Tarrant County College student Austin Perrotti wants to be a constitutional lawyer, a lofty but expensive goal.
When he graduated from Nolan Catholic High School in 2012, he was offered a $36,000 scholarship to a four-year private university. But even with that offer, he faced $20,000 in expenses for two years.
“It would leave me so much in debt,” said Perrotti, 20. “I was worried it would cripple my future.”
So instead, he enrolled at TCC to complete his basic coursework — and stay within his meager budget. He is among an increasing number of Texas students who are enrolling in public community, state or technical colleges after high school. Community colleges are more popular, not only because of costs, but also for the growing need of a trained workforce in vocational fields.
“Community colleges are taking the majority of students who are going to college,” said TCC Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley. “No one is surprised by that. We are significantly more affordable than [four-year] colleges and universities.”
For some students, community college could become even more affordable under a plan being pushed by President Barack Obama. America’s College Promise proposal, a $60 billion, tuition-free community college plan for responsible students who earn good grades, was unveiled by Obama in January.
“What the president is trying to do is create a new pot of federal money to allocate to states that agree to certain reforms,” said Debbie Cochrane, a research director for the Institute for College Access & Success, a national nonprofit organization that promotes affordable higher education.
While the 10-year plan has yet to gain traction in Congress, education advocates say it points to the popularity and importance of community colleges.
“I don’t know that there is going to be new federal money attached to this,” Cochrane said. “I don’t know that Congress will fund the program the president would like to see.”
More than 710,000 students were enrolled in Texas community colleges in the 2013 fall semester, which was 48 percent of all students enrolled in higher education in the state, according to the Texas Association of Community Colleges. That’s an increase of 42 percent from 2003, when more than 500,000 students were enrolled in Texas community colleges.
TCC, with roughly 60,000 students, is annually one of the four largest community colleges in Texas, along with those in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
Costs a big reason
In general, students attending community colleges face more challenges than those attending four-year schools, whether public or private.
Besides money issues, the 2015 Community College Fact Sheet issued by the American Association of Community Colleges shows that the average age of these students is 28, and 36 percent are first-generation college students. Twenty-two percent of the nation’s community college students are employed full time, and 17 percent are single parents.
Barbara Lerner, associate provost for undergraduate studies and academic partnerships at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, said her campus helps these students work toward four-year degrees.
“Some of our best students are transfer students,” Lerner said.
Money is the reason many students cite for gaining a higher education through a nontraditional route, Lerner said.
The average in-state tuition and fees for four-year Texas institutions are $8,830 for 2014-15, according to The College Board’s Trends In College Pricing report. Average tuition and fees at a Texas two-year college are $2,286, according to the pricing report.
Texas’ average student debt for public and private nonprofit four-year college is $25,244, according the Institute for College Access & Success.
Perotti was adding up the numbers when he thought about attending TCU. He decided community college would be the best place to start.
TCU’s tuition for first-year students in 2014 was $38,600, according to The College Board. When room, books, personal expenses and transportation are factored in, the estimated bill is $53,730.
Sarah Reckling is a TCC student who will graduate in May and transfer to the University of North Texas in Denton.
“My goal is not to have a huge amount of debt,” Reckling said.
Reckling said Obama’s plan signals that community college, which has been the subject of jokes and even the television sitcom Community, is gaining more respect.
“I do feel that community colleges are going to play a more valuable role,” Reckling said.
Incentive to finish college
Through partnerships with states, Obama’s plan calls for waiving tuition for the first two years for certain students who met certain criteria. The White House estimates some 9 million students could benefit and that a full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 a year.
The focus on community colleges would also help fill workforce needs in nursing, health information technology and advanced manufacturing, according to the White House.
“In theory, I think it is a great idea,” said Lauren Gordon, a second year student at TCC who is also planning to transfer.
Gordon said it is critical for leaders to talk about higher education — especially in academic areas of math and science. She said having a trained workforce helps the United States compete in the global marketplace.
“If this passes, I think a lot of students will take advantage of it,” Gordon said.
Alex Roper, another TCC student, said the plan gives students incentives to complete their degrees. He said many community college students rely on financial aid but don’t finish their degrees.
“If you are going to college, go to college to get your education,” Roper said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675