‘Risks’ of a College Education: Community Colleges Teach You the First Two Years for Less Money
Community colleges have been in the U.S. since 1901. Joliet Junior College (IL) was the first, and it focused on the liberal arts. During the Depression job training programs were housed in community colleges. They have been there ever since. The great expansion of community colleges happened during the 1960’s. More than 450 new community colleges opened across the country; there were fewer than that at the start of the decade. Today, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are nearly 1,200 community colleges in the U.S., more than 1,600 when branch campuses are counted, too.
Why bring up the history?
It is because the community colleges are being touted as a “solution” much the same way as they were when most of them opened their doors for the first time. They are marketed as an affordable pathway to a college education or entry-level employment. But when I worked with high school students, I saw issues for families to consider:
- When can you start taking classes? One thing I like about my local community college is that high school seniors can take courses which can be applied to college credit. The high school where I did my practicum, for example, had an agreement where seniors could take first-year English Composition for high school and college credit for a very reasonable fee of $150 per semester. That would not pay for a single college credit at a public or private college in New Jersey, my home state. Community college courses may actually carry more weight with admissions officers than AP courses at your high school, as long as the four-year school considers them to be of college level. Pick your credits wisely.
- What happens after the placement tests? Every community college bound student must take English and Math placement exams before they can enroll in a single class. The problem is that test results may indicate that a student is not ready for a college-level class in these subjects. In fact, they may need more than one remedial class if they did poorly in English or Math in high school. Remedial classes carry no degree credit and cannot be transferred towards a four-year degree. It’s possible that a four-year school may have a shorter path, with enough aid to make up the difference.
- What are articulation agreements and how do they work? My local community college has articulation agreements with several colleges and universities in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. An articulation agreement means that community students who meet a set of requirements (overall GPA, grades in the required courses in intended major) can be offered admission to their school or to a limited number of degree programs. Read those last words. Some agreements may actually limit the number of transfer students, even if those students have decent grades. One thing to look for: community colleges with agreements with the public four-year school next door. Towson University (MD) constructed a branch campus next to Harford Community College (it’s not far from Cal Ripken Jr.’s baseball complex). The University of South Florida-Lakeland is literally across the quad from Polk Community College. Other community colleges allow you to get the four-year degree on their campus, at a reduced rate. Burlington County Community College (NJ) has such an arrangement with Drexel University.
- Does it pay to pursue the vocational Associate’s degree programs? If your student is a high school sophomore interested in a trade it is worthwhile to compare the career services of the local vocational-technical school with those of the local community college. If there is time to learn the trade while in high school, career services have helped current students find part-time work and recent graduates find full-time work, and there are no tuition charges, then go the vo-tech route. There will be plenty of opportunities to supplement that education without having to pursue an Associates degree. If your student has been out of high school for some time then the community college is the way to go.
- Does it pay to accept a scholarship to a community college “honors” program over admission to a four-year school? In some cases, yes, others no. In California, community college honors programs may be tied to admission to UCLA or UC-Berkeley. Do well and take transferable curses and you have a fair chance to enter one of those schools as a junior. In other cases they might save you money, as long as you make sure that the credits will transfer seamlessly to your target school. An “honors seminar” at a community college, for example, might not have a credit equivalent at the four-year college of your choice. Another word of caution: The most selective public and private schools have very high freshman retention rates, and many other schools are improving their reputation through better retention. The more people stay, the less room there is for new people. So, if you’re looking at a community college as a “easier” path towards a high GPA to transfer to an exceptionally selective school, think hard. You might be very disappointed.
Community colleges offer tremendous value–when you and the school jointly take charge of your education. It is important to stay on top of your program, whether it be to transfer to a four-year school or accept a job with a local employer. Four-year schools and employers change their requirements all the time. If they do so without collaborating with the community colleges that send them graduates there will be anger and resentment. And if you require remedial assistance, the community college may force you to take one of more classes for no credit. More than anything that discourages students who begin their education in the community colleges from earning a college degree.