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?

Here's a link that should work for most. Well, it worked for me:
My state has a guaranteed admission agreement between the State Us and the CCs. Make a certain GPA and actually graduate the CC with a two year degree? You're in, and you get a very valuable waiver for lower level gen eds. I work at Midtier State U, and we often recommend this process to our applicants who don't quite make the cut but who are enthusiastic about our instituiton (or who can't leave the area to go to Lowertier State U, for whatever reason). We love being able to legitimately tell them that the door is not closed. Though it is hard to make a 17 year old understand that the CC is not the end of their world. They want dorms and quads NOW, not in two years, and it's hard for them to really believe their resume will be competitive at the end, even if they logically know it will be the same degree as the 4 years have. I'm a fan of anything that dulls the stigma.
I feel like you're kind of all over the place in this piece, equating regional state universities with flagship universities and indicating that *really* the only choice to be made is between community college and Princeton. Seriously?

FWIW, as someone who attended Midtier State U, went on to an MA program at a flagship, then on to a PhD at an elite (private) grad program, and now is tenured at another Midtier State U, I never had a class larger than around 100 in undergrad and no humanities course I took was more than 50; this is about the same for my students at my current university (though actually there is no class larger than 30 in my department).

It is true that the CC down the street costs about half of what my current institution costs to attend in terms of tuition. And if cost is the primary factor in a student's higher education decisions, than a CC is the right choice. I personally think that there are many factors to consider beyond cost, and I do think that some of those are worth paying for. It's not wrong to want to do the whole dorm life thing. It's not wrong to want a "traditional" college experience. And it *isn't* the same for students who transfer after two years. I know because two of my roommates in college had done just that - taken care of their gen eds elsewhere. Socially as well as academically, both struggled to adjust to the 4-year campus. By the time they did adjust, they were already 3/4 of the way out of college. They never really became part of the 4-year institution into which they transferred.

So, yeah, their piece of paper is the same as mine. But their experience was not similar to mine, and I am crazy enough to think that what we *experience* during college matters as much if not more than the piece of paper. (And that's both inside and outside the classroom.)
That is a great article, and I speak from the point of view of a largish CC that is predominantly a transfer institution.

Indeed, the lesson of this article is that our CC should re-think its branding. We had been moving toward the "workforce" market, but that might not be a very big one.

I was particularly pleased to see mention of "grade 13". As I blogged some time ago, this attitude hurts students as well as us. I'm sure I see former AP students fail at our CC for exactly that reason. We need to do a better job at orientation to make sure students know they are in college.

BTW, our CC has an articulation agreement that includes extracurricular activities, so it is possible to have some of the "college experience" while at our CC even if you don't make the selection criteria for a nearby flagship university.

PS - DD's link worked for me, but I use a less-common browser and handle cookies with care.
This is exactly the route I took as a non-traditional student. At age 24, I started at a local CC with plans to transfer to a mid-tier state university and ended up getting accepted to two selective small liberal arts colleges instead.

By the time I graduated, I had $20,000 in loan debt but a BA from a $50k/yr school (thanks to generous financial aid grants for non-traditional students and CC transfers).
Some of this comes down to what is the purpose of a 4 year degree. Is it a coming of age experience or just a ticket to a better job?
Everyone should be able to access the article by using your link, because content reached by following links from blogs and social media doesn't count against your monthly free articles. I've subscribed at the introductory 99-cent rate, but I'm watching with interest to see how this model works out for them.
A four year college experience is a luxury. I think we do a great disservice to our youth when we glorify that experience.

If former CC students have trouble with the social and academic transition to four year schools, that's a very real problem and it needs to be addressed. But certainly not all students do - I very much consider myself a part of my BA alma mater, even though I only did 2 years there. No, it wasn't exactly the same experience as someone who had been there all 4years had, but it wasn't automatically worse. It wasn't alienating. It was just different.

I'm befuddled by this notion that a 4 year seamless college program at the same institution is a goal in and of itself. For most people, life isn't that straightforward, and part of being an adult is learning to adapt and deal when circumstances fall short of the ideal. As they so often do.

Students can want the 4 year model all they want, and there are sure worse goals to have. And if they want it and they can get it, great. I agree, what's wrong with that? But when they can't have it, because of their academic profile or cost or controlling parents or simple circumstance, we have served these young people poorly when they are *devistated* over it. And I say that as a parent as well as someone in the higher ed business; they pick up on our collective anxiety that they will be failures and that thier college experience will never be "enough" if they don't follow that gilded 4 year path.
FWIW, my CC has on-campus dorms AND a football team. My theory is CC's in more rural states/areas tend to have more 4-year type amenities. If there are only a few campuses across the state, it makes sense to offer dorms to students who live an hour or more away. It also makes the CC more competitive with 4 year schools: if students REALLY want that dorm experience, they can still get it at the CC, at a bargain price.
I sort of did both.

I spent my senior year of HS attending a community college full time. This CC actually had dorms (rural part of Wisconsin) and because I lived 90 miles away from campus, I was allowed to live in the dorms.

For $1,000/semester (tuition, HS paid for it, dorms I paid for) I thought it was a great deal.

Class sizes:

Calc III: 6 students
Engineering Statics: 4 students
Physics: 4 students
Humanities Classes: 25 students

The CC was an extension of high school, and I really did want the traditional college feel. I went to a SLAC on the east coast, and paid way too much for it. On the flip side, I transferred in with 41 semester credits (that I paid nothing for), so it did cut down on a year of expenses.

I don't regret not staying at the CC for another year (campus life was more important than $ at the time), but for the right students, I don't think the education can be beat.
Students also need to do their homework in regards to the requirements of the program they plan to transfer to at the 4-year school. We have a handful of programs on campus that due to clinical placements and sequencing take six semesters to complete, regardless of the number of credit hours a student might transfer in. Every semester I deal with irate parents and students who are "shocked" to discover they can't finish in two years despite the fact that information on the length of these programs is plastered across our website and is included in all the information we send out to the various CCs in the state.
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.

Interesting. By that rule, if you need to take out any loans to attend the Ivy League or almost any law school in the US, you shouldn't attend at all. Which I actually kind of agree with, since for a lot of people, going to those educational institutions probably aren't worth in the long (or even even medium) run.
As well, any sort of academic career (professor, researcher, academic administrator) would be, financially, pretty much off the table for anyone who has to take out loans at all, anywhere.
I would echo Dr. Crazy's comments. Regional U's have the small class sizes, plus the traditional college experience (often without the football teams).

The other issue for transfer students is financial aid. My particular regional university offers a host of scholarship packages for incoming freshmen, and the occasional rare nickel for transfer students. It's possible to get a small transfer scholarship (and many schools have a few set aside for that purpose), but most students of even moderate achievement will be in a much better position to get help as an incoming freshman. So the overall savings may be much smaller than it would appear.
To be clear: I'm not against CCs as an option for students. I think I mainly bristled at DD's characterization of 4-year state universities. Different institutions have different missions, and the CC mission does serve an important population of students, both for transfer and for 2-year degrees. That said, 4-year institutions have their own missions, and depending on the student, a 4-year institution may, in fact, be worth attending for four years.
I'd like to echo Mindy's comment. I'm at a regional state university, and students transferring into liberal arts seem to do well, but students who want to do one of the teacher licensure programs invariably end up needing extra semesters.

I loved attending my small SLAC. I never had more than 30 people in a class and that only happened once. About 20 was the norm. It was perfect for turning a wall-flower into a confident (and outspoken)woman. I openly mocked my friends on attended the Flagship state U and had classes of 300. My professors (many were adjuncts) knew my name, my thought process, my favorite movie. I wouldn't trade that for the world. (Small note: My mom works at the SLAC and I went for free. Totally the way to go.)
However, I think that there is a college experience for everyone. If we agree that everyone is different then the 4 year route won't work for everyone. My job now at regional state u is dependent upon those going the CC to State U way. We offer great scholarships for our transfer students.
One of the benefits I see, in addition to the cost savings for young people seeking a future transfer to a four year school, is the opportunity for seasoned career professionals to retrain for another job, and/or just take some classes that interest them. Great post.
the NYT link works for me - afaik, links from blogs are not subject to the paywall.

My wife took a number of courses at a CC on the way to a life-sciences degree. In one of the courses, the instructor was giving the same course at Proprietary U, for a few thousand dollars more..

The four-year U experience is certainly different from the CC one, but I'm not convinced it is necessarily better. There will be a lot of immature kids partying hearty at U. My wife's experience was that the CC had instructors that were as good or better than U, with smaller classes; the CC students tended to be more focused and disciplined.

Since the US has decided that funding education is a lower priority than tax cuts for the rich, a U education is soon going to be unaffordable for anyone but the rich. I don't see the value in accumulating $20-30k of debt every year just for the U 'experience'. Graduating with a massive debt load constrains all of your subsequent life choices. I heard an interview with Noam Chomsky on NPR, where he noted that the steep increase in student debt loads followed the protests of the 60s rather closely; and speculated that was by design, to create a compliant constrained labor force. At first blush I thought that hideously cynical, on second thought it made me wonder..
There are two big disadvantages to going to CC that I can see:

1) Pedigree does matter for certain types of graduate school – medical school, law school and other professional schools for example. The CC experience isn’t the kiss of death but it holds you back, much the same way going to a StateU would be a less desirable background than going to an R1 school.

2) Every time you start in a new place, there’s a start-up cost associated with learning how to operate in that environment. That cost is paid twice by CC students and they frequently take an extra year to graduate as a result – which eats up much of the cost savings if you consider opportunity cost in the equation.

And while it may be true that students at the CC receive an education that’s equivalent to that’s received at other institutions, the reality is that in their first semester, CC students at my college usually have their grades drop an entire gradepoint during their first semester after transfer. This has a significant impact on their future prospects for graduate school as those first semester grades are half of the grades submitted with their application the following Fall – not a good thing. Add to that the routinely terrible advising most science students get at the CC level (in my area, most students are encouraged to “just take GE their first two years” and end up taking freshman classes upon transfer) and you end up with no time saved AT ALL. And now, thanks to a level of selfishness on the part of our Republican congressmen never before witnessed in my state, CC students can’t get classes and are having a hard time just finding a place to maintain a fulltime load. At the state U, the classes may be large, but they run.

Bottom line – I think CC is good for certain types of people: High school students who need real courses that can transfer; The aimless and the uncommitted, because it lowers the cost of experimentation; the highly self-motivated poor who couldn’t go to school any other way; and those who want a technical degree. For everyone else, I think if you look at the trajectory that most transfer students follow, the cost savings is swallowed up by bad advising, crappy articulation agreements and adjustment shock which lengthens the course of study. It's a shame because CCs are the most efficient educational institutions we have - we could educate more people for less money if we provided better advising, worked out our transfer credit issues and generally got over the snob appeal of certain schools.
While I think the overall point is valid (CCs can help with the debt, particularly if you are headed to mid-tier public), I am glad Dr. Crazy and others called out the enormous undergrad classes as not always true.

I went to flagship state U and had the enormous intro lecture halls. So I've been there.

But, husband taught as a full time lecturer for many years at a different (and frankly more prestigous) flagship U where intro classes were never more than 40. If you entered the honors program, the intro classes were never more than about 35.

I currently teach at a public (somewhere between mid and flagship) university in the general ed program. We cap at 36 with 3 (so 12 students per) attached discussions with a grad student. Even the required courses for the undergrad major are no more than 72 - in fact, I don't think we even build classrooms for bigger than that anymore.

All that to say I think the trend of huge classes for intros in the public university setting is reversing, even in this economic climate. If those intros are cash cows, it is due to farming them out to cheap adjunct labor - which we all know is another topic for another time.
"As well, any sort of academic career (professor, researcher, academic administrator) would be, financially, pretty much off the table for anyone who has to take out loans at all, anywhere."
I did my first two years-ish at a CC, transferred to the state's flagship, and got a fellowship for graduate school. Thus my undegrad debt was < 1 years salary immediately after undergrad.

It was a cheap way to go, but not particularly time-efficient.
I went to Flagship State U, and it was the perfect match for me. But I had several friends who did the Reverse Transfer, and they would have been much better off without the interlude.
+1 for Mindy's 6:25am comment. In my engineering field, transfer students often find themselves looking at 3 years at Univ of State after 2 years at a CC. They have a number of transfer classes, and some are engineering classes, but they don't happen to satisfy the requirement for the course we teach students in the first semester of year 2 and that is a prereq for year 2 spring, which is a prereq for ...

It would make a lot of sense for students to take that single course here at Univ of State (and the distance isn't far), but that doesn't seem to happen.
I wrote a longer comment yesterday that I guess got swallowed somewhere, so I'll just add to Ivory's comment:

"I think CC is good for certain types of people: High school students who need real courses that can transfer; The aimless and the uncommitted, because it lowers the cost of experimentation; the highly self-motivated poor who couldn’t go to school any other way; and those who want a technical degree. For everyone else, I think if you look at the trajectory that most transfer students follow, the cost savings is swallowed up by bad advising, crappy articulation agreements and adjustment shock which lengthens the course of study."

I'd actually add a certain class of high performers to that list. At 17 I was living on my own, had been working since high school and knew I'd be working through college, uninterested in the 'college experience' and very interested in the financial implications of choosing a CC over the private uni that, even with a generous financial aid package, cost more per semester than would my entire AA degree. I always checked with the state U to see if a class would transfer before enrolling without needing an advisor to tell me to do so. I had no academic or social problems upon transferring, and actually graduated early. The big thing for me is that I was already used to navigating through life independently--this, I think, makes the difference between the kids that would do well anywhere and the ones who should seek more supportive/hand-holding experiences.
I'd agree with Ivory if I accepted all of those premises!

Our CC has outstanding articulation agreements, so there is no excuse for why a professor who can read cannot give good advice to a student who knows what they want to major in. Yet advising does remain a problem, but more because students don't take it seriously enough.

The best advice in the NY Times article concerns the student taking charge of having a plan about what is needed to transfer into a particular major.

BTW, the biggest time suck for students is changing majors, and that is a lot cheaper at a CC.
i went to my state's major U, and my experience with CC was: i took a physics class over the summer at a CC because my U didn't offer it, and i took a class at my U that was given at a local CC (basically, changing geography), that was shared with the CC students.

the physics class was wonderful. there were no more than 20 students (the class size at my U was in the hundreds), and the prof was great. the other class i took was ok. the thing to note with that one is that, because i was at the CC, taking classes with CC students, i was paying around 3x more for the class than the CC students in that same course.

we have a few big CCs in my area. most school systems have now worked out deals where high school grads get 2 free years of tuition at a particular CC.

i lived in the dorms at my U for the first year, and consider it an amazing/great time. i certainly hope to provide that for my kids. but i wish i had taken more CC classes, especially in the summer. many people in my high school took CC classes before graduating, going into college with lots of credits; wish i had done the same.

agreed that with med/law school, full time at a major/private U is the best bet.
Did this at CCNY forty years ago. You don't have to do it at a CC if you can find a good comprehensive in the neighborhood
I started out with the cc option for the first two years and transferred to Mid-Tier State U. The first two years at the cc were much more difficult for me than at university. I learned how to do college level work at the cc and was able to step right into the university and challenge for a 4.0 each quarter I was there over the last two years. The same State U. gave me a scholarship for graduate study there and I later took another graduate degree at another State U.
None of this would have been possible had I not gone to the cc for the first two years. It was a great experience. Maybe not the whole "college experience" but please, I wasn't there for that. I had to work two jobs while in school, so I didn't have time for that. I realize it's not for everyone, but the whole "college experience" thing is something I've seen some thrive in while it's ruined others.
I did the 4year SLAC thing, but both of my sisters bounced around a few different CCs while dealing with other Life Issues before graduating from a state U in the states where they finally ended up. It worked out pretty well for them. (FWIW, they each spent some time at rural CCs with different states!) And now youngest sis is back at the CC for a workforce training program, having been entirely unable to get work with her BA.
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