Monday, June 13, 2011


Ask the Administrator: A Budding Young Economist...

A longtime correspondent writes

My oldest, 16, mentioned the other day that he's thinking about going to community college before heading to a four-year school. He's very into economics, so the cost savings piece of attending a cc was the main argument he made. From my standpoint as his parent, I also know he's not the strongest student (though he's incredibly smart) and needs some time to mature before being thrown in headlong into a residential program with all its attendant distractions. My question for you is how does one go about finding a good community college? We're in an area with many, many options. Does one look at them the same way one looks at 4-year schools? Do some cc's have residential options? Will he be bored with classes if he's taken all honors classes in high school? I suspect when it comes time to consider colleges, we will be exploring both 2- and 4- year options. What I know is the four-year world.

Variations on this question pop up from time to time, but it’s worth revisiting.

In true “economist” fashion, I’ll open with “it depends.” It sounds like his purpose in going to a cc is to transfer, so you’d be looking for cc’s with strong transfer records. If maturity is the issue, I wouldn’t recommend looking at residential options; the “attendant distractions” would be just as bad there as anyplace else. I’m guessing that an optimal plan would involve living at home, minimizing both paid work hours and student loan debt, and focusing strongly on academics. If he plays his cards right, he may even be able to swing a transfer scholarship after two years, reducing the total cost even more.

Since the Great Recession started, we’ve been seeing more students like these. These are the kids who might have gone directly to four-year schools in years past, but who have been essentially priced out of them. If they play the game right, they can do very well.

I’d recommend looking for the following features at the cc’s in your area:

1. The transfer coordinator. If they ask “what’s that?,” walk away.
2. The Honors program.
3. At least one, and preferably more than one, full-time economist on the faculty, since that’s your son’s area of interest.

Some cc’s also have Learning Communities, which can be wonderful challenges for talented students. It would also be worth stopping by Student Life and finding out about the clubs and organizations available on campus. Typically, the range will be somewhat less than you’d find at a four-year school, but the better ones will surprise you.

If you get in touch with the transfer coordinator, I’d strongly encourage you to ask about the recent track record with destination colleges, as well as any articulation agreements with the destination schools you have in mind. For a reality check, you might want to talk to the Admissions departments at some of the local four-years to see what their feeders are. In some regions, different cc’s will develop informal specialties, so it would be worth hearing from the destination colleges as to which cc’s they prefer.

Given the cost advantage of most community colleges, they have to make up the difference somewhere, and that’s typically in dorms, athletics, and extras. Most cc’s won’t have football Saturdays, climbing walls, or breathtaking architecture. (Brutalism is overrepresented, tragically.) You kind of have to accept that as the price of admission. But for a student who needs to focus on academics, that isn’t necessarily bad.

In terms of statistics, I wouldn’t focus on graduation rates, since those tend to tell you more about the demographics of the community than about the quality of instruction. I’d look at numbers of students who transfer successfully. If they’re got a well-worn pipeline going to places you’d like your son to be, you’re in the right place.

Good luck! Whether he goes this route or not, I hope your son finds a good fit.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Economics is a difficult major at most 4 year schools and a lot of kids don't make it. He will definitely need to grow up and take his classes seriously if he wants to survive. Math skills are especially important, but he will also be called on to write papers, so writing skills cannot be neglected.
I would recommend finding a community college with a quality work-study program that will enhance opportunities to find a part-time job, and/or internship. Employers want practical experience first, complimented by good grades; candidates who are smart, presentable, well-spoken and professional. Verifiable real world experience will help any student stand above their contemporaries when seeing a career opportunity after graduation.
I spent some time at a cc despite graduating near the top of my high school class with primarily honors and IB courses. The motivation was largely financial.

Sometimes I was bored with my cc classes, but not always. I found that I could all but snooze through cc english and history classes (my strongest subjects in high school), while their math and science classes sincerely challenged me. But honestly, I found the same to be true at the Good Flagship State U that I eventually graduated from, until maybe my senior year.
The advice for choosing a cc is good. I also would advise you to look into the transfer agreements... particularly to your state school(s). Doing 2 years at a CC and then running into problems with transfer credits is decidedly NOT a good way to save money!
To answer the main question posed, my answer is that yes, you should look at 2-year schools as carefully as 4-year schools. One thing DD did not mention is something as basic as the number of sections of calculus being taught and who teaches them. The best econ programs require calculus and you might want a college like mine where there are multiple sections all taught by experienced tenured faculty.

I disagree with Dean Dad on his item #1. Our CC does not have A transfer coordinator because every one of our professional counselors and the vast majority of our faculty are transfer advisors. If you looked at the CC where I teach, you would learn that most of our students transfer, mostly to a handful of in-state universities. Far too many for a single coordinator to look after.

But definitely pay attention to where students transfer and what we call "articulation". That is what guarantees that a 2-year degree will meet all of the first-2-year's general education requirements and other prerequisites for a specific major.

BTW, we have so many transfer students that our challenge is getting good advice to those seeking a terminal "workforce" degree.

DD's advice about Honors programs is excellent. We see an increasing number of excellent students choosing to save money, and they enjoy being around other good students. Ditto for finding a college where one of the people teaching economics has an econ PhD.

Our college does not have dorms, but there are many nearby apartment complexes that are filled with students. This has its advantages and disadvantages, some academic and some financial. At a CC, food and lodging can cost more than tuition. I also know students who gather to study at one kid's parent's house or the library because their own apartment isn't suitable for study.

I disagree with Adam's advice. Work-study is mostly for the money, and the internships that matter (like at a major bank for an economist) are for students who are juniors with some real classes behind them. I don't know about economics, but there are only a few good internships for sophomores (i.e. graduating from a CC) in my area of science and engineering and none for freshmen.

PS -
Since it is unlikely that someone will tell your son what I think he should hear at orientation, you might have him read what I put in my blog a few years ago.
Here's some comments from the 4-year side. In addition to discussing transfers at the 2-year school, also check with the economics depts at likely 4-year schools. Ask those depts (dept chairs may be good contacts during the summer) if there are particular courses that are important to take during the first two years.

I'm in engineering, not economics, and in my field I have met several students who try to transfer after 2 years, only to find that they will need 3 years at Flagship State because they lack 2nd year courses that are prereqs for 3rd year courses. Their credits transfer, but the missing prereqs cause a delay. We've tried to circumvent the prereqs in some cases, and that is almost always a disaster. Taking 1 or 2 courses as a nonmatriculating student could have saved these students a year at the university and helped their preparations as well.

This can be very field-specific, so it may not matter for your son. I consider it definitely better to ask in advance than to face a year-5 surprise.
HS Lab partner makes a very important point, to which I would add "also look past the 4-year school".

For example, I know that some economics undergrad majors have less rigorous requirements than a typical business major (calculus suggested) while others only require a course many call "business calculus". But some require Real Calculus (tm), either for the undergrad degree or for admission to grad school.
There could be one catering only to children of Orang Asli, or those who would be the first in their family to enter college.

IB Residential School
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