Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sticker Shock and Smart Shopping

This time of year, community colleges suddenly get a lot more attractive.

High school seniors who applied to college for the coming Fall got their notifications and aid awards – if any – by or around April 15. Depending on the school, they usually have until May 1 or May 15 to respond.

So the stretch from mid-April to mid-May is a very big deal for us. This is when students – and their parents – who wouldn't have considered us before suddenly look seriously at the local cc. The aid package wasn't what they thought it would be, or they didn't get into the first or second choice school, or family or life circumstances have changed. Suddenly, the prospect of taking transferable gen ed credits for low tuition while living at home doesn't seem so bad. Getting a couple of years under your belt without taking on backbreaking levels of student loan debt has a certain logic to it.

Cc's as a group suffer from the old Groucho Marx line about never joining a club that would accept you as a member. If you judge quality by exclusivity, then any open-admissions college has to suck, by definition. But we're finding that increasing numbers of people with other options are choosing cc's. (One sign of that is the plummeting average age of students at cc's. Every year, our student body gets more and more traditional.) Other than cost, why would they do that?

In a word, specialization.

Most cc's – in my state, all of them – focus exclusively on the first two years. We don't teach anything above the 200 level. That means that our full-time faculty teach intro courses. That may not sound like much, but the way the adjunct trend plays out at the midtier four-year colleges usually means that the intro courses are farmed out to adjuncts, while the plum upper-level courses are guarded jealously by the full-time faculty. So if you start at a cc and transfer after two years, you get the best of both worlds, and do it for less money.

That's not to say that nothing is lost. Most cc's don't have dorms, so that part of the 'college experience' isn't there. But plenty of students commute to four-year campuses, too. If the choice is between a cc and, say, Swarthmore, then I have to concede the point. But if it's between commuting to a cc and commuting to Compass Direction State College, cc's are often pretty competitive.

The competitiveness increases, I think, as the four-year schools outsource progressively more of their teaching to adjuncts. It also increases as tuition increases, as travel costs increase, and as security concerns increase. There's something comforting in having the kids close to home.

In some cases, the cultural stigma is still there, and that's not to be sneezed at. But if the financial aid package from Nothing Special State wasn't what you expected, it may be worth looking past the stereotype. There's no shame in smart shopping.