Four reasons community colleges are on the rise

Many Americans view community colleges as equal to four-year colleges and universities, according to a new study. What's the attraction?

Stephanie Zollshan/AP
Senator Elizabeth Warren delivers the commencement address at the Berkshire Community College graduation ceremony at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., Friday, May 29, 2015.

Are four-year college degrees becoming passé?

According to a recent Gallup poll, two in three Americans rank a community college education as high as a four-year program. The one group that disagreed were Americans with post-college education, who were about 10 percent more likely to value a four-year degree over a two-year program.

Traditionally, students who attend community college education are driven primarily by price tag. “The only consistently affordable options that remain are community colleges,” says Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress.

In 2014-15, the average tuition and fee total for a full-time student at a public two-year institution was $3,347, compared to $9,139 at public four-year colleges, and private colleges and universities can be many times more expensive.

But the growing popularity of community college is driven by more than affordability.

Convenience

“We’re increasingly recognizing that the price of going to college is more than just tuition,” says Mr. Miller in a Monitor interview. In addition to tuition, students who travel out of state to attend a public four-year institution or university also have to consider room and board fees, plus transportation costs.

“Community colleges, being close to people's homes, are becoming more affordable because you can live at home,” says Miller. That's an attractive option for students from low-income families, he says. Nationwide, 44 percent of low-income students choose community colleges as their first college after high school, compared with 15 percent of students overall. 

Higher acceptance rates

Students have a much better chance of getting into a community college than a four-year college or university. “The most elite colleges are very unwilling to take on more students,” says Miller. In 2014, elite universities rejected 90 to 95 percent of their applications, the New York Times reported.

That exclusivity contributes to their "status,” Miller says, while community colleges can add up to 1,000 students every year. “They’re more willing to grow and add seats as the population grows.”

Lower risk

Many Americans are willing to take out loans to pay for a college education, but for students who aren’t convinced a higher education is right for them, living in debt just isn't worth the risk. “One of the things that we did in this country is, we made college too heavy of a risk to try,” says Miller. “Someone who borrows for college and drops out isn’t in a great place.”

Not only are community colleges cheaper and thus less of a financial risk, there’s also the prospect of tuition-free community colleges for “responsible students,” recently proposed by President Obama. “If you take the the cost out, then it gets less risky,” Miller says.

Flexibility and variety

Community colleges are smaller than most four-year institutions and private universities, and to many, that’s part of their appeal. For example, most community colleges don’t have research centers or notable sports teams, so they can focus on academics, says Miller. On the other hand, four-year colleges and universities have been increasingly funneling their money into sports over academics, according to the American Association of University Professors.

Community colleges are also known for their dual programs, Miller says, which allow students to choose between in-person or online education – an attractive option for those juggling work and school.

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