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.
I took a look at sample curriculums for electrical engineering and aerospace engineering at University of Washington.
In general, going the community college route for the first two years makes sense, assuming the community college offers the math, chemistry, and physics courses that would be equivalent to those offered by the university and required by the major desired.
The flaw is that some of the major-specific required courses begin in the sophomore year. A student taking the community college route would have to try to get these classes in summer semester, or try very hard to cram them into junior year, or end up going for five years calendar time.
It would still be less expensive in the end to go the community college route, but longer in duration.
Great blog, Dave. I have a son in CC because he feels he isn't ready for full-time college. He wants to chip away at classes. I used to teach part-time at our local CC, while also teaching at our state's largest state school. One talk I always gave my CC students is to let them know the demands on them were every bit as great as the demands at the four-year college students. Also, I told them their performance was as strong or better than my state college students. Most of them were taking a relatively inexpensive first two years at the CC, with plans to complete their degree at a four-year school.
@TJ McDermott: You're absolutely right, and I was wondering how long it would take for someone to point that out.
Depending on the four-year college and the program, students who transfer from a two-year school may need an extra semester or two for the reasons you mention. (I wound up needing two additional semesters, but I took advantage of the extra time to get a head start on my masters degree).
Fortunately, an increasing number of community colleges and universities are working out agreements to minimize or eliminate this problem. It's definitely important for students who are planning to transfer to focus getting the credits they need for the specific program they want to transfer into.
On the other hand, students who don't have a very clear sense of what they want to go into (i.e. most students) should focus on accumulating general education credits, while taking classes in a variety of subjects to see what interests them the most.
One of the most important aspects of the college experience, whether at community college or four-year universities, is hands-on training. Call them internships or whatever, but today's engineering programs should encompass some type of training where business, in tandem with the learning institution, offers on-the-job, real world experience to the students. I will cede that community college is perhaps better suited to provide this very necessary part of the education experience than four-year colleges. Even way, I'd like to see more of this cross-collaboration.
Oddly enough, in 1979 when I finished my associates degree from a community college, I could have gone to Ohio University to complete a BSEE in 2 years. They had an agreement with the college I went to at that time. I went and looked at OU, but didn't end up going there. So even back then work was starting on the problem of transferring out of 2 year colleges.
Dave Palmer's observations on the value of community college are close to my experience. I followed the conventional route, 4 year college then graduate school, but both of my sons started in a local community college. This was the better approach for them for much the same reasons that Dave noted and the transition to 4 year institutions was seamless. The reputation of community colleges has improved from my time in the 60's and while not the best route for all students they are a useful alternative for others.
When I graduated from high school I didn't have much of a choice as far as "community colleges" were concerned. First, there were none close by, and secondly, my parents INSISTED I go to a 4 year college. As it turned out, the university I attended had a branch campus 20 minutes away, so I did live at home for the first 3 years. 3 years because midway through my sophomore year I changed majors and essentially started over. I graduated with an associates degree and then went to another campus of the same university to get my bachelors degree. Looking back, my college "career" has essentially the same elements of attending a community college then moving on. If I can, I will definately encourage my children to take the same approach.
First, employers don't take associate degrees seriously. They often seem more interested in an applicants' paper credentials than in actual ability.
Second, I've worked with many engineers in the past, and I have found little correlation between the engineers' ability and creativity and their education (apart from Technion (Israel) EE graduates who all seem overqualified).
I've also found that a stint in the armed forces gives valuable work experience and instills a sense of responsibility that the private sector does not always provide.
The article and the subsequent comments only dwell on personal opinions, not facts.
CCs are meant to cater to the lowest common denominator of the general student body, they are meant as 'trade schools' where you learn to be a skilled worker. So that's exactly what you get out of a CC - you get technician level instructors who teach technician level courses. The skills taught in CC are just labor-oriented, not thought-oriented.
4-year degree programs are designed to give a student the widest possible exposure to a whole technical field, and to teach them how to apply logic to understand and solve problems in that field. You have to be fairly smart to understand why you are in that environment.
The problem is the lowest denominator manages to get into 4yDPs by agreeing to pay the tuition. And since they are just too simple to understand what that environment is about, they resort to the hi-jinks out of the ennui; Which you then hear about leading to the common impression that 4yDPs are a waste of time and money. And you also conveniently forget all the MIT/Harvard/Stanford/UIUC/Caltech grads that have changed your life as you know it.
The statistical truth is you don't have many thought leaders in either industry or research that went to a CC. Here are some rhetorical questions: How many articles on DN that talk about breakthrough science or world-changing technology actually come from CCs? How many designers/engineers at Apple/Google/MSFT actually went to a CC?
In the end, the parent needs to decide if the child is smart enough for a 4yDP. Otherwise as we well know, a fool and his money are easily parted.
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