Enrolling in community college is just half the battle

The good news: Low-income students are enrolling in Michigan colleges at a record rate.

The bad news: Many of them won’t leave with degrees.

While more low-income students are making it to campus, they’re more likely to attend Michigan community colleges, where the graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation.

“These kids hit a stone wall when they get to campus,” said Tom Mortenson, policy analyst for Postsecondary Education Opportunity, an advocacy group based in Iowa.

Michigan is falling behind other states in the college readiness race, sending fewer high school grads directly to college, and graduating fewer of them once they reach campus.

The easiest way for Michigan to make up ground is to increase the college graduation rates of low-income and minority students, groups that traditionally have enrolled at lower rates than middle-class whites, said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust Midwest.

An analysis by Mortenson suggests Michigan’s poor are heading to college. Michigan is second in the nation in the share of low-income students enrolled in higher education. About 49 percent of low-income students are enrolled in college, compared to 34 percent nationally.

(Mortenson arrived at the figure by comparing the number of students in fourth through ninth grades eligible for free or reduced lunch, with the number of students at Michigan colleges receiving need-based Pell Grants nine years later. While the calculation may not be exact, Mortenson believes it provides a clear reference for trends and state-to-state comparisons.)

Michigan can thank a bad economy for the trend. “It’s not any policy apparatus,” Mortenson explains. “Kids are geing kicked in the butt by the economy and lack of other opportunities.”

As more low-income students attend college, a greater share are going to community college rather than four-year institutions. In 2010, two-thirds of community college students received Pell Grants, an indicator of low income, compared to 35 percent in 2002. Pell Grant recipients at four-year universities grew at a slower pace in the same eight-year span, from 22 percent to 33 percent.

“Low-income college participation is way up, but they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in community colleges,” Mortenson said. “We’re developing a class stratified system, where if you’re affluent you attend a four-year university and if you’re not, we have a great community college for you.”

It makes financial sense for low-income students to attend community colleges. Tuition is usually less than half of the cost at four-year universities, and kids typically commute to campus from home rather than paying to live in a dorm. Most community college course credits can be transferred to four-year universities if students choose to try for a bachelor’s degree.

But graduation rates are abysmal at Michigan community colleges. Less than one in six community college students earned a two-year associate’s degree within three years.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data available, Michigan ranked 44th among the states in associate degree graduation rates. By comparison, about 55 percent of students in four-year universities earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. In simplest terms,  low-income students are going to community colleges where an education is cheaper, but where the odds are longer that they’ll get a degree.

“There’s a lot of emphasis both locally and nationally on non-traditional and first-generation students,” says Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

To address the graduation rate challenge, Hansen says the state’s community colleges are working to place a greater emphasis on degree completion, rather than just college acceptance:

“There’s a college-going culture of counseling and financial aid, that if you’re the first person in your family to go to college, you may not know how to do that.”

Low income college participation rates by state are simply the number of dependent Pell Grant recipients by state of residence divided by the number of fourth- to ninth-graders nine years earlier who were approved for free or reduced price school lunches in that state.

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.


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Tue, 05/08/2012 - 3:21pm
Many community college students will carry a full load of classes for two years and then move on to a major university. Often these students will not exactly meet the requirements for an Associate degree, but they did earn 60 credits or more. So the data on community college graduation rates does not reflect that many, many students focus on the four year degree, but do not bother with the two year degree. Did they gain from the community college experience? Yes! As it happened , I chose to earn an Associate degree, then moved on for my bachelors degree two and a half years later. I figured that if, for some reason, I had to interrupt my college plans after the two years, I could legitimately tell prospective employers that I did earn a college degree. But many peers did not bother with the AA degree, since perhaps they lacked a PE requirement or some other relatively minor credit. Finally, my community college experience at Schoolcraft in Livonia was the best years of my life. I would do it again in a minute. The lower tuition, smaller classes and more direct contact with instructors made for a winning combination And many of my high school friends attended a major university straight out of high school,paid high dollar tuition to sit in a lecture hall with two hundred other freshman,got disillusioned and flunked out. They eventually wound up at a community college as part of their comeback. Community colleges are an integral step in the education continuum.
Tue, 05/08/2012 - 3:23pm
There's one solution to multiple problems with post secondary education that hasn't been part of the discussion: Middle Colleges, programs on college campuses for high school students. Problem: The cost of college has increased beyond reach of many families. Solution: Enrolling your son/daughter in a middle college will cut the total college cost of tuition, room, and board by half. Problem: Only one third of students finish a bachelors degree within 5 years. Solution: Middle Colleges enable a student to earn up to 60 transferable college credits while still in high school. College now costs less and one can earn a bachelors degree only two years after high school graduation. Problem: Students have difficulty making the adjustment from living at home to college. Solution: Middle Colleges help ease the transition by developing life skills and career pathways while the student still lives at home. In Michigan, Middle College opportunities are few and far between. To see a list:http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,4615,7-140-43092_51178---,00.htmlEvery community college in this state should offer a middle college program. Governor Snyder and the legislature could make this happen by including this as one of their Best Practices for additional funding. So, Bridge Magazine, when will you write a piece that examines Middle Colleges?