Community colleges: a great return on investment

By spending freshman and sophomore years there, parents and student can save thousands of dollars.

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Over the next month, millions of students will head to college campuses across the United States. Some have chosen an expensive route, selecting private schools that charge nearly $50,000 a year for room, board, and tuition. But a growing segment is taking a path that's easier on their wallets.

More than 6.5 million students attend approximately 1,200 community colleges throughout the US, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). That's close to half of all undergraduate students.

Last year, community-college students paid an average of $2,361 for tuition, the College Board reports. Compare that with an average of $6,185 at public four-year institutions and $16,640 that out-of-state students must pay. These figures do not include the expenses of room and board, books, insurance, and transportation, which can add several thousand dollars to a college bill.

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Over two years, a community-college student living at home can save an estimated $28,100 compared with a student who attends and resides at a state university.

For parents worried that their student's selected college may no longer be affordable given insufficient college financial aid or sudden reverses in family finances, community colleges may provide a welcome alternative until a new college financing plan can be patched together. "The dollar goes much further for both the student and the taxpayer," says George R. Boggs, president and CEO of the AACC.

Not only do these schools offer classes that fill requirements at four-year universities, they also educate 60 percent of new nurses and credential 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs. In addition, 41 percent of these schools offer online degrees, increasingly popular for mid-career professionals. "Given today's economic pressures and the need to retrain workforces, business leaders are discovering community colleges as a solution to the skills gap," Dr. Boggs adds.

These colleges have always been market-driven, defined by their location and the demands of their particular communities. Florida Keys Community College, for example, reflects its unique geography. With the slogan, "Island Living, Island Learning," FKCC has a national reputation in marine engineering and diving technology. Its enrollment has grown over 10 percent during the past year, with an expected 2,000 students this fall.

"Our small classes of 11 to 12 students, the emphasis on teaching, and our lower costs make us an attractive alternative to a large university," says Jill Landesburg-Boyle, president of FKCC. "I am proud that our students who transfer to four-year universities have higher GPAs than the students who started at that university."

Drew Baron, a 19-year-old sophomore at Montgomery Community College in Maryland, expands upon those strengths in explaining his decision to attend a community college.

"I wanted to buff up my GPA, have my core requirements completed in smaller classes, save money, and develop the study skills to succeed at a large university," he says. "My experience ... has definitely given me a leg up with a better chance to transfer to the University of Maryland."

But there are drawbacks. "If you are looking for a large university with student activities and sports, then community colleges are not your choice," says Dr. Landesburg-Boyle.

Mr. Baron adds that the lack of a student community can be another drawback. "It is difficult to make friends outside class. There are no dorms, and I often feel like I'm in '13th grade' because I'm still living at home," he says.

Parents assessing the value of a community-college education for students in high school should ponder these points:

•Weigh whether your student is ready, both emotionally and academically, to transition to a distant college, or if an additional year or two living at home attending a community college would provide a better foundation.

•If your student enrolls at a community college for two years, apply any savings toward your student's junior and senior years at a four-year university.

•Work backward in designing a seamless college program to maximize a transfer of community-college credits. Have your student identify a likely major and a preferred four-year university or private college, then ask that school about its policies on transferring credits.

•Determine if there is a standardized course-numbering system between your state's two- and four-year university systems. Such "articulation agreements" reduce transfer problems.

Dr. Kathleen Connell is a professor at Haas Graduate Business School, University of California, Berkeley.

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