As a slow economy pinches family budgets and the cost of college tuition climbs ever higher, more high school graduates are choosing to start their educations at community colleges. As those students demand a more traditional college experience, community colleges in Nashua, Manchester, and now the Great Bay are building in new athletic facilities, teams and clubs.
Michael Fischer is thumbing through the architectural renderings for Great Bay Community College’s new $5 million dollar recreational facility.
"This is sort of the initial concept plan that they gave to us, the firm, the team who's working here."
Fischer is Great Bay’s Director of Student Life. He says students want more intercollegiate athletic opportunities, more clubs, and social events. But, "the struggle for us has always been facilities."
Great Bay’s new facility will be multi-purpose. But it will probably center on an NCAA-sized basketball court, which would allow the school to start intercollegiate volleyball and basketball teams. And that is something first year student Zach Aumand can get behind.
"It’d be topics for conversation, it would be a new way to meet people, and all gather for the same cause and support their school."
Kind of like what you’d get a traditional four-year college. In fact, that’s just what Michael Fischer is going for.
"We really think we can provide students with a full comprehensive 4 year experience at a two year college minus the residence hall."
But that’s not what community colleges have traditionally been about. Patrick Callan is President of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in California. He says most community colleges serve populations who don’t want amenities.
"I mean part time working students, people raising families, those kinds of students don’t care whether you have a student union or athletic facility, and they don’t want to have to pay for it."
But community colleges around New Hampshire are moving in a new direction. Nashua Community College opened its student center in 2008; and Manchester’s center opened its doors this past August.
Great Bay Community College president Will Arvelo says NH community colleges are serving a growing population of younger students.
"I think a lot of that has had to do with the recession, and parents realizing that they can send their students to community college for a year or two and have them transfer on to a four year institution. And that’s – I think that’s a good outcome."
Sixty percent of the state’s community college student body is under the age of 24.
Zach Aumand is one of those students just-out of high school. He hangs out in the school’s current student life center: a small room with a few couches, a couple TVs, and a pool table. Aumand sinks into a chair next to some friends playing shoot-em-up video games. For him, community college is just one stop on his way to a career in golf. Actually, he’s something of a golf junkie.
"Whether I'm watching TV, reading a magazine, even if it's video games its always something golf related, it’s something that’s really a passion, it’s got a hold on my heart."
In fact, Aumand is planning to get a degree in Professional Golf Management at a four year college in South Carolina. He says he decided to get his Associate’s Degree here first, after a recruiter came to his high school and invited him to visit.
"You can come here and feel comfortable easily, it’s also very affordable, also it’s relatively close to home so it’s easy to commute here."
Aumand loves sports, and he wants his time at Great Bay to feel as much like a four-year college as possible. But it comes at a cost. Building the rec center will likely increase student fees by $8 per credit, beginning as soon as next September.
For many students, those fees will increase the price tag an Associate’s Degree by more than $500 dollars, an increase of three percent. That’s in order to pay off a 20-year bond from the state.
And while Aumand may be happy to foot the bill for a future rec center he may not be here to use, not everybody is.
"I’m definitely not happy about having another $500 added on to my student loan that I’m already taking."
Rebekah Lamirande is 18 and studying to become a nurse. She works at a supermarket when she’s not at school. Lamirande also plans to transfer to a four-year college at the end of next year. But she’s not interested in paying for a new student center.
"I don’t really play sports, I don’t have time for sports between work and school, so I’m not even going to be using the facility."
The Higher Education Policy Institute’s Patrick Callan takes Lamirande’s point a step further. He says yes, student rec centers are great, with a caveat.
"On the other hand, it’s also important to keep in mind that some of this kind of amenities that four year colleges, public and private, have put in place to attract the students they’re interested in, have contributed to the increasing costs of higher education."
And the appeal of community colleges has historically been affordability. Over the last five years, tuition has increased twenty percent at New Hampshire’s community colleges. And while tuition stayed steady this year, New Hampshire has one of the most expensive community college systems in the nation.
But when it comes to that new student center – Great Bay’s student life director Michael Fischer says the investment is entirely practical.
"It’s multifunctional, it’s multi-purpose. We're not building a football stadium that's just for football. How do we maximize it? We want to use it for convocation, for job fairs, for graduation."
But the goal isn’t just logistical. Since the 1980’s, researchers have found time and time again that when students participate in school sports and other recreational activities, graduation rates and other student outcomes improve.
And that’s what community colleges like Great Bay are going for: keeping students engaged on their way to meaningful and productive careers.
The new student center is slated to open by the fall of 2015.