Community Colleges Overcrowding

Limiting students' educational opportunities creates barriers to success that many cannot overcome. As students seek opportunities in higher education, we must be careful not to limit these options for any segment of society; instead, we should support a system that encourages all students to pursue higher education. A 21st century economy depends upon a person's knowledge as a foundation for increased personal earnings and the economy's enlarged capacity to grow.

A recent Washington Post article cited difficulties that community colleges are having nationwide. Due to budget shortfalls, many of these institutions can no longer accommodate the number of students interested in attending. They have been forced to turn applicants away. In Colorado, where I served as president of Colorado State University, the waiting lists for nursing programs at some community colleges can be as long as 3.5 years. Due to overcrowding and underfunding, nursing students in Colorado face the alternative of a career for which they have less passion or a wait of more than 3 years.

Why is this problematic? Now, more than ever, a college education is the key to future opportunities for today's students and the capacity of a market economy to grow. Students denied access may become bored with their wait and give up on their education dream. Society suffers as well. With a growing, aged population, the absence of adequate employees in sectors like nursing will mean lower quality health care.

There are alternatives to traditional community colleges in the form of career colleges. But this option is also facing limitations in its capacity to serve student and society. With the potential to play a vital role in the higher education sector, career colleges offer an alternative -- a place for non-traditional students who would struggle in a more traditional college setting and as an educational option, not limited by traditional funding sources. Their focus on practical, hands-on training is an additional advantage.

As I have already pointed out, prospective community college students must wait longer periods to take desired classes; their budgets are limiting their capacity to provide the services needed by non-traditional students, and students in traditional community colleges may even face being closed out of entire programs altogether. The option of a career makes sense. With their typical robust set of support services, career colleges address the needs of non-traditional students. Their enrollment structure can remove barriers to successful program completion-barriers that are largely unaddressed in the community college environment.  

Career colleges also offer desired training for a student's career. The Washington Post article cites a craps dealer studying to become an anesthetist, a cocktail waitress learning to be a dental hygienist and a former stripper training to become a nurse - all careers that can be trained for at career colleges across the country in classes with fewer students than their community college counterparts.

As community colleges are suffering from funding and overcrowding issues, career colleges are being unfairly targeted by a proposed Department of Education regulation intended to curb the amount of unpaid student debt in this country. In an effort to prevent students and graduates from defaulting on their student loans, the rule will deny federal financial aid to students who choose certain career college programs over a traditional community college. Unfortunately, this rule -- the Gainful Employment rule -- will potentially limit access for hundreds of thousands of students, students who need financial support the most because they are disproportionately low-income and minority students.

The Department of Education should recognize that career colleges are a vital part of the higher education community and an essential solution to our economic competitiveness. Without these institutions, students have fewer options and society suffers from the lack of needed employees. Career colleges must remain a viable alternative to traditional community colleges and a substantial source of learning for those who choose to pursue higher education.