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Is Community College Right for You?
For a long time now, there’s been a pretty specific idea of what the American Dream looks like. You immigrate to America, you work hard, you save enough money to send your kids to college, and then they land themselves squarely in the upper middle class.
But dreams change. Or maybe it's reality that's changing instead. For one, the traditional four-year college is more expensive than ever and it’s not getting any cheaper. And while graduates will often be stuck with loads of student debt, the sorts of salaries that might allow prompt payment of that debt are getting harder and harder to find.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to consider different options when it comes to transitioning from high school to the general workforce. One good option to consider? Community college.
Why it’s a good choice.
The experts we spoke to were all pretty enthusiastic about at least considering community college.
“Community college is a great — and overlooked — option for students who want to save on college tuition,” explained Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Strategist at idfive. “According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average yearly tuition at a community college is $3,660 as opposed to the average cost of a year at a state university at in-state rates ($10,230).
"While you can pursue a two-year associate’s degree at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school to get your bachelor’s degree, you don’t have to: many people attend community college in order to knock out a substantial chunk of their required general education classes.
“But you don’t have to be working towards an (eventual) bachelor’s degree to attend community college. Many community colleges offer two-year vocational programs that lead to employment in medicine (dental hygienist, registered nurse, MRI technician, etc.), aviation (air traffic controller, avionics technician), the law (paralegal), science (lab technician, geological/petroleum field technician), and other professions that often pay over $50,000 per year.”
Dr. Carton wasn’t the only one to suggest community colleges as an option for either eventually transferring to a four-year school or as an end to itself.
“If high school graduates seek up-to-date occupational/technical certifications, diplomas or degrees, then a nearby, affordable community college is often the best choice they could make,” advised Timothy G. Wiedman. Wiedman is a retired professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University and taught at a large community college for fifteen years before that.
“For example, for folks who have mechanical skills and enjoy working with their hands, HVAC training can lead to jobs that pay well and are in demand in many parts of the country. But training for interesting ‘indoor’ jobs (e.g., pharmacy technicians, veterinary assistants, and many others) is also available. The range of possibilities at larger community colleges would surprise a great many people.
“On the other hand, even if folks are interested in a four-year bachelor's degree, investigating one of these two-year colleges can still make sense, since the majority of college-bound students live within commuting distance of a relatively inexpensive community college.
“Completing a two-year transfer program locally while living at home -- and then transferring to a more expensive four-year school to complete a baccalaureate degree -- will often save a great deal of money. In most cases, the content of the completed ‘transfer’ coursework will be nearly identical.
"Further, the individual attention available to freshmen at a community college is often superior to the attention that students receive in large, 200-student sections of introductory courses taught at many major universities.
"In addition, lower-level courses at universities are often taught by young graduate students (i.e., teaching assistants) who may have limited teaching experience and are often carrying heavy graduate course-loads that might well be their primary concerns.”
But we hear what you’re saying from the other side of the screen. You want to hear from someone with personal experience with community college. We’ve got you covered!
“Brittany and I both choose to go to community college first so I think I can offer some great insight,” recounted Kelan Kline of The Savvy Couple. “When we were applying to colleges we knew we wanted to save money and understand the actual value of what we were paying for. We both decided to go to community college first to knock out most of our general freshmen prerequisites.
“The biggest driving factor was being able to save money. We both continued to live at home with our parents and commute to school. We picked a college close by with a great reputation for transferring credits to a four-year school. Brittany was able to get through her first two years of college for free with financial aid and I walked away with around $3,000 of student loans.”
If there were no advantages to a four-year college, they probably wouldn’t exist. Everyone would just go to community colleges. So what are the hypothetical downsides to community college?
Dr. Carton offered some community college cons to consider:
“Little to no ‘college experience.’ People often go part time and there’s usually no campus housing.
“Risk of credits not transferring. If you have a school in mind you want to transfer into once you’ve finished community college, check with their admissions office first to see what will transfer.
“You’ll enter a four-year school as an ‘outsider’ when others in your class are already established and have made friends.
“Technical school credits usually aren’t transferable to a 4-year school.”
OK, now it’s decision time.
Now you have a sense of the pros and cons to community college. That means it’s time to make your decision. Well, not necessarily right now. But before you go to college.
“Visit the school and see what the programs are like at each school,” advised College Counseling Tutor Joann Elliott. “Community college and trade school may have a shorter time commitment than the four-year, but you might find trade school has less traditional coursework and is more hands-on. The traditional four-year is well suited for those who like school and can dedicate themselves to the rigor and self-discipline that it takes to commit to a four (or more!) year time frame.
"Every school is different so start early. We started working with my nephew on trying to figure this out at the end of his sophomore year. We visited all types of schools and now as a junior he has a good idea of which option might fit his learning style and goals the best.”
But there are choices to consider beyond whether you go to a community college or four-year university. One other possibility is trade school, as Elliot referenced.
“Technical or trade schools are usually private institutions that train students for jobs in what are known as ‘The Skilled Trades,’ such as plumbing, auto mechanics, electrical, carpentry, etc.,” explained Dr. Carton.
“Many technical schools also train students for jobs such as commercial driving, welding, and heavy equipment operation. Trade schools vary in price, but a degree usually will run you around $20-$30,000. This is obviously more expensive than a community college degree but many of the jobs these schools train students for are in high demand.”
Consider taking a gap year.
You might also find a reason to delay the start of your college career, regardless of which college you’re heading to.
“A relatively new concept after high school is that of a gap year,” offered Elliot. “A gap year gives a student the opportunity to 'figure it out'. They might achieve knowing themselves better by a variety of activities including travel abroad, volunteering, taking courses part-time, working, job shadowing, or a mix of all of the above.
"A couple of tips I'd give people is to consider having a well-defined plan and structure to your gap year. Don't just say ‘I'll volunteer’ and then waste your year binging on Netflix and stuffing your face and letting time get away.
"I also recommend students apply to college when the time is right (in the fall) if they are a high school senior and then defer their enrollment if they decide on a gap year. This way if they decide the gap year isn't for them, they still can attend college with the rest of their peers.
"Regardless, if you do take a gap year you can bet the college admissions office will ask you how you spent your gap year. Your gap year should be moving you forward, not wasting time. There are plenty of colleges that have structured gap year programs and there are websites to assist people looking for gap year options.”
And then there’s another straightforward option.
College isn't mandatory.
“There is also always the option to start working,” explained Leslie H. Tayne Esq., Founder and Head Attorney at Tayne Law Group. “While the number of jobs requiring a college degree continues to grow, there can still be a benefit to taking a job out of high school. You can also use this time to figure out what you enjoy doing and what you are good at doing and then decide to go to school. This can also give you time to save money to go to college.”
At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to you to figure out what option is best for your specific situation. Hopefully, this input will help you choose that option.
Dr. Sean Carton is the Chief Strategist of idfive (@idfive) where he helps clients understand the constantly changing intersections between design, marketing, communication, and technology through creative ideas and beautiful solutions. As the founder of one of Baltimore's first web development firms in 1995, Sean is also the founding Dean of Design and Media at Philadelphia University. He has published articles in publications such as Wired, Revolution, Stim, and POV. Sean's work for clients has been recognized with numerous awards, including a Webby, One Show, Gold ADDY and the New York Art Director's Club.
Joann Elliott (@JoannCCTSTL) is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in the state of Missouri. She has over 25 years of experience working with high school and college students as well as young adults. She currently has a private practice, College Counseling Tutoring, LLC, located in St. Louis. You can learn more about her practice and how to make appointments at www.cct-stl.com. Joann is also the author of When to Do What: A Step-by-Step Guide to the College Process available on Amazon.
Kelan and Brittany Kline aka The Savvy Couple are two thriving millennials that are daring to live differently. They started their personal finance blog in September 2016 to help others get money $avvy so they can live a frugal and free lifestyle. Brittany is a full-time 4th-grade teacher and Kelan runs The Savvy Couple full-time and works as a digital marketer. You can follow them here: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.
After 13 years as a successful operations manager working at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies, Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman spent the next 28 years in academia teaching college courses in business, management, human resources, and retirement planning. Dr. Wiedman recently took an early retirement from Doane University (@DoaneUniversity), is a member of the Human Resources Group of West Michigan and continues to do annual volunteer work for the SHRM Foundation. He holds two graduate degrees in business and has completed multiple professional certifications.