Community colleges are becoming lifesavers to students seeking a degree but unable to pay the skyrocketing costs of four-year colleges. Yet community colleges are struggling to cope with increased enrollment as their budgets are slashed by debt-laden states.
About 8 million students were enrolled in for-credit classes at the nation's 1,173 community colleges last fall, up from about 5.5 million a decade earlier. Junior colleges have seen an influx of younger students looking for a way around skyrocketing tuition costs at four-year schools and older students looking to get retrained after a recession that has wiped out millions of jobs.
But there are signs that the system is being pushed to the breaking point.
California community colleges, which make up the largest higher education system in the nation, had 2.6 million students enrolled in credited classes last year. Classes are so packed that students are lining the walls and squatting on the floor just so they can attend class, said Terri Carbaugh, vice chancellor for communications in the state system.
Due to $520 million in budget cuts, the system eliminated about 10 percent of classes, and the rest are overenrolled, she said. Even though the system is open access, meaning that colleges admit everyone who applies, about 140,000 students enrolled but were unable to get into any classes. In the next two years, roughly half a million students will be unable to enroll in classes if colleges don't receive more funding, Carbaugh said.
Community colleges have become a particularly attractive option over the past decade as costs have soared at four-year schools. Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose at an average rate of 4.9 percent per year beyond general inflation over the past 10 years — faster than either of the previous two decades — according to the College Board.
Fees at two-year colleges also have been rising but still look like a bargain compared to their four-year counterparts.
Tuition at public two-year schools averaged $2,544 for the 2009-2010 year, compared with $7,020 for in-state students at four-year public colleges.
Justin Tarahomi is typical of a new wave of young people choosing to begin their postsecondary careers at a community college.
Tarahomi, who just graduated from high school, is attending Michigan’s Schoolcraft Community College in the fall. After watching his parents struggle to support him and his brother when his father was laid off in the summer of 2007, Tarahomi decided to pay for his own college education without borrowing. To achieve his goal, Tarahomi signed up for community college, got a job at Costco and applied for as many scholarships as possible.
“My parents brought me up to have no credit cards, have as little debt as I can, and pay everything with cash. If I can’t afford it, then if I can’t afford it and I’ll figure something else out,” he said. “I tried to minimize my debt. … It just seems like attending a state or private institution is really frivolous now when you have community colleges you can attend for your first two years."
Tarahomi hopes to transfer to the University of Michigan in two years as a pre-med biology major. He’s relieved community college will allow him to prepare for his educational future.
“Going to medical school, I’ll probably have to take out a lot of loans — almost everyone does — so I look at it as I’ll have that much less loan to pay back,” he said. “My goal is to go into medical school debt-free; that way I’ll have a clean slate and be able to focus on paying off my medical school bills.”
The demographics of community colleges are changing rapidly, largely because of the rising cost of four-year colleges and a wave of Millennials coming out of high school.
“With that large number of high school graduates and the cost of four-year education becoming more expensive, we’ve been seeing more … students straight out of high school coming to community colleges,” said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of research and student success at American Association of Community Colleges.
Community college students traditionally have been diverse in age and ethnicity, but have typically been lower-income. This trend is changing, however. Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center, said colleges he has worked with have observed an increase in middle-class students.
These wealthier students often have significant advantages, Jenkins said, which could cut into opportunities for poorer students.
“Those middle-class students tend to apply early, they’re more likely to get financial aid, they know how to work the system, they’re better able to use the advising systems and academic support than lower income students, who are maybe more likely to be first-generation college students,” Jenkins said.
Community colleges are fighting to embrace the student flood with mixed results, he said.
“It’s partly mission-driven because they really believe they want to serve all comers, that they are open-door institutions,” Jenkins said. “But it’s also of course how they’re paid, based on enrollment and census data. They basically take all comers, and sometimes I believe that’s to the detriment of the student.”
The adviser to student ratio is now one to 1,000 if not more at most community colleges, Jenkins said. Part-time advisers are brought on to serve increased demand, but their quality can vary and they are frequently not as well-trained, he said. Community colleges often rely on adjunct professors who don't receive training, creating lack of coherence in schools’ programs Jenkins said.
Nevertheless the growth of community colleges is likely to represent a permanent shift. Future high school graduating classes may be smaller than the Millennials' in number, but the increased push for students to go to college will keep enrollment high, Phillippe said.
“There’s still going to be increased pressure for people to get a post-secondary education more so than there has been; a real movement to try to align the high school graduation criteria with college entrance, making entry into post secondary easier for college students to do,” he said. “Those together may continue to keep enrollment up.”
Patrick Perry, vice chancellor of California Community Colleges, said the current budget squeeze represents a huge brick wall for many high school graduates.
“There’s definitely a bad side to a certain percentage of high school grads getting out, thinking they can at least go to a community college and then not even being able to do that,” he said. “At that point, the pathways of their lives are just altered, they go off and do something else and you never know quite what happens to them.”
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints