Going the distance at community college


The entrance to Palomar College, a community college in San Marcos, California. Photo/Kaity Bergquist.

With over two million students in California community colleges alone, two-year schools have to deal with large class sizes, lack of counselors, and parking issues, all in the midst of turbulent state funding. All these factors and more can only lead to one thing: students at two-year colleges cannot reasonably finish in two years. It takes much longer.

According to a College Board report, only 21 percent of community college students who started in 2005 finished within three years. A study by the Campaign for College Opportunity showed that in the 2012-13 school year, the average amount of time for 64,000 students who graduated with one associate degree was 4.1 years. According to the study, the main factors that kept students at community college were a lack of classes, work and family obligations, and students having to take remedial courses.

James Williams, a journalism major, has been attending Riverside City College since he graduated high school in 2009. He said the main reason he’s been at RCC so long is the lack of guidance.

“This was a huge factor once I got to Riverside Community College District,” he said. “One of the counselors I dealt with as I would seek guidance for the upcoming semester prior to the meeting, would have me bring in any documents at the meeting regarding my classes because he was working with a computer in his office for over a year that did not allow him to access my profile.”

Williams, though he hasn’t dealt with a lot of issues getting into classes, said that he wishes his class requirements were more aligned with his future career.

“Without a doubt, I would say the most frustrating thing is having to take classes that I am struggling with that may have a minimal impact on what my actual career path may be,” he said. “As a journalism major, I often sit in classes such as history or math, other than the basic mathematics necessities of course, and wonder how this applies to what I want to do in my career.”


Students line up to graduate from Palomar College in the Spring 2013 Commencement ceremony. Some students take three or four years to reach this milestone. Photo/Kaity Bergquist

For Belinda Callin, who was a student at Palomar College in San Marcos, California for two and a half years (plus two summer sessions), stopped attending community college without finishing her degree because she couldn’t get into one class: English 100.

“By the time my online enrollment date came to pass, all of the English classes were already full,” she said. “I tried two semesters in a row to crash every English class I could attend, including online classes. Priority seemed to be given to incoming freshmen over those of us who were units away from finishing.”

Despite not receiving her degree, she’s busy working and taking care of her two children. She said she didn’t need a degree for her job and that she was able to learn what she needed to know from the classes themselves.

“Perhaps one day I will return to take that last class,” Callin said. “But as a single mom with a full time career, I just don’t have the time any more. I had two years to complete a degree, those years passed and I don’t have a degree. But life doesn’t stop because the community college system has to cut back on funding or the influx of freshman is too much to handle. I just have to wait until my life slows down again, enough that I can attempt to go crash class after class hoping a spot opens up.”

Two years ago, California voters passed Proposition 30, which proposed a tax increase with 11 percent of the new funds going to community colleges, according to the official summary of the proposition. This money came after tuition at community colleges statewide rose $20 in two years. The per unit cost in 2010 was $26; by summer of 2013, it was $46 per unit. This is a far cry from the 1980s, when it was $5 per unit. But it’s also a far cry from tuition at a four-year college, which can run from $20,000 to $50,000 per year.


Students crowd into the parking lot after a fire alarm went off at Palomar College. Community colleges such as this one have enrollments of around 30,000 students. Photo/Kaity Bergquist

The passing of Prop. 30 was also beneficial because the system went through major budget cuts in 2009-10 and 2011-12. The system made a categorical cut of $313 million in 2009-10 and an apportionment cut of $385 million in 2011-12, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. This resulted in cutting classes. Community colleges get paid per full time equivalent student, or FTES. Because of these budget cuts, the system had 252,000 FTES that they received no funding for during that time. According to the CCCCO, class offerings were reduced 25 percent. If Prop. 30 hadn’t passed, schools would have had to cut down even more. According to its student newspaper, Palomar College would have had to make a $6.5 million cut in the middle of the school year, which would have severely impacted class offerings.

Julio Flores is a former intern with the Campaign for College Opportunity. He was also a community college counselor intern. He attended Rio Hondo College in Whitter, California from 2008 to 2011. He is attending a master’s program at USC and doing research on STEM students at community college. He said one the biggest reasons students are stuck in community college is the need to take remedial classes.

“It’s basically going over what you should have learned in high school,” he said.

According to the Campaign for College Opportunity study, students who had to take remedial classes finished with 20 more units than they needed.

As a community college counselor intern, Flores had the opportunity to work with students as they sought guidance through the community college system. He explained that counselors can be overwhelmed with the amount of students they need to help.

“There are so many students to one counselor. They experience what we call burnout. Especially if their case load is too much that they can’t give the best advice to students,” he said.

Unlike four-year colleges, students aren’t assigned to one specific counselor. Flores said he advised students to stick with one counselor through their academic journey, if possible.

“At the end of the day, a counselor wants you to be successful, but students are so eager to get in and out and don’t understand that it’s a process,” he said.

There are other factors that make community college different than a four-year school: students at

The entere

The entrance to Citrus College, a community college in Azusa, California. Photo/Kaity Bergquist

a four-year school go through orientation, have academic support offices, and are assigned to a specific adviser. Additionally, most community colleges are commuter schools.

“Community college can’t replicate some of the things that four years institutions have, so that’s why it’s tough,” Flores said. “Students get stuck at community college because they don’t know how to navigate the process.”

Students at community colleges also have different goals. Some are trying to get a certificate, some are trying to get associate degrees, and some are trying to transfer.

“They all have different objectives,” Flores said. “Sometimes we think it’s just one, and it’s really a plethora of objectives for these students.”

Melissa Keller, who now attends California State University Long Beach, spend three years at Palomar College. She also said the counselors were not helpful during her time there, and that she had to figure out what classes she needed to take on her own.

2014-05-29 10.40.25

Students who get stuck at community college may be able to earn multiple certificates and degrees because of the amount of classes they take. Photo/Kaity Bergquist

Something she noticed about the students around her was a lack of direction, which can also contribute to students spending extra time at community college. Even though community college is a good place to take classes so that students might figure out what they’re interested in, it can be frustrating for the students who know what they are doing.

“A lot of people attend because they don’t know what to do next with their life and it makes staying focused difficult sometimes,” Keller said.

Despite that, Keller said she was able to get all the classes she needed during her time at Palomar. She said she also enjoyed one-on-one time with professors and the smaller class sizes, compared to where she is now.

She suggested a priority system to help get students out of community college faster.

“It’s difficult to get out of the community college when someone who has one class left to take is competing with 30 freshman for the same spot,” she said.

After multiple years in the system, it may seem easier for students to try to break into their career field without finishing a degree or transferring. Williams has no such plans; even after almost six years at community college, he’s looking to finish his Associate’s degree and transfer to a Cal State school.

“This is something I often think about and find possible when I hear of others that have pursued the same career I am in, but have not finished college or have a degree,” he said. “At the end of the day, I do want to be able to say that I finished college and earned a degree, no matter how long it takes. So I have no plans on giving up.”


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