Personal finance blogger Zina Kumok graduated from Indiana University saddled with $28,000 in student-loan debt, $350 in minimum monthly payments and a $28,000 annual journalism salary. She struggled financially, but paid off that debt well before most people by making sacrifices and saving every penny she could. Kumok is now on a mission to spread the word about smart money management — especially to young people who are just starting out on their financial journey. In her latest column for KWHS, Kumok considers the community college option.
I have to confess, the closest I’ve come to attending community college is bingeing on the TV show Community for five years. During my time shopping around for colleges, the option never really entered my mind to pursue an education at a two-year community college, rather than a four-year public or private school. What’s more, I never considered that I could do a combination of both.
That was before I graduated with $28,000 in student loans and struggled to pay them off on a modest entry-level salary. Looking back, I might have taken a few classes at a community college if I’d known how much that could have saved me.
I’ve been especially hearing the community college message of late. For example, Vice President Joe Biden stopped off at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., this month to talk about the Obama administration’s push to offer tuition-free community college for qualifying students. During that event, Biden praised community colleges for being “the most versatile institutions of higher education, especially in meeting rapidly changing workforce demands.” A few weeks later, a report on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” about young glassblowers graduating from Salem Community College in New Jersey with degrees in making customized glassware for cutting-edge scientific experiments really drove that point home.
Here are some reasons why I think community college might be worth a second look:
Did I Mention You Can Save Money?
One of the most enticing aspects of attending community college is the cost, especially when you compare it to a traditional four-year university. According to The College Board, tuition for a two-year college in the 2010-11 academic year was $2,713. No four-year school comes close to matching that price: even a four-year in-state university was almost triple that amount at $7,605 a year.
Not only can you save on tuition, but you can likely find a nearby community college, which will help you save on room and board costs. College housing fees equal more than $10,000 a year. Even if you only spend two years at a community college before transferring, you’ll save more than $20,000 by living at home during that time.
Part of what drives people away from the idea of attending community college is a lack of prestige. But despite what you may have heard, community colleges aren’t just for people who can’t get into a regular university. Many schools teach valuable workforce-specific skills, which is something to consider in a labor market that does not always have jobs for four-year liberal arts graduates. Our economy needs workers with all kinds of skills. Some students are even enrolled in specialized community college programs that involve on-the-job training apprenticeships at companies. In many cases, these students graduate with a two-year associates degree, a secure job and zero student debt.
Starting your education at a community college can also be a great stepping stone to the four-year college of your choice. Before signing up for a community college, do some research to see if a four-year university will accept its credits. Check the school’s transfer and graduation rates to see how successful it is at pushing students to the next level.
Financial expert Kenneth Feyers’ son had a positive experience transitioning to community college after high school. He graduated Santa Fe College in Florida with an associate’s degree in business before transferring to another school. He says that his son received an excellent education, and many of the professors also taught at the well-regarded University of Florida. The best part? Tuition was about a quarter of the price of UF, with smaller class sizes.
A Spirit of Exploration
I could have worked harder in high school. This really hit home when I got my scholarship information for college and realized how much more money I might have received if I had put forth a little more academic effort.
If you struggle in high school or aren’t happy with your test scores, then going to community college can give you another chance to prove you’re a good higher education candidate. Doing well at a community college can lead to more academic scholarships and opportunities at a four-year institution.
You can also try out different classes at a community college and explore a variety of careers for less money than you’d spend at a regular four-year college.
Even with all these benefits, community college isn’t a complete slam-dunk. Going to college is about more than the caliber of your education, it’s also about having the college experience. Late-night study sessions, crappy cafeteria food and crowded, festive dorm rooms are all part of that package, and a community college may not be able to provide those enduring aspects of campus life.
You have to balance the camaraderie you find at college with the practical aspect of getting a college degree. Do you know what you want to study? Are you prepared to take out four year’s worth of student loans that will saddle you with student debt? Answering those questions at a community college can save you both time and money, and may be just the start you need for a successful life after high school. Bottom line: community college is an option worth considering.
- Joe Biden Talks about Community Colleges
- NPR: Glassblowing Program Trains Students to Craft Tools for Science
- The College Board: Trends in Higher Education
- Community College Daily: Attaining a Skill, Preparing a Workforce
- American Association of Community Colleges
- President Obama’s Community College Proposal
- Homeroom U.S. Department of Education Blog: 25 Community Colleges that Advance Opportunities for Low-income Students
How do you feel about a community college education? Is it something you would consider? Why or why not? Do you know anyone who has had either success or challenges taking this route?
Joe Biden talks about how community colleges can meet “rapidly changing workforce demands.” What does he mean and why is this important for the U.S. to compete in the global economy? Discuss the benefits of learning a skill versus a broader liberal arts education.
Visit the Community College Daily found in Related Links to research the latest news from these colleges, or read one of the Related KWHS Stories that involves insight about community colleges. Share what you learned with a group of students or peers. Did it open your eyes to new opportunities? What information interested you?