APS News | Opinion

Physics Needs Community Colleges

Two-year colleges help millions and boost the U.S. workforce. We neglect them at our peril.

Published Feb 16, 2024
Image of lightbulb with graduation cap with clouds

For decades, parents across the United States have offered their kids the same advice: Work hard and get a good education — in college, if you can.

Community, or two-year, colleges have long been a major lane on this tried-and-true road.* Since their rise to prominence in the mid-20th century, they’ve provided a sensible alternative to four-year schools, for less money (a third of the cost per year of public four-year institutions, on average). Their reach and affordability have opened the door to education and vocational training for millions of people.

But community colleges, which receive less than half the funding per student that four-year colleges receive, stand on shaky ground.

We, the authors, are former faculty in physics at community colleges, and we believe that our field suffers when the role of community colleges is ignored. One reason is obvious: Physics classes at community colleges are a crucial door into STEM for many students. But the second reason is often overlooked: While the physics community has long sought and struggled to diversify its ranks, it has too frequently looked right past an indispensable tool — community colleges.

The reach of community colleges

Science, it turns out, owes a lot to community colleges. Data from 2019 shows that 45% of all employed science and engineering graduates had attended one. In fact, in spring 2023, about 30% of all U.S. undergraduates were enrolled in them (and, depending on the dataset, some estimates are much higher).

What about physics specifically? While the number of physics majors in community college physics classrooms is small, the impact of these classes on STEM education is not. According to the AIP Statistical Resource Center, among U.S. citizens, 16% of physics Ph.D.s from the classes of 2017 and 2018 started their education at a community college; so did 15% of those receiving bachelor's degrees in physics.

And it’s not just science: Community colleges reach deep into the U.S. economy. An astonishing 48% of working adults have utilized community college at some point in their lives — as have 49% of workers with bachelor’s degrees.

Consider, too, these schools’ impact on sectors facing worker shortages, like healthcare. In health and clinical sciences, more than 1 in 5 people with doctorates started at a community college. We, the authors, have seen this impact ourselves, having taught countless students who were taking prerequisites for advanced medical, veterinary, dental, and physical therapy degrees. Kris just spotted a former student at a local pharmacy, working as the head pharmacist. Sherry recently accompanied her father to a podiatry appointment — only to realize the podiatrist was a former student.

No typical student

It’s been said that there is no “typical” community college student, because these schools boast an extraordinarily diverse student body. Nearly 60% of attendees are women; 64% are first-generation college students, compared with 47% at four-year public institutions. Community colleges serve more veterans, parents, and students with disabilities than their four-year peers. A much higher percentage attend college part-time — often while working. And at community colleges in 2023, 42% of students were Black or Hispanic, compared with 32% at four-year colleges.

These students’ goals are equally diverse. Some seek professional certifications or associate degrees; some aim to fulfill prerequisites before transferring to four-year schools. Meanwhile, dual enrollment programs for high school students are growing.

Regardless of the aim, physics is a stepping stone for many STEM-minded students. Beyond the students preparing for health-related degrees, we’ve both taught scientists and aspiring high school teachers, as well as many students fullfilling prerequisites for degrees in engineering, computer science, and — of course — physics. One of Sherry’s students was a mother who took physics part-time, while working full-time; she’s about to graduate with her bachelor’s in physics and is applying to graduate school.

Perils, new and old

Unfortunately, the reach of community colleges has done little to shield them from storms.

These schools serve a higher proportion of students who need more support, academically and beyond, than students at four-year colleges. Yet public community colleges receive less than half of the annual funding, per student, that public four-year universities get — $8,695 per student compared to $17,540, according to the Center for American Progress. And funding has been falling.

Starved for resources, community colleges face real challenges. Students often struggle to transfer credits to four-year colleges, and employers “systematically underinvest” in partnerships with community colleges, according to a 2022 Harvard Business School report. About half of former community college students who enrolled with work-related goals said they fell short of their aspirations, a 2023 survey found. Enrollment, meanwhile, fell between 2010 and 2023 (although there are signs of a modest comeback).

For us, the explanation seems painfully clear: Supporting students — especially those already more likely to face additional obstacles — takes more resources than these colleges are getting.

Physics faculty at community colleges face difficulties, too. These faculty lack graduate assistants to help with grading, and very few have teaching lab support. And while some community colleges provide funds for professional development, most do not, so traveling for a conference or workshop is often too costly. Even when a professor can pay to attend, finding a substitute to cover for them is no small feat: About 60% of community colleges offering a physics class have just one full-time faculty member teaching physics — or none at all.

These trials have left many physics faculty struggling to connect with peers and mentors, grow professionally, and get good data on their students.

The path ahead

Many of these challenges won’t be easy to fix. We doubt, for example, that solving a $78 billion state funding shortfall for community colleges will be a walk in the park.

But we have faith in the physics community. For our part, we and collaborators have created the Organization for Physics at Two-Year Colleges (OPTYCs), a community for faculty and their allies across the field. OPTYCs offers programs for professional development, facilitates mentoring and networking, supports physics education research in community colleges, and more.

But partnerships among community colleges must be complemented by partnerships beyond them. So, if you’re a faculty member or researcher at a four-year college, reach out to your local community college and meet the physics faculty. Be open to learning from them, as they are experts on the needs of local college students. Also, find out how easily community college students can transfer to your university; there might be opportunities to create major-specific transfer pathways that you can help with.

But no matter your role, you can help with another monumental task: a shift in attitude. Community colleges have long been dismissed as a “lesser” option for higher education — and for employment. Like so many community college faculty, we the authors chose our careers because we discovered passions for teaching. Most community college faculty are innovative educators who are deeply committed to their students.

Worse, though, is when judgment is directed at the students themselves. In fact, we can think of few college-goers more deserving of support than these individuals, whose aspirations have carried them, often through hardship, toward the hope of a good education and career. As educators, it’s our privilege to help them get there. As physicists, it’s our responsibility to invite them into our field with gusto.

If physics is to live up to its potential, it must welcome more people from diverse backgrounds, and it must prepare a broader swath of the public for good careers and lives. The field can accomplish neither without community colleges, which need champions now more than ever.

*Most community colleges two-year degrees, like associate degrees, although some offer four-year bachelor’s degrees.

OPTYCs is federally funded (National Science Foundation Grant No. 2212807). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Kris Lui

Kris Lui is the project director for The Organization for Physics at Two-Year Colleges (OPTYCs).

Sherry Savrda

Sherry Savrda is a co-principle investigator for OPTYCs and retired as a physics professor at Seminole State College of Florida.

Join your Society

If you embrace scientific discovery, truth and integrity, partnership, inclusion, and lifelong curiosity, this is your professional home.