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A Cubist’s View of US Community Colleges: Different Aspects Viewed Simultaneously

Two recent articles from education sections of two different publications paint different aspects of our community colleges. If we put the two together, we get an interesting sort of reality.

Picasso would have loved this. We can develop a composite picture of a single entity by looking at it from different angles…and then reconstructing the whole with an entirely new understanding.

Anyway, the art lover digresses. Back to the point.

The first article is from the Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required):
Community College Enrollments Are Up, but Institutions Struggle to Pay for Them.

The gist is that the sour economy will likely boost enrollments at community colleges at a time that state funding for those institutions has declined. For example, Florida, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Tennessee have all cut funding for community colleges by 5% this year, and both Alabama and South Carolina have axed 10% of their community college budgets.

So the ironic thing is that even as enrollments may shoot up in the next couple of years (Connecticut is planning for a 13% increase this year over last), students will perhaps find fewer courses (even fewer departments), larger class sizes, and fewer degree or certificate programs, as community college administrators will be forced to shed staff and eliminate courses.

Community college leaders are lobbying state legislatures to increase funding, or at least give the two-year colleges a budget reprieve from the chopping block. But what nobody wants (and the article conspicuously does not even mention) is tuition increases.

The other article comes from US News & World Report: Community Colleges: Cheaper but Not Necessarily Better.

This article raises the question whether even the lower tuition costs of a community college are really worth the money. Here’s a snippet:

Choosing a two-year college could actually harm students’ long-term prospects. Research has shown that community colleges, overall, do a poor job of getting students into four-year schools. In a 2008 paper, Harvard professor Bridget Terry Long found that, among similar students, those who chose two-year colleges were less likely to get a bachelor’s degree than those who went straight to a four-year college. Since employers tend to pay those who actually earn a degree more than those who’ve had only a few years of college, saving a few thousand dollars on tuition when you are 18 might end up costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime if you get discouraged in community college and don’t persevere to a bachelor’s.

As the article points out, however, that we shouldn’t paint all community colleges with the same brush (back to the artistic analogy). There is a surprising amount of variation in the quality of two-year colleges. Some are good at preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions, while others are better at conferring certificates upon fire fighters and EMTs.

So how to pick a community college? The same way you pick a four-year school. You have to know first what you hope to achieve by obtaining an education. Then you have to find the right institutions that will best help you achieve those goals. The community college in your area may not be as good for you as the one in the next county.

The fact is that the answer to the question about whether a community college is “worth it” is exactly the same as the question whether an expensive, private, four-year college is “worth it.”  It depends on your perspective.  It’s both worth it, and it’s not, depending on who you are, what you want to focus upon, and how you integrate those differing perspective into your own mind and your own life.  Picasso, Brach, and the other Cubists were onto something.

So mapping your educational path boils down to this:

Know thyself.
Shop wisely.

Isn’t that what was printed above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi? Something like that….

Mark Montgomery
The Oracle of College Counselling

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