I agree that the four-year college experience isn't for everyone and there is definitely a group of students who go along for the ride, putting their education as a secondary objective. Yet, I wouldn't go as far as to argue the other way--that community college as a stepping stone to four-year college is the only way to go. I think it depends on the kid, their motivation, their career aspirations, the family's financial and life situation, and many other factors. But yes, there shouldn't be an absolute focus from parents, high school faculty, and the media to push students in that direction without considering all of the alternatives.
On the flip side, there is something to be said about that away-from-home college experience that sticks with you for a lifetime. Learning to balance work with fun time, living away from home, managing expenses and temptations, having access to fellow students who hail from different backgrounds and different locales is pretty invaluable and can be life changing. I say the bottom line is different strokes for different folks.
All good points here. That being said, I'm not sure my 18-year-old self would have been happy staying home while going to college. Not at that time anyway. I was content to live away from home, come and go as I pleased, while also working to help pay my way.
Of course, after I graduated and was faced with paying off my student loans I probably would have felt differently - had community college been an option when I was looking at colleges, anyway ....
These are great points, and as a matter of fact, my experience in a Community College was in some ways more rewarding than the 4 year college. It is not a requirement for kids to be happy with the decisions you make for them, though every case is different. Many people went the conventional way with 4 years of a University and came out just fine. But many will thank you later, because they will avoid the worthless process of 'hazing' that has grown out of control in the last few decades. This alone is a great reason to avoid Freshman and Sophomore years at a 4 year University, and to avoid fraternities and sororities altogether. The only real 'advantages' that I have seen these organizations provide is the ability to cheat, saving years worth of exams for their minions to use, along with countless papers to buy, etc. These organizations are propelling some students that are not well trained in anything other than partying, into the workforce, with less morals than they started with. They are exellent partyers and pranksters, they are great a preying on the opposite sex, and they are great at manipulating the system, none of which are very useful in our society. I personally know people that are still messed up in the head by the lifestyle and hazing that they experienced in college.
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.
@Beth: You're right that different students have different needs. My point is that community colleges shouldn't be seen as a "Plan B" or last-ditch option. In my opinion, they are the best option for most students and families.
It's interesting that you mention the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, because I was actually going to include this as one of the benefits of community colleges. My daughter has classmates from all over the world. In fact, she's picked up a few words of Korean, Japanese, Farsi, and Tagalog from her classmates, while she has taught them a few words of Spanish. (She grew up in El Salvador). In contrast, in many four-year universities, students from different countries tend to cluster together, i.e. Indian students with Indian students, Chinese students with Chinese students, etc.
Granted, this level of diversity may be due to the fact that we live in the Chicago area; you probably wouldn't encounter students from many different countries at a community college in rural Montana, for example. But community college students also tend to be more diverse in terms of age and life experiences. Having classmates of different ages provides a healthy mix of perspectives.
Totally agree, Dave, that community shouldn't be seen as a Plan B. As far as diversity, I think that definitely depends on your area. I live 30+ miles north of Boston and any community college around here would not have the level of diversity I'd love my kids to experience in higher ed because they're not experiencing it now.
The price of four-year college education is certainly out of bounds for many families, who somehow shoulder through it and take on the massive debt. With more attention paid to the curriculum and programs offered by community college, particularly as part of the high school guidance program, many families and students could breath a sigh of relief and still be set on course to achieving their career goals.
Who says you have to live at home to go to a community college?
When I was 18, I moved away and went to a community college. I was about 90 miles from home, living off-campus (there was no on campus housing).
There was also great diversity there. I lived and went to school with Iranians during the hostage crisis in the late 70's. There were many other ethnic groups represented at the college at that time. I still stay in contact with some of the people I lived with and whent to school with, including the Iranians, who eventually married and stayed here.
Anyhow, just because you go to a community college doesn't mean you have to live with your parents. (although I would have if I could have - nothing like mom's cooking.)
That's how it worked for me too. In the late 1960s I went to college at age 16, moved into the dorms, changed from science to a double major in Pot and Sandbox Politics, dropped out a few years later. Decades after, when I got serious about learning, community colleges and their awesome teachers welcomed me into some calculus & statistics courses that led to a math degree and a fascinating enjoyable new career.
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.
I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of this article. I've known many engineers who started at community colleges, including one who is now a professor of mechanical engineering. It's a good way for engineering students to go, especially in this era of $40K-per-year tuitions (some of the big name schools are now over $50K). Although it's not widely spoken of, many of today's big engineering schools wash out between 50% and 70% of the students who start in engineering during the first two years (this is a figure from the former dean at the University of Texas). Students who aren't ready for the rigor of an undergrad engineering curriculum in a big school with calculus classes of 500 kids can be among those washouts. Community colleges give students a chance to acclimate in smaller classes. If they do well, the students can transfer into the big schools when they're ready and replace those who've left engineering. Many big engineering schools are now searching for kids to fill those spots in junior- and senior-level classes. In the end, employers just want to see the bachelor's degree; it doesn't matter if the first two years were at a junior college.
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.
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.
I too agree, although my personal experience was different and happened a long time ago.
I am currently going through this with my oldest. He got into a good school of his choice and started a program. In his case he decided he wanted to change his major. Well, considering how much thought he put into the first choice, even he thought that he would be better off at the local community college. It is very inexpensive, considered very good. He has plenty of AP credits, some from his four year college and with a couple of semesters will have an associates degree. The four year schools around here almost all tend to accept these students with open arms.
The school he originally went to was a very serious technical university. Compared to what I experienced, being near a large state school, it was positively sedate. It is hard, though, at that age to stay on course.
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.
@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.
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.
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.
There are advantages and disadvantages to community colleges and four-year colleges. One thing I did notice, having taught at both, is that the students who were on campus living in a dorm were more completely immersed in their education. They were less distracted by other aspects of life.
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.
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 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.
@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.
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.
@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).
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.
Now that I have 25 years to look back (wow, I'm geezing!) at my college experience, I did some things right and some things wrong.
Community College is the answer for some people, but like another said, you have to be careful which four year engineering schools will accept their credits.
As another poster mentioned, I started at a branch campus of Penn State and spent my first two years there. It was only 40 miles or so from my parents, and I lived in the dorm, which by itself was a life changing experience! The teachers were generally good but I'll admit that I had trouble adjusting to dorm life and missed way too many classes and had to drop some courses. Getting close to the end of my two years, I visited Main Campus and decided that I'd never survive there and decided to finish at Penn State Behrend, which also offers full "non-T" Engineering degrees. This was a good decision, but I still had to take a ten credit summer session to get caught up. Behrend was big enough but small enough, and the instructors were interested. I also experienced working with some foreign professors which was good experience for working with off-shored work in the future...
I joined a social fraternity and contrary to popular belief, I thought it was a good experience. Sure there were some unpleasantries involved when pledging, but nothing too bad. I was part of a good group of guys which helped cement me socially, which isn't the easiest thing for engineers. (No, there weren't many engineers in my fraternity.) Learning parliamentary procedure was also useful for dealing with business practices once in the workforce.
What hurt my education the most, was my screw-ups my first two years, which bumped me out of order for prerequisites. That, combined with the fact that I'm weak at high level math, contributed to it taking me six years to get my EE degree. But, I wasn't really ready (maturity level) to graduate before then, so it worked out for me. My grades weren't all that great, but somehow my experiences and skills enabled me to enter the workforce and here I am.
Oddly, I think that the most important things I took from college, were the improvement of my writing and communication skills, combined with basic electronics knowledge (and getting my feet wet in embedded software). The specific technical skills required for my jobs have been learned while at my jobs, but the ability to communicate effectively was something required from the start.
I agree, community colleges are often overlooked and may be the correct path for some students. Someone I love like a son (OK, it was my son) couldn't handle the sudden change in responsibility of living on his own and being a full time Engineering student. Just make certain to speak to an advisor so that all community college credits will transfer. Typically, electives will not transfer, but general education credits will.
I think you've highlighted one of the great advantages to the community college experience, tekochip. Academically, it's a big jump from high school to a major university engineering program. Add the away-from-home living experience to that, and you have a very demanding situation. One of the beauties of the community college is that it lets you do one step at a time.
Those attending college for "an experience" are wasting thier time and money! The benefit is in the learning the material and understanding the applications of what is learned. As engineers we need to know the way things work, both electrically and mechanically, which covers a huge amount of learning. Then we need to understand, after we have learned. So there is a lot of effort required, no doubt.
I started in a state university but didn't do well. Then I went to a two year school and did very well. Part of that was due to a much better environment, and much was due to more dedicated teachers, who had nothing else to do except make sure that their students were learning. Then I graduated from a four year "technical institute", almost an honors level student, but not in the top ten.
Unfortunately that wondeful institution no longer exists, today it is a "university", offering an MBA and a whole bunch of other advanced degrees in a wide variety of studies. It also has all of the other amenities of the largest universities, and a tuition rate that was 72 times the rate that I paid, and rising. Today I could not afford to attend that school, and I doubt that my education would be as excelllent as the one that I received. But, of course, it would be the "university experience", just like the concert experience kids get today.
But mostly I have enjoyed my engineering career, even the very high stress times.
After 35 prior comments, this is a late input; very metaphorically representative of the point I'm about to make. Your article's logic and reasoning are sound, and I find myself in complete agreement; but ~alas~ too late. Because I had held those very myths you identified; and in raising my children, they quite aptly inherited my myths. Too late was my financial logic, which was more closely aligned to your points, that a local CC made a lot of sense. But it was too late; the kids already had their paradigms set, and would not entertain a CC over the dormitory experience. My wife and I are very blessed, however, to have properly instilled the multiple other solid foundational behaviors; that our children are practicing making good choices – even though they both "went-away" to school.
Actual Case-Study; my two kids: Both are currently attending 4-year State Universities, and living on-campus, in dormitories. Considering the big (4) expenses, being Room, Meal-Plan, Tuition, and Books (In that order) I am averaging about $8,000 per semester, (about $16,000 per year), for each child. Certainly not cheap, but a FAR Cry from the preposterous claims of $50K per year. Its just not that expensive.
A good friend whispered in my ear the other day, "Jim, the biggest raise you'll ever get in your career is the one that comes after college graduation!" Looks like I'm in for about $15,000 in new disposable income next year!
JimT, here are a few college costs (tuition + room & bd) as listed in 2011 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges book: Northwestern, $52,487; Harvard, $50,724; MIT, $50,446; Yale, $49,800; Bowdoin, $52,880; Middlebury, $52,500. There are more, but I'll spare you the entire, depressing list. Also, remember these figures come from a two-year-old book, and the cost of college goes up every year at twice the rate of inflation. So you're not getting off too badly for someone paying two tuitions.
Agreed - I'm not complaining; just managing it, and looking forward to completing it. As far as those Universities you listed, well; of course. Those are Designer-Name-Brand institutions. I didn't know they were that high, but they were already over the top, off our lists.
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