Monday, April 11, 2011

Community Colleges as Debtbusters

Oh sure -- the New York Times puts up a paywall, and then finally runs an intelligent article about community colleges. Thanks.

If you’re able to access it, this piece discusses people consciously choosing to spend the first two years of a much longer college education at a community college as a cost-cutting measure. The idea is to build up a slew of transferable credits at low cost, so that when you get to the four-year school, you’re only paying their rate for two years.

Yes, I’m biased, but I consider this a great idea for many people. If your four-year option is Princeton, then by all means, go directly. But if your four-year option is Midtier State U, the community college transfer route has real virtues.

The most obvious one, and the one that the article picked up on immediately, is cost. CC tuition is typically lower than anyone else’s, and living at home is usually cheaper than living in a dorm. (If living at home is simply not an option, cheap apartments usually compare fairly well to dorms, too.) The rule of thumb I’ve heard lately is that you don’t want your total educational debt to exceed your expected first year’s salary. Let’s say that each year at the four-year college requires $10,000 worth of loans. If you go directly, you graduate with $40,000 of debt. If you start at the cc and transfer, you graduate with about $25,000 in debt. In this economy, the difference is nothing to sneeze at.

But there are other advantages, too. One of the dirty little secrets of American higher education is that many universities run the intro classes as cash cows. When I was in grad school at Flagship State, the undergrad intro course in my discipline was taught in an auditorium to 300 students at a pop. Sitting near the back, as I sometimes did, I can attest that student attention was spotty at best. (And that was before the plethora of electronics that students have now.)

The better community colleges tend to run all classes relatively small. Yes, the adjunct percentage is higher than it ought to be, but candidly, you may be better off educationally with a long-time adjunct than with a brand-new graduate student who’s teaching the first class of her life. On the full-time side, since cc’s hire faculty to teach, rather than to do research, you tend to have fewer Inscrutable Geniuses and more solid teachers.

If you’re susceptible to the seamier side of dorm life, a cc might be a good bet. Nobody likes to talk about it, but every January we get a non-trivial number of “reverse transfers” from four-year colleges. Many of them are students who got a little carried away with the bacchanalia of dorm life, and who lost their way academically as a result. A more distraction-free environment can be just the thing to get the potentially-dissolute back on track.

All of that said, this solution isn’t for everybody.

Most cc’s don’t offer the entire traditional college experience. If you have your heart set on football Saturdays and late-night dorm bull sessions, you may feel like you’re missing out. Depending on its location and profile, the options for Honors programs may be limited, and outside of those programs, you may not get the same average level of academic preparation among your peers as you would at most four-year schools. (‘Tis the hazard of open admissions.) Truthfully, some cc’s are very good at transfer, and some really aren’t. The ones that are represent a colossal bargain for many students; the ones that aren’t, don’t.

One way to tell the difference is to call the Student Affairs office and ask to speak to the Transfer Counselor (or Transfer Coordinator). If they don’t have one, you know what you need to know. If they do have one, ask for numbers of students sent to the schools to which you hope to transfer. Savvy students (and savvy parents) know to ask about “articulation agreements,” which are contracts between colleges spelling out which credits will transfer for which programs. If you already have a target college or university in mind, you want to choose your cc courses with an eye towards what that school will accept for full credit in your intended major. (Beware of “free elective” credit, which is where credits go to die.) It can also be a good idea to contact the destination college and ask them which community colleges send them the most transfer students. Past performance is no guarantee, but it beats random guessing.

Every year my cc sends an impressive number of students to a number of strong four year colleges, including some that high-achieving high schoolers compete hard to get into. A gold-plated diploma at what amounts to half-price amounts to one of the best bargains in American higher education, and it sets those students up to have a wide range of enviable choices. I’m proud to be a part of that, even if only indirectly.

Some cc’s are establishing bachelor’s degree completion programs on their own campuses, in which they contract with four-year colleges to run courses from the third and fourth years on the cc’s campus. These programs are usually targeted at returning adult students, though I’ve never seen them formally restricted to them. The idea behind programs like these is to improve both the cost and the convenience of the degree, allowing students to graduate with even less debt than they otherwise would have. For the right student, this is a major win; savvy students would be well-advised to ask about these when they go college-shopping.

This approach may not be for everybody, but it’s nice to see some media acknowledgement that community colleges do more than just remediation and job training. Even though job training gets the most political attention, some cc’s actually transfer more students than they graduate from terminal programs. If you’re in the right place, this can be a very appealing option.

Wise and worldly readers, did any of you go this route? If you did, did you learn anything about the process that you wish you had known when you started?