Community College: Education's Overlooked Bargain

Typical two-year school costs less than half of what a state university does

People love bargains, except, apparently, when it comes to education. In pursuit of a college degree, students and their families run up huge debts, to the point that total student loan indebtedness is now over $1 trillion.

But is it really necessary to spend tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a college degree? Community colleges offer an overlooked alternative.

Community colleges started out almost as vocational schools. Students attended for two years getting a degree that prepared them for a particular vocational field, such as nursing.

Path to four-year degree

But community colleges also offer study in academic fields and increasingly, their credits transfer to most four-year colleges and universities. In many states, community colleges have become aligned with the state's university system, so that community college credits easily transfer to state-supported four-year schools.

The tuition at a typical community college is usually less than half of what it costs to attend a four-year public university. It is much less than a typical private or for-profit university. In fact, many students make the costly mistake of enrolling at an expensive for-profit school to obtain a two-year associates degree.

Sherley, of Hackettstown, NJ, said she pursued an associates degree from Katherine Gibbs, a for-profit school, hoping she could work as an administrative assistant. She said she ran up $50,000 in loans for a two-year degree that would have cost 10 percent of that -- or less -- at a community college.

"After eight years I am still unable to find a job in that field," she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Now I am stuck with a load of bills from two different lenders."

Better education

Not only do community colleges cost less, the quality of education continues to improve, so that students who do their first two years of work there go on to have successful academic careers when they transfer to a four year college.

Tomas Hult, Director of Michigan State University's International Business Center, says community colleges do an exceptional job in providing courses in international business. His study found that in 2008, about 51 percent of community colleges offered a basic course in international business. Four years later that number had jumped to 85 percent.

"The most important takeaway is that we as a nation appear to be putting funds into community college education to infuse a global mindset in a much larger way than in the past few years," Hult said. "International business education is really starting to flourish at two-year schools."

Playing a pivotal role

Forty-four percent of college students -- about 13 million students -- attend about 1,200 community colleges in the United States, so the schools play a pivotal role in educating the 21st-century global workforce, he said.

And how can they do it so much more cheaply than four-year schools? It probably comes down to spending less money.

In recent years the typical four-year school has spent millions of dollars constructing luxury dormitories and other creature comforts to attract students -- not to mention football stadiums and basketball arenas. For-profit schools, of course, have to show a profit for stockholders.

Community colleges generally don't have those cost burdens. In many ways they operate the way colleges did decades ago -- a time when a college education wasn't so expensive.

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