here because it's been probably more than five years since I stepped in a classroom, since high school," says Martinez, who's eying a career in physical therapy. "So [community] college, for me, I thought it was a step into education. So it will get me into a process, will get me used to a university."

Like Martinez, millions of Americans are choosing community college -- and for nearly as many reasons. In addition to being cheaper and shorter than traditional four-year universities, community colleges offer degrees in vocations with a more practical bent, including automotive technology, business administration, computer information systems and nursing.

Community college enrollment makes up a sizable chunk of higher education in the U.S. The American Association of Community Colleges represents 1,132 community colleges, and students at these schools were 44% of the entire U.S. population of undergraduates in 2009. These colleges have been around for decades, but as millions of workers remain unemployed, many available jobs go unfilled and the cost of a post-high school education balloons, they're being viewed in new ways.

Martinez, for example, is among the almost 13,000 credit-seeking and 8,000 continuing education students at Brookhaven, whose campus is located just northwest of Dallas. The college, founded in 1978, is one of seven members of the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD). As is the case with community colleges across the country, Brookhaven offers classes for first- and second-year students that can go toward an associate degree or a transfer to a bachelor's program. Along with general college courses, it has a host of technical and professional programs for students who want to learn a skill and get to work quickly.

"You have the students who come in absolutely focused," says Dr. Thom Chesney, Brookhaven's president. "They sit down with an adviser. They know what they want to do. They talk to a faculty member, then they fine-tune that" to create their own path.

Community College Facts Chart
Community College Facts Chart

Source: American Association of Community Colleges

Paying for it

Alongside the dedicated students and the not-as-certain population at community colleges, you'll find students who already have degrees and want fresh professional training. Some people are satisfying a curiosity. Others are changing careers entirely. Another group has been given a mandate from their parents to get out of the house and take time for a few college credits. Some, like Martinez, are former military members making the move to the civilian world. And many of his contemporaries, who do not have their education costs covered by the GI Bill, are very much swayed by the price.

According to data from the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of a college education rose 35% from the 2000-01 academic year, to $18,133 in 2010-11. At public institutions, the change was even greater -- a 42% increase to $13,297. At two-year colleges the annual cost has also gone up, climbing 29% to $8,734. (Data cover tuition and room and board, and are in constant 2009-10 dollars.)

The College Board goes a step deeper with its data, pegging the average cost of attending a community college in the 2010-11 school year at $14,637. Of that total, $2,713 was the tuition and fees component, and $7,259 was assumed in expenses for off-campus room and board. Books and supplies, transportation and other expenses amounted to the remaining $4,665.

Community colleges offer programs focused on specific classes or customized training. That often means they can accomplish things that are difficult or impossible for a four-year university. "We're probably more used to that in higher ed than anyone," Chesney says. "It has always been the case. The drumbeat of do more, frequently with less."

The less part is one of the greatest challenges, because, not surprisingly, that's often referring to money. The Dallas district to which Brookhaven belongs has seen its funding cut by Austin, and that's a familiar pattern in many states where legislators are still dealing with the effects of the economic downturn. States can't pay for everything, and sometimes that means education outlays get sliced.

Some offsets do exist. Brookhaven's spring 2013 semester will see a $7-per-credit-hour tuition hike, while Dallas County households became subject to an additional tax of approximately $1.66 a month that will go toward the DCCCD's operations. Of course, the impact of raising prices means students have to pay more out of pocket or borrow additional funds. When that happens, community colleges become a bit less affordable. But again, compared with the higher-education alternatives of four-year schools and for-profit institutions, they remain much cheaper and almost certainly will continue to.

That said, navigating between fewer available government funds and requiring heightened tuition does trouble Dr. Sanford Shugart, who oversees a student body of 60,770 credit-taking students as president of Valencia College, based in Orlando, Fla. "We're caught between a rock and a hard place," he says. "The business model has got to get sorted out at some point. There are limits to the elasticity of our cost structure."

The population at Valencia, winner of The Aspen Institute's 2011 prize as the nation's top community college, has surged nearly 32% since 2007-08, which marked the beginning of the U.S. financial crisis. Community colleges, Shugart says, could sense the economy was getting bad before it became widely accepted. "Enrollment exploded, because our enrollment is counter-cyclical to the economy," he says.

Like Brookhaven, Valencia has seen state cuts, and at the same time, it's had to figure out how to accommodate a jump in its pupil count by getting "very clever and very creative," Shugart says. "We became much more lean and much more competitive."

Much like the community college student body aims to be.

Cost of College Chart
Cost of College Chart

Source: The College Board

Growing debt

Graduates in 2011 who left college with a BA carried with them an average debt of $26,600, a report from The Institute for College Access & Success, an affordable-education advocacy group, recently said. However, the Association of American Universities says that most student loans aren't as severe as they might seem. The AAU, citing a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report that relied on Equifax data, puts the average at $23,300 for each student.

But perhaps more importantly, it argues that 43% of grads owed under $10,000. Another 29% had a loan balance below $25,000. Said another way, roughly 28% of borrowers skewed the average upward by having to repay large sums. The AAU numbers do include graduate and professional school debt along with undergraduate figures.

While it's heartening to hear that individual debt, in many cases, isn't necessarily out of hand, the total amount outstanding is astonishing, if recent data are accurate. The New York Fed said in November that the total student loan balance outstanding was $956 billion as of the end of the third quarter. That's led to no small amount of hand-wringing about a bubble in the loan market that could deal another hit to the economy.

Even if you don't subscribe to those jitters, it doesn't take a giant leap to at least consider the notion that graduating with $10,000 in debt and a skill is a nicer way to start one's career than with $30,000 or more owed.

Read more on America's community colleges, work force readiness and corporate partnerships in part two of this article -- Community Colleges: Students Come In, Employees Emerge.