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.