Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One for the Guidance Counselors

Dear Guidance Counselors,

This is the time of year when panicked seniors who either didn’t get into the colleges they wanted, or can’t afford the colleges they wanted, are looking for options.  

Some will take a “gap year,” which is a nice gig if you can get it.  Some will join the military.  Some will go to work.  And some just won’t know what to do.

According to this story in Reuters, college dropouts do just as badly in the labor market now as people who never attended college.  But two-year graduates do far, far better.  It’s much better to do two years at a two year college and emerge with a degree than to do two years at a four year college and emerge with nothing.  Cheaper, too.

Which means that for the student who’s panicking, community college can make a lot of sense.  

Every time a guidance counselor asks a student “are you looking at two year schools or four year schools,” my teeth grind.  For many students, “or” is the wrong word.  “And” is the best choice.  Go to the two year school first.  Get the Gen Eds done cheaply and in small classes.  Build a record of college success.  Keep the loan balances low.  

If the student wants to transfer on from there, that avenue is open.  (Admittedly, California is becoming an exception, but still.)  Upon transfer, the student will have only two years of the higher tuition to pay, but can still graduate with a four-year degree.  But if that’s not going to happen -- if the student’s life is such that a four-year commitment just isn’t in the cards -- then it’s far better to have a degree to show for two years of work than to just drop out.

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  To an employer, a two-year degree at least indicates the discipline and ability to complete a program.  (Even if the student intended to transfer and didn’t, the degree still indicates success.)  Dropping out without anything to show for it doesn’t accomplish quite the same thing.

The community college offers the safer option.  If two years is all the student can do, it offers “graduate” status, as opposed to “dropout” status.  If the student goes past the two years, she does so with a lighter debt burden.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

I know some high schools like to brag about the percentage of their graduates who go directly to four-year colleges, and some of them even exert internal pressure not to mess with those numbers.  But thinking of two-year degrees as terminal is often mistaken.  They can be, but they frequently aren’t.  And allowing the panicky student to keep her options open on the cheap is nothing to apologize for.

Good luck, counselors.  If you doubt the wisdom of any of this, just check the numbers on unemployment rates for two-year grads as opposed to college dropouts, or student loan burdens, or average earnings for high school grads.  It’s all there.

Hoping to see many of your charges soon,

Dean Dad