NEW YORK Heidi Johnston dreams of being a speech pathologist. But ironically the 25-year-old, who graduated with a degree in communication sciences and disorders, has become a Ph.D.-level savant at something else entirely: Figuring out the increasingly complex puzzle of community colleges.
She first started out at a little community college not far from her home in Spring Grove, Illinois, in 2004. Her goal: Pursue her studies there for a few years while working part-time, transfer to a four-year institution to complete her degree, and save a bundle in the process.
And she did. But all around her, she saw the collateral damage of the slashed funding and spiking enrollment that are plaguing community colleges around the nation. Required classes fill up, credits sometimes turn out not to be transferable, and student dreams get delayed. Johnston too ran into some roadblocks, with a cap on transferred credits that meant she spent money to take some courses for no reason.
"People who are just jumping into it, don't know how to maneuver the system to their advantage," she said. "You have to be very careful in how you plan your classes, and already have in mind the school you're going to transfer to, or you could potentially waste a whole lot of time."
One might say this is the heavy price of popularity. Community colleges are currently home to more than 13 million students across the country, with enrollment that skyrocketed 22 percent between 2007 and 2011.
It is no wonder why. The average annual bill for a local community college is a relatively affordable $2,963, according to the College Board. Compare that with other options like public four-year colleges, which average $8,244 a year for in-state students, and private universities, which now average a whopping $28,500. In an era when total student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, a cheaper educational option is a natural winner.
But a perfect storm of factors is making community colleges less than an automatic choice.
"It stands to reason that if you have X capacity, and your enrollment increases by 20 percent, you're going to have issues," said Norma Kent, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C. "Then you also have sustained decreases in state funding. For what it all means, just look to California: The bad economic news just keeps coming, and now their community college enrollment has fallen by 300,000 students. There's no end in sight."
Then there are the so-called articulation agreements, meant to ensure the transferability of credits and smooth the path for community college students. But state colleges that often receive transfers are facing significant problems of their own, and having their own budgets gutted means that they cannot be so magnanimous about taking in every transfer student who comes their way.
"They may say, ‘If I'm not funded for a certain number of students, then I'm just not going to take them in," said Kent. "They don't always have the same passion for educational access that we do."
For students, it means going in to the community-college system with eyes wide open - and maybe even making different choices, depending on one's circumstances.
"My concern is that a detour into community colleges may save you some money in the short-term, but it may also mean you never reach your destination," said Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and publisher of the websites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org. "Among students who intend to obtain their bachelor's degree and start off at a two-year college, only one-fifth graduate with that degree within six years."
Without community colleges, though, access to higher education - especially for students from lower-income families - would be even more limited than it already is.
Here are a handful of ways to maximize your community college experience, while sidestepping the pitfalls of a system in crisis.
1. Be ruthless.
If enrollment for required classes opens at 9 a.m. on a Monday, then that is when you sign up. Delaying even by a day can lead to a domino effect of negative outcomes: You miss out, those classes are not offered again until the following year, and you subsequently have to put off transferring to your target four-year college.
Tacking on another year for community college means the financial savings might not be so significant after all. That is why Heidi Johnston is now helping her little brother, Robbie, construct his schedule as he enters community college, complete with backup options if his desired classes get maxed out.
"I figured I might as well help him get it right the first time," said Johnston, who ended up completing her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2010. "It's either that, or see him struggle and have to pay for it later."
2. Consider starting at a four-year state college.
Yes, the initial bill for tuition and fees will be higher. But then all the myriad worries about transfers, credits and articulation agreements become moot. Said Kantrowitz: "Once community colleges start maxing out their capacity, students may just stick with four-year public colleges, because they're hearing about all the problems."
3. Look to out-of-state community colleges.
The lowest tuition bills are always reserved for local students. But if your hometown college is at the breaking point, then crossing state borders could make economic sense. For instance, Kent noted that Arizona community colleges are now marketing heavily to the hundreds of thousands of California kids who have had to turn elsewhere.
4. Get in touch with your transfer college early.
Let's say your goal, after two years of community college, is to transfer to Florida State. You should be in touch with Florida State almost from day one, to determine which courses and credits will be transferable and which will not.
"Be in contact with your four-year school, find out what their stipulations are, and do your own research," said Johnston. "No one person is going to hand you the answers. And in fact, no one person has all the answers."