There is a widely held myth about the college experience. It goes something like this: Eighteen-year-olds leave their parents' homes in order to live in dormitories with other 18-year-olds. Over the course of four years, they engage in various hijinks, find themselves, pull a few all-nighters cramming for tests, and eventually emerge with a degree of some kind.
There are two problems with this myth. First, it's bankrupting middle-class families. Second, it's undermining our educational system, which, after all, ostensibly exists for the purpose of advancing education, not providing students with an experience.
Most middle-class parents aspire to send their children to a prestigious university to fulfill this myth. Not me, though. I got my start in a community college, and I'm proud that my daughter is following in my footsteps by staying at home, working, and going to community college. I believe this is the best way for her to prepare for success in her career and in her life.
Here are five reasons the reality of the community college experience beats the myth of the four-year college experience.
Affordability: Tuition at our local community college is just over $100 per credit hour. That's an 80 percent savings compared to in-state tuition at the nearest state university. Since the classes are transferrable, why pay an extra 80 percent? The school allows us to pay the tuition bill in three monthly payments over the course of the semester with no interest. We are not incurring a penny of debt.
Learning environment: Instructors at community colleges are there to teach, not to do research or to write books. Students are there to learn, not for the extracurricular activities. Class sizes tend to be reasonable. Introductory classes at four-year colleges are often taught by research professors who have little interest in teaching undergraduates, or by their beleaguered teaching assistants, in stadium-sized classes with hundreds of students. Is that really worth paying extra for?
Work-study balance: Community colleges tend to offer many evening and weekend classes, which allow students to work while attending school. Working gives students a solid grounding in the real world, not to mention the financial independence of a regular paycheck. Furthermore, the need to balance work and study forces students to learn to become organized.
Opportunities for practical learning: How many four-year colleges offer classes in welding, CNC machining, or the latest CAD programs? These hands-on classes can be very useful for engineering students. In the past, academia looked down on this kind of practical learning. Now universities are struggling to catch up.
Opportunity to explore major options: Few 18-year-olds have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives, yet most four-year colleges force them to declare a major within a semester or two. Community college gives students a greater opportunity to accumulate general education credits and prerequisites while deciding on a career path.
After earning an associate's degree, students can transfer to a four-year school for their junior and senior years. By this time, they will have a proven track record of success in college-level coursework that will make them attractive to admissions departments and help them gain access to scholarships. They will also be more mature, better organized, and clearer about their goals. And starting the four-year college experience at the halfway point makes sense -- by the third year, class sizes are smaller, and both professors and students are more motivated.
The idea that community colleges are only for students whose family incomes and/or grades don't allow them to start out in a four-year school needs to be turned on its head. In reality, community college is the best option for most students and their families, regardless of income or grades. Not only is it a better deal; it's also a better experience.
Readers, do you agree? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
@tigercat. Great point, bringing up the online opportunities. I too, am impressed by all of the comments and think the bottom line is that CC should be considered as an alternative, but equally desirable path, to an engineering career IF it fits the the requirements of the student and the family. One other thing to consider in evaluating the choices. What about graduate school? Are post degrees as important and if so, that might be another reason to consider the CC route as a means of saving money towards the overall total cost of the educational experience.
Good point about time demands, Rob. I commuted to a four-year university in Chicago and the time demands from the commute made it very difficult. I commuted an hour each way on good days, and studying on a subway was less than optimal. I guess that's one of the big advantages to going away to a four-year school.
The world has changed dramatically since my high school days. We are in the global economy, and kids are now competing with Chinese and Indians. Is not going to get any easier. Unless you are the wealthy 1%, college is an investment. You go in, get diploma and get out. Now is no time to party and get drunk. Plenty of time to do that after college. Universities administration are so corrupt now you do what you need to get as many credits in community college and avoid the sharks as long as you can.
Realize, soon as you graduate, you are faced with unaffordable housing and outsourced job market. Then you have the cost of a family. This is not the time to be burdened with another $100k loan so you can have an experience.
Use to be college was almost free, there were even career students with multiple degrees. In the good old days, people have time to party for a few years, then come out with a waiting high paying job. All that is gone, and probably never come back again. Is a different subject to talk about what happened. How a generation ruined the American dream. This is what it is, and smart kids adapt.
There's a lot of great comments! Dave, your article is thought-provoking but it does seem like you have an axe to grind and that bias shows in your comments. There are students (including my son) who went straight to a 4-year university with a great Engineering curriculum, are thriving on the experience, and would not have been well-served by going to CC first. OTOH there are other students who should have gone to CC and match the prescription in your article.
One big cost and time saver is taking AP and IB classes in high school.
FYI, here in California, residents are free to attend any CC in the state. Their integration with Cal State and UC is pretty seamless. That said, our public systems are crowded and expensive. It was better for my son to go to college out of state...the cost at a private U was only a little higher than UC, their Engineering program is excellent, and he can probably graduate sooner which reduces the bottom-line cost.
Dave Palmer - thanks for a timely, practical and thought provoking article!
As the father of two high school students, I've been intensely studying the process of college choice and applying. The costs, as well as the selectivity is appalling - much more extreme than I had experienced with my education.
I was lucky in that I was "wired" to be an engineer from an early age, so selecting a major was easy for me. However, I think that for many kids, the first couple years of college is as much about learning what they DON'T want to do for a career vs. what they WANT to do. Community college seems an excellent way to get this sorted out.
One word of caution (although I'm far from an expert on this subject): My understanding is that if a specific 4-year college is the ultimate goal - one needs to be VERY CAREFUL in selecting which CC and which courses to take if you want the credits to be transferrable. I've heard that your best chance of having maximum transfer opportunity is where the CC is in the same community as the college, hence there is an "agreement" between the institutions to honor such transfers.
Everyone in my family (including myself) has always attended 4-year colleges (except for summer school) and there is definitely a slightly negative cultural "stigma" associated with CC's. However, given how out of control the costs and exclusivity of mainstream colleges has become - I find your premise worth considering.
I agree with any1 that the college experience and the students are so diverse it is difficult to generalize which way is 'best'. I started at one top-tier 4-year school, ended with my BS after transferring to a 4-year state school, and have taken numerous community college courses for personal enrichment. The top-tier school (USC) was the best and the worst. I remember a Calculus class where the math professor literally read from the math text he had written to a lecture hall with over 1000 students. Ouch. I also remember giving a standing ovation, along with the other 200 students, to a Chemistry professor (a Nobel laureate) whose lectures were so engaging and illuminating they made Chemistry seem like the most exciting field of science on the planet. There's no question that your fellow students at the top schools are some of the brightest folks you will ever meet.
In my opinion, it really depends on the student. If he/she is driven, self-actualizing, and set on a path, a 4-year can be greatly enriching. If not, a state school or community college is a much more affordable and practical choice. Having been to all three, I'd have to say that the ultimate determinator of the quality of a students' eductional achievement is the student himself. When I'm hiring, I'd take a driven drop-out like Bill Gates over a cruise-through-life Princeton grad any day.
Another option you didn't touch on in your blog is the burgeoning online educational opportunities, ranging from MIT putting its courses online, to online schools like the Khan academy, to the increasing online presence of traditional universities. I suspect we may be looking at a sea change in higher education in the coming decade.
There's another option. Because it might be easier to start the summer after graduation at a CC, use the CC to specifically clean up any weaknesses and to avoid the large university cattle drive like freshmen classes. Then start your second year at the four year university. Even without the associates degree you should be able to get most credits transfered. For those that don't transfer, having just taken the freshman level classes you should be able to test out of taking them again at the new school.
@sshzp4: By all means, if your child is exceptionally intelligent, highly motivated, and focused on a set of clearly-defined goals, then he or she should go straight into a four-year degree program. If your child is bright enough to win a full-ride tuition scholarship to Harvard or MIT, he or she probably deserves to be there. All my best to you.
But that doesn't describe the vast majority of students. You can refer to non-elite students as the "lowest common denominator," but the fact is that they (read: we) are the ones who will actually put into practice the brilliant ideas of the so-called "thought leaders" you praise. The best ideas in the world are worth very little without skilled workers, technicians, and engineers to carry them out.
(By the way, "thought leaders" hardly make up the majority of students even in the most selective four-year universities, and quite a few "thought leaders" are dropouts from four-year degree programs).
I think everyones situation is different and so It's impossible to generalize about the "best" path to obtaining higher education. What is troubling to me is that with costs at four year institutions spiraling out of control many students are being priced out, so they don't even have that as an option. We seem to be heading back to the old days when only the wealthy elite of our societycould afford to attend four year universities. So while it's great that community colleges are one option, I'm concerned that it is rapidly becoming the ONLY option for the majority of students and their families. Community colleges near me are struggling to keep up with demand now. Many studuents can't get the courses they need when they need them. It will only get worse with time because state and local government do not seem willing or able to adequately fund them. So for many of these kids it's just an extension of their experiemce in overcrowded high school classes.
I attended community college for two years while working. Most of my classes were evening and weekend courses. Then I transferred to a major university for the next three years and finished with an engineering degree. I was lucky enough to be able to work my way though without loans.
My experience differed greatly from others that I am reading here. I think that junior college was worthwhile, but prospective students should know the limitations as well.
Most of my JC courses transferred in some fashion, but not all....and not in the same way. The science and math courses transferred only as pass/fail, not as letter grades. I didn't think much about that at the time, but ultimately it excluded some academic honors that would have otherwise accompanied my degree. No biggie, but it would have been nice.
Some of my community college courses transferred only as electives. That was less than helpful, because of two reasons: One is that the engineering curriculum doesn't require many electives. The other is that electives are one of the few areas where engineering students get a chance to meet people and relax without tough academic pressure. I did take a few liberal arts courses at the U, and those courses were definitely richer at the major university. I would have enjoyed taking more.
Also there was a big difference for the working student. While at the JC...the community college....I worked as a welder and mechanic. Wages were minimal and time off was hard to get. At the major U, I found that more challenging work as a trainee engineer was easy to find through the school's influence with any number of local businesses. The pay was higher, the work more interesting, and finding time for classes not a problem.
But by far the largest difference between the JC and the U was just what Charles pointed out in his previous comment. The difference was the competition. At the JC, students might quit, but nobody was washed out. At the university eng. school, a high proportion of hard-studying fellow students washed out in spite of their trying seriously to make the grade. The courses were that much more difficult and the workload that much greater.
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