A torrent of young people who realize a high school diploma means nearly nothing in the new economy or can't afford four-year schools have pinned their hopes on these modest campuses.
For the young people who have swelled community-college classrooms, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Nick Fasciocco, 26, laid off from two jobs in recent years, is counting on Delaware County Community College to give him the skills to land a steady job in a new career in respiratory therapy.
Rebecca Ellis, 19, a Haddonfield Memorial High School graduate, has turned to Camden County College to give her an affordable start on her bachelor's degree so she can transfer to her four-year dream school.
On any given day, Denzel Parker-Dixon, 19 checks in with his mentor at the Community College of Philadelphia's Center for Male Engagement, a support program for young African American men who face daunting odds - a nearly 60 percent fall-to-fall, first-year dropout rate.
The Great Recession and changes in the American economy have heightened demands on community colleges. In addition to younger students, the colleges are also being sought out by legions of displaced workers needing to update their job skills.
At the same time, the colleges are being challenged to graduate more students. Nationally, of students who started in 2007, 22.5 percent graduated after three years. Pennsylvania's rate is 14 percent and New Jersey's is 17 percent.
As enrollments have soared and state funding in many places has not kept pace, community colleges are being challenged to educate more efficiently, to yield better results - even if it means limiting whom they serve.
From New York to California, for better and some say for worse, change is coming.
"I think community colleges are going to have to make some tough choices," said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. "We can no longer afford to do everything for everyone all the time."
But, it's not just the students who are pinning their hopes on the colleges.
President Obama has enlisted the schools as major players to make America more competitive by increasing its college graduates by 2020. He also recently proposed an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund to train two million workers.
But the institutions that have been historically open to everyone are struggling to meet growing expectations.
"We are asking too much of community colleges, given their modest level of funds, their missions, the people they are asked to serve," said Davis Jenkins, senior research associate with Columbia University's Community College Research Center.
A major part of their mission - one that often involves more than half of their degree- or certificate-seeking students - is providing remedial education to high school graduates who experts say are not ready for college work. And these campuses are attracting students who fear the crushing debt they would need to incur to cover costs at four-year schools.
And while many colleges have come to depend more heavily on tuition for revenue, community colleges remain a bargain. Those in the Delaware Valley cost on average $2,700 for tuition per year, compared with more than $13,000 at Temple and about $10,000 at Rutgers for tuition alone.
Delaying a 'family legacy'
You might have said four years of the Crimson Tide was Rebecca Ellis' birthright.
In football season, a 10-foot-tall blow-up of Elephant Al, mascot of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, holds dominion over the lawn of Ellis' Haddonfield home.
Her father went to the school. So did his father. Her mother went there, too.
"It really is a family legacy," said Ellis, 19.
And for a graduate of high-performing Haddonfield Memorial High School, a spot at a four-year college was almost a given.
But Ellis isn't at a four-year school. She is in her first year at Camden County College. Her hope is to transfer to Alabama in the future. Money shaped her choices. The cost of attendance at UA for a nonresident is nearly $36,000 a year including room and board. Instead, she lives at home and full-time tuition costs about $2,700 a year, not including fees.
"In sophomore year, my parents and I sat down and talked about it," Ellis said. "My parents were very honest with me. My grades were not fantastic, so there wasn't going to be big scholarships, and I didn't do sports."
Community colleges say they are seeing more and more students like Ellis - middle-class students, including those from achieving high schools where expectations tend toward the Ivies and other elite universities.
Students with family income over $100,000 in public two-year colleges rose from 12 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 22 percent in 2010-11, according to the college lender Sallie Mae.
In some cases, a parental layoff alters college plans. For others, even two working parents might not be able to afford a four-year school, yet they earn too much to qualify for substantial aid.
For many of these students, community college is an economic godsend - a way to make higher education affordable. Many schools have transfer agreements with four-year institutions that also include financial aid.
Local community-college leaders say these students have been a welcome addition and raise the academic bar. Within the last year alone, Gloucester County College initiated two new programs - one to aid transfers to four-year schools and the other a scholarship to attract achievers.
"We are investing in our students," said GCC president Frederick Keating.
Other observers see downsides. With high enrollments, a survey by the Pearson Foundation found, almost four out of every 10 community-college students were shut out of classes last fall.
In addition, these middle-income students tend to be more academically savvy and are more likely to register early. Some experts say that has had the unintended consequence of squeezing out other students.
For some millennials who had visions of dorm life and homecoming weekend, community college is yet another adjustment to reality.
Last spring, Andres Vivas, 19, graduated from Julia R. Masterman High School, an elite Philadelphia public school. He had wanted to go to a big four-year school like Drexel or Penn State, but he wasn't offered enough aid to make the schools affordable for his single mother, who cleans houses.
Instead, he enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), across the street from Masterman. With a scholarship, a Pell grant, and a job at Victoria's Secret, Vivas, who aspires to international business, said he was able to save toward transferring to a four-year school.
Financially, CCP is a good deal, but not what he envisioned.
"It's OK, I guess," Vivas said. "It's not exactly college to me. I'd been going to Masterman since the sixth grade. I'm taking the same bus. It's not a college experience. You go to class. It's not like having a dorm room."
This year, CCP has had students accepted at prestigious schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr, but so far, Vivas said his courses haven't matched Masterman's rigor.
"I'm that kid that's sitting in class bored," he said. "I finally understand that kid who acts out because they're bored."
Rebecca Ellis had a few years since that chat with her parents in sophomore year to get used to the idea of community college.
She is enjoying it. "I've had fantastic professors who are glad to help if you have a problem," said Ellis, who also works at McDonald's and is majoring in criminal justice.
Her grades have improved since high school. Eventually, she hopes to join the FBI and work as a criminal profiler. She has accepted community college as her first stop.
"To me, getting upset about it wasn't going to do anything about it."
When extra help is needed
Students who test not ready for college-level work are placed in remedial classes in language arts and math. These courses usually don't count toward graduation, require tuition, and many of the students, studies say, never go on to graduate.
Nationally, 58 percent of two-year public college students enrolled in at least one remedial course and only 28 percent graduated within 8.5 years, according to researchers with the City University of New York.
About 60 percent of first-time associate-degree- or certificate-seeking students are placed in remedial courses and less than a quarter of them graduate within eight years, according to the Columbia University's Community College Research Center.
Locally, the percentage of first-year, full-time students directed to take remedial courses ranges from 54 at Montgomery County Community to 71 at Camden County.
Many students give up before they get to college courses.
But frustration can carry a big price. According to a recent study by the American Institutes for Research, almost $4 billion in federal, state, and local government aid was spent over a five-year period on educating full-time community-college students who dropped out after their first year.
Locally, most two-year college students fail to complete their community-college studies in even four years, according to data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The colleges are quick to point out that such data do not address the many "stop-outs" - students who return to schools sometimes years after leaving.
Robert Messina, recently retired after 25 years as Burlington County College's president, cautioned against judging students such as his by four-year-college standards. He said the majority of his students also have jobs and other obligations. Many community-college students are also part time.
"They're not sitting there having a beer blast at their dorms," he said. "They're working 30, 35 hours. They work too much."
Colleges welcome proposed federal rules that would give them credit for helping more students such as part-timers and more transfers.
Still, critics say the colleges need to be more fiscally efficient and educationally focused to prepare students and adults for jobs in today's economy.
California, home of the nation's largest community-college system with 2.6 million students, is already there.
Over the last three years, "we've had to endure severe budget cuts, and we've turned away hundreds of thousands of first-time students," said Paul Feist, spokesman for the California community-college system. The state is eyeing changes that would give preference to students more apt to complete a degree, job training, or an academic transfer.
This fall, the City University of New York will open the New Community College aimed at getting more students to graduate. The structured program, which includes mentors and other supports, has a limited menu of majors: business administration, human services, information technology, liberal arts and sciences, and urban studies.
Another cost-saving possibility for some states is cutting the lowest level of remedial courses offered by community colleges - another controversial limit on access.
These changes being considered by community colleges may end up pushing out the students who need them the most, especially because a college degree is virtually a must in this economy, warned Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
"If we don't fully fund postsecondary education, we are destroying the social contract," he said. "Education is the key to the social contract. It wasn't true in 1970. It is true now."
The colleges know well the stakes.
"The work we do is the gateway to the middle class," said Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College.
But in the face of limited funds and higher societal stakes, many experts including community-college leaders say the schools need to offer more structured programs of study that are aligned with locally available jobs or successful transfer to senior colleges.
Some states are experimenting with funding community colleges based on performance rather than attendance. And while many colleges usually have limited guidance staff, these students, often first-generation college attendees, need more direction and fewer choices, experts say. Part of California's proposed reform agenda is requiring all students to have an education plan.
"Advising needs to be inescapable," said McClenney, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.
Indeed, a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), and a bipartisan group of other senators would require education counseling for all service veterans eligible for education assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Changing remedial education is crucial to improving graduation rates, critics say.
Two recent studies by the Community College Research Center found that as many as a quarter to a third of students who tested as needing remedial courses would have earned a grade of B or higher if they had gone directly into a college-level course.
At the same time, for some students, even the lowest level of remedial education is beyond their ability.
About a year and a half ago, Montgomery County Community College started referring those who test at the lowest levels to Link to Success, a YWCA basic adult-education program, rather than enrolling them in the college's remedial courses.
Diverting those students away from college courses "was a tough move for a college president," said Montgomery's Stout. Some see the change as the beginning of limiting access, she said, but it was intended to help the students attain at least some increased skills. Few of those lowest-level students, Stout said, ever advance to college.
But, when set up to move students along, remedial courses can also put students on a path to success.
Revising remedial classes
A college remedial-education course was probably the last place Nick Fasciocco, 26, pictured himself when he graduated from Upper Darby High School in 2003.
Glad to be done with school and eager to earn, he went to work with his father in construction for about a year and a half but wanted a job with a 401(k) and the fringes. Acting on a tip from relatives, he landed a job as a lineman for Verizon laying fiber-optic cable. After all the overtime, he said, he made about $80,000 in a year. He saved none of it, but he went on great vacations.
Then the work started drying up. He got laid off but quickly rebounded with a facilities job at Shire Pharmaceuticals in Wayne, a global company. Again, through a family connection. It paid less money, but the benefits were good. He went on more vacations. On New Year's Eve 2010, he was laid off again.
"I had the least seniority once again," Fasciocco said. "I knew without any background or any particular education, this could continue to happen."
Within weeks, he was enrolled at Delaware County Community College. He picked his major by doing a Yahoo search for what jobs with two-year degrees paid the most.
But a big disappointment was in store: Testing showed that he needed to take remedial classes in math and language arts.
Fasciocco is not unusual. Fifty-eight percent of DCCC's first-year students take at least one remedial class, and at many community colleges the rate is even higher. Nationally, the likelihood of graduation for these students is slim. So in recent years, DCCC, like other local community colleges and many around the nation, has reexamined the way it delivers remedial education and has embarked on initiatives aimed at freshmen to keep all students in school and graduate.
At DCCC, over five years, the rate of freshmen who start in the fall and are still enrolled at the end of the spring semester rose from 68 percent to 73 percent.
"It doesn't seem like a huge difference, but it's hundreds, thousands of students," said DCCC president Jerry Parker.
Chris Lamey, 25, a graduate of Sun Valley High School, is a liberal-arts major at DCCC. His dream is to be a lawyer, but he knows that is ambitious. He returned to the college this past fall after a four-year break working odd jobs. A friend helped get him work putting up billboards, but he couldn't take the heights. "I was hugging the poles."
In a previous stint at DCCC, he had to take remedial math. The course was a traditional lecture class, and he never completed it.
Last fall, he was told he had to take the course again. But this time, he was able to work at his own pace, with the professor there to assist.
Not only did he complete the course this time; he also learned something that had eluded him: He finally mastered long division.
"I don't even need a calculator," Lamey said.
Nick Fasciocco, as it turned out, was released from his remedial writing course when the professor saw he could do the work. He stuck with his remedial reading class and discovered that he could enjoy reading. He completed his remedial math class, too, with help from a peer-support program.
Now he wants to go on to earn a bachelor's degree.
"You can't be management without a bachelor's," he said.
Help for veterans
Veterans, helped by the GI Bill, are also depending on community colleges to help them get a foothold in a tough economy.
At a Rite-Aid not far from her mother's West Deptford home where she lives, A.J. Greenetz preaches the gospel of good nutrition to anyone willing to listen. In a couple of weeks' time, she would be talking to a fifth class, and later a bunch of mothers.
The talks are unpaid. She views them as resumé-builders, down payments on the dietetic technician's career she hopes one day to have, that she is studying for at Camden County College.
Hope, however, is the operative word.
"I'm terrified to be done with school," said Greenetz, 30. "It terrifies me beyond belief that I'm not going to be able to find a job."
For military veterans such as Greenetz - she served four years with the Navy - the 2011 unemployment rate for veterans in her age group was 12 percent. For younger veterans, 18-to-24-year-olds, the jobless rate was much worse - 30 percent.
"I'm just so thankful I have the GI Bill," she said. She lives off that and disability benefits, not what she expected.
After graduating from West Deptford High School, she got a job at a nursing facility doing direct care.
"I wiped behinds," she said. "I wanted a change."
She enlisted in the Navy in 2003 and was stationed stateside. She ended up as a payroll clerk.
"It was fun. I loved it."
When she got out in 2007, the economy was still intact. She landed a management job with a painting and drywall company. She was making about $40,000, plus benefits. She splurged and bought herself a Dodge Ram truck and a Honda motorcycle.
"I had no clue," she said, "that the economy was literally going to snap overnight."
But sure enough, the work started to slow down. She started picking up a paintbrush just to keep busy. In early 2009, she was let go.
She turned to school, studying to become a dietetic technician. The counseling staff she spoke to was upbeat.
"They told me it was great and up-and-coming," she said of dietetics.
Since then, however, she has seen discouraging employment statistics and is wondering if she will need a bachelor's and if the GI Bill will cover it.
Meanwhile, she pays rent in her mother's house. Her girlfriend, a teacher, also lives at home. They can't afford their own place.
"I thought I would have a house by now," Greenetz said. "I was making the right moves. It all disappeared."
An alternative path
Despite the challenges, community colleges still offer hope when other roads seem closed.
Take Alex Sellen, 20, of Southampton.
His dream: broadcast journalist. He's banking on Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to help attain it.
But, he wasn't ready when he graduated from William Tennent High School in Warminster.
"I wasn't an overachiever," he said, laughing now. He applied to only Temple University, and he didn't get in. "I didn't have a backup plan."
So he enrolled at Bucks County Community College.
"I didn't have a great perception of Bucks," Sellen admitted. "I had heard that's where losers go. I couldn't have been more wrong."
Between growing up a bit and being away from the distraction of his buddies, he blossomed at Bucks. He got involved in campus life and graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average.
A high school project whetted his appetite for journalism. Last fall, he started as a junior at Syracuse.
Following his dream has its costs. For the coming school year, the cost of attending Syracuse is $55,600 including tuition, room and board, and fees. Even with financial aid, he'll have about $60,000 in loans to repay by the time he graduates.
"In one respect, it kind of stresses me out," Sellen said. "On the other hand, it's motivational. I've got to succeed."
Yes, he has heard all dire projections for his generation. And even in a kinder economy, journalism is a tough career nut to crack. He's undeterred.
"I don't want to spend the rest of my life doing something just because I could get a job in it."
Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, email@example.com, or on Twitter @ritagiordano.