Community colleges are worth the cost

The American public has strong, positive attitudes about the benefits of a community college education, according to the 2019 edition of the “Varying Degrees” study by New America.

Overall, 85 percent of Americans think public community colleges are worth the cost, and 78 percent are comfortable contributing their tax dollars to them (See chart below).

More than half, 62 percent, believe community colleges are run efficiently and spend money wisely, and 86 percent believe community colleges contribute to a strong American workforce.

With respect to those issues, community colleges got higher ratings than any other type of postsecondary institution.

Support for public community colleges is strong across all education levels, but the report found some variations. Among Americans with associate degrees, 88 percent believe community colleges are worth the cost. That compares to 82 percent among people with a high school education or less, 85 percent among people with a bachelor’s degree and 94 percent for people with a graduate degree.

There are similar patterns with regard to attitudes about supporting community colleges with tax dollars. Americans with graduate degrees (89 percent) and associate degrees (80 percent) were most comfortable contributing tax dollars to community colleges. Americans with a high school diploma or some college (77 percent) and Americans with bachelor’s degrees (73 percent) were less supportive.

Solid return on investment

In general, survey respondents believe the more education a person has, the higher the salary they will earn. However, while 23 percent believe people with a technical degree or certificate will earn much more than a person with no education beyond high school, only 20 percent believe a person with an associate degree will earn much more than someone with no postsecondary education.

Eight-seven percent agree that people with a technical degree or certificate “have an easier time finding a well-paying and stable career.” That compares to 81 percent for associate-degree earners and more than 90 percent for people with bachelor’s, advanced and professional degrees.

In comparing attitudes among generations, the study found millennials (ages 25 to 39) are most dubious about the value of higher education, in general. Only 21 percent of millennials strongly agree that “education beyond high school offers a good return on investment for the student.” That compares to 24 percent for the youngest group (Generation Z), 30 percent for Generation X, 33 percent for Baby Boomers and 42 percent for the Silent Generation.

When asked about the most important things higher education, in general, should do for students, the top three are: supporting learning and development toward lifelong careers; preparing students for entering the job market or graduate school; and teaching work-related skills and knowledge.

Support for public funding

When asked who should be more responsible for funding higher education, 67 percent of respondents said, “the government, because it is good for society,” and 31 percent said “students, because they personally benefit.”

“In general, all Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity, believe that states and the federal government should spend more to make education opportunities after high school more affordable,” the report says.

It also finds that “most Americans support the idea that colleges and universities should lose some access to taxpayer dollars if several indicators of quality are missing, evident in low graduation rates, high default rates for student loans, low rates of student loan repayment, and low incidence of jobs with a living wage for graduates.”

Ninety-two percent of Americans strongly agree or somewhat agree that they would “feel comfortable recommending my child or close family member enroll in an apprenticeship program,” which the report defines as an education model that combines paid, structured on-the-job training with classroom learning.

Eight-nine percent would feel comfortable recommending a technical degree or certificate, and 82 percent would feel comfortable recommending an associate degree.

Portland’s career pathways

The report includes two “focus features,” one on career pathways at Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon and another on food insecurity on campus.

PCC’s Career Pathways program offers short-term certificates that can prepare students for entry-level jobs in multiple fields. These certificates follow a specific pathway that lays out how students can move from low- to high-skill levels and build a career in a certain field. After completing the certificate, students can get a job or stay on and earn more certificates that can eventually lead to an associate degree at PCC or a bachelor’s degree at another institution.

Career Pathways at PCC serves 300 to 500 students per year, offering programs in multiple industry sectors, from manufacturing to child and family studies.

PCC carries out intensive outreach efforts to underserved communities to encourage them to apply for Career Pathways. Once students enroll, a career navigator helps them to stay on track and to get extra help with their studies or non-academic needs, such as finding childcare or extra financial support.

Data from a comprehensive analysis of academic years 2012-2016 by PCC show that more than 94 percent of Career Pathways students completed their programs of study. Seventy-two percent pursue additional education, and 75 percent were employed after completion, with an average wage of $16 an hour.

Food insecurity

The report also found that 46 percent of current college students report that “often, or at least sometimes, in the last 12 months, the food they bought just did not last and they did not have money to buy more.” Often, students have to make difficult choices between buying food or paying for school fees or diapers for their children.

“This isn’t just about feeding people; it’s also about student success and completion,” Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) in Boston, said in the report.

A survey by HOPE Lab found more than half of the respondents at BHCC ran out of food and could not afford to buy more in the previous month, and nearly half reported skipping meals or eating less because they could not afford enough food.

Eddinger estimates that approximately 2,500 BHCC students use the college’s Single Stop program each year. Single Stop houses a food pantry and helps students apply for food stamps, as well as other services, such as housing and childcare referrals.

Source: New America, “Varying Degrees 2019,” September 2019.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.