Crunch time for community colleges: Two-year institutions face major challenges as enrollment numbers rise in tough economy

The Philadelphia Inquirer
The community college is being asked to save America.

But like a small-town fire department straining to contain a big-city blaze, community colleges aren't equipped to handle the huge job thrust on them, many experts say.

Many millennials - a diverse demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds who make up the largest share of community-college students in the Delaware Valley - are looking to the schools to give them a fighting chance in a brutal economy.

A torrent of young people who realize a high school diploma means nearly nothing in the new economy or can't afford four-year schools have pinned their hopes on these modest campuses.

For the young people who have swelled community-college classrooms, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Nick Fasciocco, 26, laid off from two jobs in recent years, is counting on Delaware County Community College to give him the skills to land a steady job in a new career in respiratory therapy.

Rebecca Ellis, 19, a Haddonfield Memorial High School graduate, has turned to Camden County College to give her an affordable start on her bachelor's degree so she can transfer to her four-year dream school.

On any given day, Denzel Parker-Dixon, 19 checks in with his mentor at the Community College of Philadelphia's Center for Male Engagement, a support program for young African American men who face daunting odds - a nearly 60 percent fall-to-fall, first-year dropout rate.

The Great Recession and changes in the American economy have heightened demands on community colleges. In addition to younger students, the colleges are also being sought out by legions of displaced workers needing to update their job skills.

At the same time, the colleges are being challenged to graduate more students. Nationally, of students who started in 2007, 22.5 percent graduated after three years. Pennsylvania's rate is 14 percent and New Jersey's is 17 percent.

As enrollments have soared and state funding in many places has not kept pace, community colleges are being challenged to educate more efficiently, to yield better results - even if it means limiting whom they serve.

From New York to California, for better and some say for worse, change is coming.
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