Higher Education

How a state where community colleges have been an afterthought is turning that around

Community colleges in Massachusetts are at an historic turning point.

Graduates line up for their procession before the Berkshire Community College commencement ceremony at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Graduates line up for their procession before the Berkshire Community College commencement ceremony at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Ryan Lombardini will finish his training this spring in electrical engineering. He’s headed into a competitive program in robotics and mechatronics—a cutting-edge combination of mechanical, electrical, telecommunications, and computer engineering—for which he’ll have to put on hold the business he started in high school designing and installing surveillance systems for customers all over the country. No matter; he already has job offers from employers willing to wait another two and a half years to hire him.

The much-in-demand Lombardini, who is 20 and from Agawam, doesn’t go to MIT or Harvard. He’s wrapping up an associate’s degree at Springfield Technical Community College, and will transfer to the Central Connecticut State University School of Engineering for his bachelor’s degree.

Starting at a community college has meant, “I’m saving money,” Lombardini says. “I can commute; it’s just a 15-minute drive from my house. It’s smaller than a university. I see my advisor every day. There are four students per lab. If I wanted, I could have my professor sitting next to me and explaining things for an hour and a half.”

Lombardini hears the snide comments about community college from friends who go to four-year universities. He says the joke’s on them. He’s paying a fraction of what they do, hasn’t had to take out any loans, and, according to employment data, would have his pick of jobs in Massachusetts even without a bachelor’s degree—many of them at higher salaries than those friends will make.

Long derided and even ignored—especially in states such as Massachusetts, where many people know about community colleges only because they pass them on the highways, or saw one in the movie Good Will Hunting—community colleges are enjoying a burst of national attention as good deals for students focused on getting jobs, and as places more responsive than other types of institutions to calls for innovation in higher education.

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

Under a proposal by President Barack Obama, two years of community college would be tuition free for students who maintain a given grade-point average. And while even the White House concedes that this is unlikely to happen nationally any time soon, several states are already moving ahead with the idea. Community colleges in Tennessee, for instance, will go tuition-free beginning in the fall. In the meantime, community colleges in 21 states have started offering bachelor’s degrees in high-demand fields for which policymakers determined four-year universities weren’t producing enough workers.

When it comes to creating programs that meet local job market needs, employers say community colleges are more responsive than four-year institutions. That’s among the reasons that, of students who transfer out of four-year institutions, more than half end up transferring to a community college. In states where graduates’ income is reported, 30 percent of associate’s degree recipients make more than people with bachelor’s degrees. And they do it at a lower cost, and graduate with much less debt.

Community colleges have become so fashionable that celebrities are coming out as graduates of them. Tom Hanks wrote that his education at a community college “made me what I am today.” George Lucas went to a community college. So did Halle Berry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy Crystal, Clint Eastwood, Jim Lehrer, Pete Rozelle, Costco CEO James Sinegal, and astronauts Fred Haise and Eileen Collins. Like their wealthier private counterparts, community colleges are even starting to supplement their budgets by aggressively fundraising. “This is the moment for community colleges to shine,” says Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, who teaches English at a community college.

In this Sept. 8, 2009 file photo, Hector Gonzalez, 23, of Chelsea, Mass., right, looks over the course syllabus distributed by professor Kathleen O'Neill, left, for a psychology course at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

In this Sept. 8, 2009 file photo, Hector Gonzalez, 23, of Chelsea, Mass., right, looks over the course syllabus distributed by professor Kathleen O’Neill, left, for a psychology course at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

The question, in Massachusetts, is whether they will rise to the occasion.

The mood around this state’s 15 community colleges has been much less giddy than elsewhere in the country. No one is proposing that community colleges here be made free; in fact, they’re the fifth most expensive in the country. They don’t track their graduates’ earnings. The amount of private contributions they collect is down, not up. And there’s no move for them to offer bachelor’s degrees, something that would likely be fiercely opposed anyway—as it has in other states, including New Hampshire—by more powerful four-year universities.

Since the start of the recession, Massachusetts has cut funding for all of public higher education by an inflation-adjusted more than 36 percent—more deeply than not only Connecticut and New York, but also Arkansas and Mississippi, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A state that prides itself on being brainy now ranks 26th in the nation in state support per student, 28th in the proportion of the higher-education budget that goes toward financial aid, and 46th in the average amount of aid provided per student. Community colleges are now being funded at 2001 levels, says the state Department of Higher Education. And an independent audit finds that community college campuses, most of them dating from the 1970s, need $850 million worth of upgrades.

“We struggle with facilities. We struggle with advising and counseling. We struggle with maintaining libraries,” says Ira Rubenzhal president of Springfield Technical Community College. “Every aspect of the academic enterprise is significantly underfunded.”

Related: Want higher-ed reform? You may be surprised where you’ll find it

This lack of investment shows in the results. People like Ryan Lombardini may be great success stories, and products of the things community colleges do well, but many of their classmates struggle. Only 4 percent actually earn their two-year associate’s degrees in two years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. About 16 percent graduate within three years—30th among the states, and below the already abysmal national average of 20 percent. Massachusetts uses an alternate way of calculating graduation rates, which counts everyone who starts at a community college and finishes with a degree from any institution within six years. Fewer than 35 percent of Massachusetts students manage to accomplish that, which is also lower than the national average.

With customers who don’t get anywhere, chronic underfunding, facilities that are more than 40 years old, and billions in needed improvements, community colleges have become the MBTA of Massachusetts higher education.

But they’re at an historic turning point.

Unlike in most other states, Massachusetts’ vaunted private universities and colleges have always enrolled more undergraduate students than its largely neglected public ones. While almost no one was noticing, though, this has suddenly reversed: for the first time, more undergrads in this state now go to public universities than private ones.

Massachusetts Bay Community College.

Massachusetts Bay Community College.

With more Massachusetts parents sending their kids to public higher-education institutions, community colleges have finally become more than side-of-the-highway distractions for politicians and business leaders. That’s only one of the reasons these colleges are getting newfound consideration. The other is that jobs essential to the state’s economy and requiring no more than associate’s degrees have begun to go unfilled. Today in Massachusetts, there are as many available jobs that require associate’s degrees as call for a bachelor’s degree. Yet 69 percent of employers surveyed by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education say they’re having trouble finding workers with the skills they need.

“More and more, people need additional education to get decent-paying jobs, and more and more businesses that want to stay and expand in Massachusetts need educated employees,” Rubenzhal says. “And many of those employees come out of the community colleges.”
But nowhere near enough. There are six jobs for every community college graduate with an associate’s degree in computer science and information technology, and five for every healthcare grad, the Department of Higher Education says. At the current pace, community colleges will turn out between 10,700 and 13,000 fewer graduates with those skills by 2025 than will be needed.

Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

“Massachusetts is the most knowledge-dependent economy in the country,” says Linda Noonan, executive director of the state business alliance and a former assistant secretary for economic affairs. “Community colleges are a great source of preparation for candidates for jobs, but Massachusetts is in the middle of the pack in funding them. They really have been an overlooked resource, and we can’t afford to overlook them any longer.”

That’s why employers and nonprofit foundations have been pushing for major changes. “Talent is our calling card,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which has been at the forefront of this movement. “We can’t afford to have a second-rate system of public higher education any longer, and people are waking up to that. The case is overwhelming that we have to do something.”

Community colleges have long been dependent on political influence for their budget allocations, decisions historically made without regard for which institutions were succeeding at their missions and which were not. But the colleges now are being held to measurable standards such as what proportion of their students actually graduate, and whether they’re meeting local workforce needs. From now on, these and other measures will determine how half of the state money for them will be divided. This year and last, the 15 community colleges got rare additional infusions of much-needed operating funds thanks to the push from those employers and foundations, which was picked up by then-Governor Devall Patrick. A commission appointed by the legislature has called for them to share another $475 million, over the next five years, with the state universities and the University of Massachusetts system.

“The future of our state is at risk,” the commission reported in the fall. “Being average with regard to overall system performance and below average in terms of state support per student and state investment in financial aid is unacceptable in the commonwealth, where the brainpower of our citizens is our primary economic resource.”

Almost three years into these reforms, which took effect beginning in July of 2012, there are very, very small signs of progress. Five of the 15 colleges—Berkshire, Cape Cod, Middlesex, Mt. Wachusett, and North Shore—have met the goal of improving those rates by at least one percentage point per year, though even their collective progress hasn’t been enough statistically to push up the average systemwide.

That seemingly modest ambition, and the fact that most of the community colleges still haven’t reached it, speaks to just what kind of challenges these schools are up against.

North Shore Community College

North Shore Community College

In an American system of higher education that’s increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status, community colleges have become the collecting place for racial and ethnic minorities and low-income students, while higher-income families send their kids to private and flagship public universities. Forty-two percent of students at Massachusetts community colleges are nonwhite, up from 34 percent just four years ago. That’s compared to 23 percent at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

These students, often the products of low-performing urban schools, generally arrive with a greater need for support than graduates of largely white, more affluent suburban high schools. But community colleges are the least-likely higher-education institutions to be able to afford it.

“I’m a bit of an idealist: I think those students should have the same opportunities as students from wealthier families,” says Wayne Burton, former president of North Shore Community College and now a state representative in New Hampshire.

Yet doctoral-granting private universities spend an average of $40,320 per year to educate a single student, according to the College Board. U.S. community colleges spend $8,130, and the amount Massachusetts allocates per student to public higher education at all levels is just $5,672.

“We should flip the prestige hierarchy around,” says Burton. “For me, it’s the distance an institution brings someone from where they started to where they finish that should bring the highest acclaim. If I take a single mother in Lynn who doesn’t speak English, and she ends up with an associate’s degree in healthcare, that’s more praiseworthy than a private college that takes kids with 1600 SATs and gives them bachelor’s degrees.” Community colleges, with their open-admissions policies, he says, “don’t get the respect of colleges that can turn down students they don’t want.”

One result of the disparity in funding is that 70 percent of faculty at Massachusetts community colleges are part-time, Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland says, and aren’t around outside of class to work with students who need help. Many Massachusetts community college students also have to work to pay their bills, meaning they can’t take enough courses to graduate on time. And two-thirds (compared to 10 percent at UMass Amherst) need remedial classes to review what they should have learned in high school—even though they shouldn’t have gotten their diplomas without scoring “proficient” on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test. This academic detour derails huge numbers of students: only one in four who have to take a remedial course earns a degree within eight years.

That disconnect shows that the problem isn’t just with the community colleges, finds a new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. The problem starts in high schools, where the report contends the MCAS test sets too low of a bar. The SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress, it says, show that fewer than half of Massachusetts 12th graders actually are actually ready for college math and reading.

“This is a systemic issue, not just one thing,” says Noonan, “and it starts well before the students get to the threshold of the community college.”

Doing a better job of educating students who are not white or well off, and whose parents never went to college, is not just about fairness. It has become essential. They’re the demographic that’s continuing to grow, as the total pool of high school graduates declines. (It is expected to fall an estimated 9 percent in Massachusetts by 2020.)

“We continue to neglect these students at our peril. They’re an important part and a growing part of the state’s workforce,” says John Schneider, an independent consultant and coauthor of a landmark 2011 Boston Foundation report about community colleges. “The state’s demographics are changing, and if we’re really serious—I mean, really serious—about closing the achievement gap, we’ve got to have the same kind of commitment and purpose that we’ve had with K-12.”
Finally, with their funding now dependent on it, Massachusetts community colleges are working to turn all of this around.

Bunker Hill Community College offers college-level courses for credit to students at Malden High School; a higher proportion of those students than their classmates go on to college.

Middlesex Community College connects arriving students with each other, encouraging them to socialize and support each other in a process proven elsewhere to improve success rates at campuses where, after all, there are no dorms or football teams. That increases the percentage who return to classes the following semester.

Cape Cod Community College used a state grant to improve advising for its first-year students, increasing the proportion who return for a second year by 25 percent.

MassBay Community College has assigned its highest-performing students in life-sciences fields with industry mentors from companies such as Genzyme.

As effective as these initiatives have been, a report from the Boston Foundation says “boutique programs and pilot projects” won’t create large-scale improvements. But the community colleges are after those, too.

Related: As a whole new kind of college emerges, critics fret over standards

To reduce the momentum-killing impact of remedial courses in math, the colleges are experimenting with using high school grade-point averages, instead of placement tests, to decide when students can skip them. They’re also trying to tailor math requirements to majors. Instead of making a liberal-arts major take algebra and calculus, for instance, the new rules may substitute a class in quantitative reasoning.

Even the best-prepared students still have trouble navigating their ways to graduation, since requirements are different from one college to another and even basic courses such as chemistry and biology have different names and numbers at different campuses, according to a report by the Boston Healthcare Careers Consortium. Many students end up repeating their work, or unable to transfer credits, further reducing the number who ever finish. The Massachusetts colleges are following the lead of other states by creating a common course-numbering system and a policy that makes it clearer whether credit can be transferred among them or to one of the public universities.

At first resistant to the change in funding and oversight, which gave the governor more control over their governing boards, community college presidents have come around to the realization that “this is an opportunity for them that they haven’t had,” says Paul Grogan. “The lightbulb went on that they’re getting all of this attention. They’ve never gotten this kind of attention before.” (But the momentum is fragile. To help close the deficit he inherited from his predecessor, Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t increased spending on public higher education; he’s cut their budgets, by 1.5 percent.)

Burton says a core problem is with the perception of community colleges. “The best thing a community college can do? Change its name,” he says. He isn’t joking. Florida and some other states have stripped the name “community” from their community colleges. “Immediately,” says Burton, “their prestige goes up.”

Slow though it is, Grogan thinks the colleges are making progress.

“I’m patient in the sense of a five- or six-year window will give us a better sense of what’s working and what isn’t,” he says. “It takes a while to change these institutions. It may be a push uphill in the short term but if we can stay with it we will succeed.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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