With student loan debt toppling one-trillion dollars and competitive college admissions turning into a rat race, many students and their parents are overwhelmed with the prospect of making college education dreams a reality. Although studies indicate that the lifetime earnings for a college graduate is approximately 1 million dollars more than the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate, with an incredibly tight job market, bachelor’s degrees are becoming necessary for many careers that were once accessible for adults with just a high school diploma. This degree inflation has further created demand on our nation’s higher education institutes, and many students are finding themselves out-competed and out-priced of many of the nation’s once accessible and affordable colleges.
Often overlooked by many students and their parents are the thousands of local community colleges, which are one of the country’s best values in higher education. I know as a high school student I would have never even considered community college. I attended a four-year university directly out of high school, but if I were to do things again, I would have gone to community college first before transferring. Now that I’ve gone back to school for a career change, I’ve found that the education I’ve received from my local college to be top notch and invaluable in helping me pursue my educational goals.
It’s time that community colleges lose their stigma of being “second-rate” schools. Follow me below the orange squiggle to learn about the many advantages a community college education can provide.
• Smaller class sizes and more individual attention.
The transition between high school and college can be very difficult. Many students struggle to keep up with the rigorous pace of university classes, and being an anonymous face in a sea of students can make things worse. I took Biology 101 my sophomore year at my 4-year university to satisfy one of the general education science requirements. Class was held in a huge lecture hall, and there were approximately 300 students in my class. I never got to know my professor and he never got to know me- I was simply another name on the roster. In a class that large, it’s impossible to ask questions, or have any sort of meaningful dialog with the teacher. It was very difficult to learn in that environment; I think I managed to pull off a B, since I had remembered a bit of biology from high school.
When I took general biology years later at my local community college, the class size was 30 students instead of 300. With a class that small, I got to know my professor on a more personal level, and even though I’m no longer one of his students, he still remembers my name and says hello when we run into each other. That time around, I got an A. Being able to have a personal relationship with a professor is invaluable when it comes to achieving academic success. In a small class, it’s easier to ask questions and develop an educational dialog between teacher and student that I feel is critical to learning. It’s also possible for educators to create assignments and activities that would be incredibly difficult in a larger class, such as small group projects and presentations, which teach invaluable workplace skills such as collaboration and public speaking. Additionally, having a good relationship with a professor also makes it easier to obtain letters of recommendation for summer internships, scholarships or when applying to universities.
• More opportunities for career exploration.
The trouble with many 4-year universities is that students are required to declare a major when applying for college, since particular degrees or programs can be very competitive or impacted. These kids are only 18 years old and making real and serious decisions about their future. How does the field you’re currently in compare to want you wanted to do at 17 or 18 years old? A tremendous amount of growth occurs between ages 18 and 20. Even if a student isn’t forced to declare a major upon admission, many students chose schools based on the reputation of a particular program. If a student chooses a school with a top notch engineering program, and later decides that he’d rather pursue music, is that school’s music program going to suit his needs? Transferring from one 4-year University to another is incredibly difficult, especially considering how competitive schools are now. Community colleges allow students to explore a variety of subject areas and career choices with very little risk. By focusing on the general education requirements, not only can students keep on track with their educational goals, but hopefully in the process discover what they enjoy learning. Additionally, community colleges offer a number of vocational classes that wouldn’t be offered at a traditional university, so students who might be interested in autoshop or welding can have the opportunity to explore those career fields.
• Improve chances of getting into a top university.
College admissions are incredibly competitive right now, and many schools are becoming more and more selective. In even a short period of time, this competition has increased dramatically. For example, I graduated from high school ten years ago with about a 3.0 GPA only because I got honors credit for my music classes. I only applied to a few state schools, since I knew my GPA was less than stellar, but I got into my top-choice school. My sister-in-law who is eight years younger than me applied to my Alma Mater, and was rejected even though her GPA was significantly better than mine was. I know if I were a high school student today there would be no way I’d get into college based on my high school performance.
For many students, like me, who did not take high school seriously, getting into a good university directly from high school can be challenging. Even good students might find difficulty in getting into their first choice schools if they didn’t have enough extracurricular activities, didn’t do as well on the SAT, didn’t write a compelling admission essay, etc. Since community colleges will accept any student with a high school diploma or a GED, it gives an opportunity for these students to have a fresh start.
Furthermore, attending community college can increase the chances of students for getting into prestigious universities. A number of community colleges have agreements with local public universities. In California, we have a program called “TAG” (Transfer Admission Guarantee) that provides a pathway for students to transfer from California Community Colleges to UC schools, if they complete the required coursework and maintain a minimum GPA. Even if a student elects to attend a school that does not have a partnership with a community college, many students will find it easier to get accepted into these top ranked schools as a junior, than as a freshman, as there is less competition.
One of the largest reasons many students choose community college is tuition cost. I live in San Diego, so I did a quick tuition comparison of three of our local universities:
University of San Diego (private, Catholic): $40,900
UC San Diego (public, UC system): $13,302
San Diego State University (public, CSU system): $6766 (As a side note, I graduated from SDSU six years ago, and tuition was nowhere near this expensive- I seem to recall it being about $2000/semester. I am flabbergasted on how much it has increased in such a short amount of time. )
Note, that this is just the tuition cost, per year. This does not include room and board, student health fees, text books, or any of the other costs associated with college attendance. Even someone attending a state school is looking at almost $30,000 in student loan debt just to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which nowadays has the value a high school diploma did a generation earlier. This estimated figure is assuming that the student graduates within four years; most students attending public universities take at least 5 years to graduate, due to being unable to get into required classes because of budget cuts, needing to take a reduced class load in order to work, or from switching majors. $30,000 is no small chunk of change. That could easily be down payment on a house, or purchase a mid-level vehicle.
California community colleges, on the other hand, cost only $46/unit. If a full-time student averages about 15 units per semester, tuition would cost about $690/semester, or $1380 per year. That’s one-fifth the cost of even the cheapest public 4-year university! However, many students, including myself don’t even pay that much. I qualify for the Board of Governors Fee Waver (BOG waver), simply because I fill out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) yearly. While my husband and I don’t make a ton of money, we aren’t destitute either (we would barely qualify for Obamacare subsidies if our employers did not provide health coverage.) Additionally, I already have a bachelor’s degree, which typically makes me ineligible for most financial assistance. With the BOG waver, I only have to pay $25 per semester in order to attend school, which has been a godsend in helping me achieve my career goals.
Not only is tuition at a community significantly less than a four-year university, the additional costs, such as room and board are also less when compared to the costs of on-campus housing of a university. Living in the dorms can be incredibly expensive, and while proponents argue that the experience is critical for young adults to develop independent living skills, and make new friends, there are plenty of other opportunities available for students. Classes, clubs, intramural sports and sororities/fraternities are all excellent ways for students to meet new people. Students can live at home to save money (the cheapest option by far), but even renting a small apartment with a roommate off campus can more economical than living in the dorms if done properly.
By attending a community college, students have opportunities to complete the foundations for a college degree, discover career opportunities and achieve academic and personal growth, all while saving thousands of dollars. There are numerous additional benefits to attending a community college first then just the ones I’ve outlined here, but I’d highly encourage any young adults or their parents to seriously consider community college first. Although no one dreams of attending their local community college, it can be both economically and academically one of the best decisions.