Community collegesPresident Barack Obama has called the nation’s community colleges, which serve close to half of the undergraduate students in the United States, “an essential part of our recovery in the present and our prosperity in the future.”

However, the vexing predicament facing the close to 1,600 community colleges nationwide is a thorny one that doesn’t look to get any less tangled in the near future as funding shortfalls from state budgets come at a time when many schools across the country are experiencing skyrocketing applications and record enrollments.  

The situation, coupled with Obama’s call for every American to pursue some form of additional education after high school and the emergence of increasingly controversial for-profit colleges and universities, have brought unprecedented attention to the experiences of the more than 8 million students who attend community colleges each year.

“Who’s going to college in America are my students,” Dr. Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, told Frontline last year.  “They’re students who are working. They sometimes have family or they’re taking care of their family. They’re going to school part-time. They’re struggling.”

They’re also overwhelmingly low-income students of color.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges “are the gateway to post-secondary education for many minority, low-income, and first-generation students.”  AACC estimates that more than half of Black and Hispanic undergraduates in the U.S. have studied at a community college at one point or other.

“Community colleges are indispensable,” says Isa Adney, an author and speaker who runs the popular blog CommunityCollegeSuccess.com. Indeed, Adney, whose first book, Community College Success: Networking Secrets to Winning Friends, Scholarships, Internships, and Job, will be released by NorLights Press next spring, sees herself as an archetype for community college success.

After earning her A.A. from Seminole State College in Florida, she went on to earn her B.A. in Communications from Stetson University. She now balances writing and various speaking engagements with working on her M.Ed in training and development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“I’m a first-generation student, and a lot of students of color are as well,” says Adney, who describes herself as a “half-Puerto Rican country girl from Florida.”  She says it can be difficult for minority and low-income students, given that they’re frequently the first in their families to attend college, to navigate the oftentimes complex college admissions and financial aid processes.

“I attended a community college due to financial difficulty and a lack of knowledge about how to manage the four-year college system,” she says, “and a lot of students attend community colleges for many of the same reasons. The college world is so foreign to you.”

Adney says the stereotype that students who attend community colleges only do so because they aren’t smart enough to attend four-year colleges is “dangerous” because it “suggests to some people that you’re less than.”

“Community colleges aren’t about ‘anyone’ being able to get in,” she says, “They’re about the fact that everyone can get in.  And I think that’s the shift we need to make in ideology. That’s what I love about community colleges—the idea of access.”

According to an AACC report released in February, enrollment on community college campuses has increased 8 out of the last 10 years, with student ranks swelling by more than 20 percent over the last three years alone.

Adney says she’s happy community colleges are finally being spotlighted, citing such examples as the Obama administration’s recent White House Summit on Community Colleges.  

“Now I think it’s a matter of what’s the next step,” she says, adding that it’s all about supporting students so they don’t just feel like “another number.”  She cautions that the funding issue remains an important one. “When you have a system that’s losing funding, it may no longer be able to offer the level of support these students need.”

But due to brisk interest from students who might have attended traditional four-year institutions under more favorable economic conditions as well as the countless displaced workers seeking retraining and skills upgrades in the wake of mass layoffs, the resources at many schools are being pushed to the brink. Which means minority and low-income students—community colleges’ primary constituents—are at a risk of being disproportionately affected.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recently released jobs report showed the unemployment rate for black and Hispanic youth ages 16 to 19 was 46.5% and 37.4%, respectively.  (The current unemployment rate for whites ages 16 to 19 is substantially lower, at 23%.)

Dr. Jamal Eric Watson, a professor of English and African American history at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, says “There’s certainly reason to be alarmed.”

However, he stresses that in spite of the many difficulties a lot of schools are facing—with some schools fearful that an inability to maintain core programs could hurt their accreditation—community colleges are still an invaluable pathway for students wishing to pursue post-secondary education.

“I think we offer students a great deal,” Watson says, adding that schools like Mercer offer their students a cost-effective way to “cut their teeth” on the college experience while receiving “the same rigorous training students are getting at four-year colleges.”

And while tuition at private colleges like Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, is an estimated $40,128—or approximately $1,672 per credit—for the current academic year, the per credit rate at Mercer is just $133, 1,150% less.

And like Adney, Watson rejects the notion that community colleges and the students they enroll are in any way inferior to traditional four-year programs. Students like Adney, Watson argues, are perfect examples of what the students who elect to go the community college route can accomplish if given the opportunity.

“We’ve had students leave Mercer and transfer to prestigious schools such as Stanford, Columbia and Mount Holyoke,” he says. “So our students are competing with students all over the country.”

Watson says that the many direct and indirect forces seemingly aligned against the success of minority and low-income students can be daunting. “In many of the studies I’ve seen, one of the many reasons minority students drop out of four-year schools is that the social environment isn’t always the most receptive to their life experiences,” he says.

The diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds of many of the students on community college campuses, Watson argues, make community colleges uniquely suited to serve students from traditionally under-represented communities.

“It’s very important that the demographic of our colleges reflects the communities we serve,” he says.

But funding woes threaten to derail the best efforts of many community colleges, some experts say. LaGuardia Community College’s Dr. Mellow has called community colleges “systematically underfunded”. 

“There’s a disinvestment from the public sources that serve us,” she says. “Community colleges on a per capita basis get one-third the amount of public money that a four-year college gets.”

Many are hoping that support from the Obama administration, which has made post-secondary education a key cornerstone of its agenda for growing the economy, can help level the playing field, if not change it outright.  

If approved, Obama’s recently announced American Jobs Act would grant community colleges up to $5 billion for the modernization of their campuses.  And the president’s American Graduation Initiative, announced in July, would inject up to $12 billion into community colleges over the next decade, adding an estimated five million new college graduates to the workforce by 2020.  

Watson says his faith is undaunted by some of the difficulties being faced by many community colleges.  “I think that higher education in general is going through a very difficult period,” he says.  “But ultimately, I think colleges and universities are important pillars in their communities and I don’t foresee them closing their doors.”