Originally published in the Hampshire Gazette
By Trudy Tynan
Community. It’s in our name — Holyoke Community College. The key to recovering our economy and preserving opportunities comes from the strength of our communities. And building that strength is what community colleges are all about.
It can be a place to start. We are the people’s colleges. We are the poor kid from the tenements working to enter the middle class, and the young refugee struggling to make his way in a new country and a new language. Yet, we are not just for kids. We are also the single mother building a new life for her daughter, and the laid off 50-something worker faced with starting over.
We can be a solution, especially in troubled times. And never more so than now when the pandemic and the economic collapse it created threaten to destroy our communities. In these worst of times, the colleges that train our first responders and small business owners offer us a trusted way out.
Community colleges provide a bridge to four-year colleges and universities, but they also, and equally important, offer opportunities for those who seek a practical education. They offer courses in auto mechanics, cosmetology, culinary arts, landscaping and more that lead to well paying jobs. Employers in many of those fields have more openings than qualified applicants.
We are a community of everyone. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 41% of U.S. undergraduates attend community colleges, including 52% of Hispanic and 42% of all Black students. Women make up 57% of the enrollment, and 39% of the students are the first in their family to attend college.
In Massachusetts, the state’s 15 community colleges, with 156,089 students, make up 43% of all the public college students in the state and half of the undergraduates. Arguably, their costs of helping those who need a hand up and pivoting quickly to train workers for changing times and new business, even casino gaming and legal marijuana, are high. Yet state support no longer matches the numbers or the need.
While we educate half its students, community colleges are limited to no more than 25% of whatever state support Massachusetts provides to its colleges and universities, and that support has dropped substantially over the past decade.
Even so they are a higher education bargain. Even in the best of times community colleges offer a way for men and women to get a good start on college without mortgaging the rest of their lives. It costs about $6,000 a year to attend HCC. That is about 36% of the more than $16,400 it costs to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst while living at home and a fifth of what it costs if room and board are included.
Similarly, a year at HCC is about 57% of what it costs to commute to Westfield State University. That means a UMass student can save about $21,000 by taking their first two years at a community college and a Westfield State student can hang onto about $9,000.
Community college students are taught the same beginning subjects, but in small classes of about two-dozen students by professors, who are focused on teaching instead of research. Sure they will miss the basketball and fraternities and the ambiance and excitement of a research university for their first two years. Still, pandemic hazards that limit crowds and force the movement of classes online have eliminated many of the perks of universities, public and private.
It is no secret or surprise that when the economy dips, enrollments at community colleges rise. Their unique qualities make us turn to them to create jobs and train workers. And our students are working people. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average age of community college students is 28 with just over half — 54% — under the age of 22. About 28% are from 22-39 and 9% are over 40. Single parents make up 15% of the enrollment.
Nationally, nearly two-thirds of community college students go part-time. That means most are working, and by studying part-time a student can earn enough to pay for community college without going into debt. In some fields, including nursing and some other medical and technical fields, graduates can earn enough to nearly cover the remaining years it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
And these graduates aren’t going to skip town. State education officials estimate that 90% of community college graduates stay in Massachusetts.
The bottom line is the colleges with community as their middle name provide their cities and towns with new chances for residents to grow their small businesses and themselves. The bridges they build can be our best hope for a true economic recovery.
Trudy Tynan is a retired Associated Press reporter and now works part-time at Holyoke Community College as a writing tutor. Both of her sons are HCC graduates and her late husband was a long-time professor. She is a member of the board of directors for the union representing Massachusetts community college professors and professional staff.