A Look at the Biggest Community Colleges in the US and Why They are Growing

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In October 2010, Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the current Vice President of the United States, led a summit on the current conditions in community colleges of America. As the White House’s website (2010) for the event stated: “Community colleges are the largest part of America’s higher education system, enrolling more than 8 million students each year. Last year, President Obama proposed the American Graduation Initiative to usher in a series of new innovations and reforms to expand and strengthen opportunities at America’s community colleges.”

Despite the stereotype sometimes associated with community colleges, these institutions are clearly important to American higher education. For many people, community college is a way to attain an education they would otherwise be unable to afford. With cost of living and job requirements always increasing, it is likely that attendance at community colleges will continue to grow.

“Community” Does not Mean Small

In 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education listed Miami-Dade College (MDC), as the largest community college in the United States. MDC boasts enrollment of more than 170,000 students at eight campuses globally.

The Houston and Austin Community Colleges in Texas also historically have high enrollment numbers. In the National Center for Educational Statistics report from the U.S. Department of Education, the 2004 “Digest of Education Statistics” ranks them in the top of the 120 largest degree-granting college and university campuses. Northern Virginia Community College, the very community college institution at which Dr. Jill Biden currently teaches, also has a large student body. A state known for multiple large community college systems is California. More recently, the state of North Carolina has gained ground, now standing at the third largest in community college system size across all fifty states.

These trends follow geographic distributions noted by Alice C. Andrews and James W. Fonseca in their 1998 report, Community Colleges in the United States: A Geographic Perspective. Andrews and Fonseca (1998) noted, “Numbers vary greatly by state, with 107 in California and only one each in Alaska, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont. Other states with large numbers of community colleges, in addition to California, are Texas (67), North Carolina (58), Georgia (54), Minnesota (51), Illinois (49) and New York (47).”

At the same time, one must take into consideration that many of these states are currently experiencing high unemployment rates, decreasing house values, high immigrant and minority populations, and/or an influx in population. All these factors affect higher education statistics.

Why More are Choosing to Attend Community College

Unemployment rates are one reason for the increase in community college attendance. Many of the jobs that did not previously require a college diploma either now require one or have been dwindling in availability in the American workforce. Many states — and now the federal government — have made funds available for displaced workers to train at regional or community colleges. Some classes may be offered at reduced or free rates, depending on the institution and circumstances.

Likewise, with unemployment up, the economy in a slump, and private and state school tuition increasing, more and more families are opting to send young adult offspring to community colleges rather than four-year schools. Many community colleges offer the same general education, liberal arts and introductory courses that can either count towards an Associate’s degree or transfer to other four-year schools. If a student completes his or her first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year private or state institution to finish the degree, this dramatically decreases the expense.

Community colleges are also seeing more students come to college whereas before they may have taken time off to serve in the military or enter trade practices. In 2008, William D. Green, CEO of Accenture, provided additional insights into why many are attending community colleges these days. In the Forbes article cited below, he summarizes the typical community college demographic by stating, “Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. Many are older, are working part or full-time, or are new arrivals to America, and many are taking care of families.”

Community colleges tend to have open-enrollment and be less expensive. Generally speaking, they have added greatly to applied health sciences and technology departments (two of the growing industries), and have the support and retention programs (from extra tutoring to ESL programs) to assist those populations who could benefit most. This includes some minority and international students as well as community residents in the areas served by the colleges. With an increase in online course offerings and more flexible class scheduling options like night and Saturday classes, community colleges demonstrate an understanding of the daily juggles and struggles students may have balancing work, family and studies.

The Future

In some cases, like that of Miami-Dade, the biggest community colleges are experiencing budget and enrollment stresses. Parking lots and on-campus facilities may be full. More adjunct professors are needed, more support and accommodations are being established. Hopefully, the American community college system will benefit from the government’s initiatives because community colleges play such an integral role not just in their communities, but in the country. They might not be big names, but they will nonetheless continue to develop many majors and degree programs, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. At the same time, they can be expected to experience some institutional mission and offerings changes. Some may develop to the point where they seek accredited university status. This is the most interesting time to study, attend and work in higher education, particularly within community colleges.