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Community College: The Right Path and the Right Foot

Community colleges have the ability to not only put students on the right path, but most importantly, ensure that students begin on the right foot. That right foot has so many implications, the first of which is the financial impact of attending a community college as the first step toward a bachelors degree. Currently, students are more immediately aware of the return on interest (ROI), and they want to know —up front — the lasting impact of their choices of when and how they engage in higher education.

According to the Community College Research Center, the cumulative amount owed after 12 years is an estimated $10,300 per student who started at public two-year college in 2003-04 (for all entrants, not just borrowers). For public four-year entrants its nearly $20,000. For those starting at for-profit colleges, its $13,000.”

Higher debt makes sense for some students but not for all. In fact, for many, it is starting them off on the right path but on the wrong foot. While it is still true that earning a degree has many benefits, how that degree is earned, both in terms of the debt and the emotional atmosphere, needs more examination. And theres data that shows students who attend community college first are more successful when they transfer than students who go directly to a four-year school as freshman. The six-year graduation rate (a standard metric for four-year U.S. colleges) for students who transferred from community colleges to most competitive” or highly competitive” institutions in Fall 2010 is 75%, and the rate for students who enrolled directly out of high school is 73% (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation).

I (Steven Posada) understand that his loans enabled me to earn my degree at a four-year institution, have a career, and offer my family a better quality of life. Given the choice to do it again or lose it all, I would undoubtedly do it. However, with better guidance, I could be in the same position with a much lower student-related debt and in essence offering my family an even better life if I had attended a community college first.

I am not alone. Many students wish theyd have more information about the greater financial picture now that they are shackled by student loans. I took out loans to live in the dorms, and I now wish I had a more mature understanding of what it meant and means to take on that debt. On the other hand, Charlotte Gullick attended a community college for three years, and took out no loans during that time.

Charlotte GullickCharlotte GullickSteven Posada: In my current role at Dutchess Community College, I have come to understand the wider context of my own college decisions. Now, I regularly tell students a potent fact: More than 65% of DCC students graduate with no student-loan debt. Almost daily, I am faced with the question of whether a different choice would have granted me and my family more financial freedom?

High school counselors, college admissions counselors, and others may think its their first priority to get students in the four-year-door and the rest will fall into place. However, there is little opportunity for these same counselors to circle back and ensure that the rest” truly got addressed. By failing to discuss the larger context of these decisions, we set up students for financial impacts down the road that can inhibit their life choices.

The benefits of the choice to attend community college go far beyond the initial dollars involved. For a great number of learners, the support they receive from faculty and staff at a community college can empower students to successfully acquire the navigational capital necessary to complete a bachelors degree. The pressure to publish is not part of the air that faculty breathe, and as a result, many are able to be more available. Most instructors are more prepared to meet the various levels that come into the classroom because two-year institutions accept almost all students. Additionally, the opportunities to engage and participate often hold greater meaning and impact at the community college level. For example, the Theater Department at Austin Community College has stellar facilities, including a machine shop, costuming classes, and a network of local theaters to connect with. Two important questions to ask students is what kind of learning environment do you want and need to succeed and how will being close to your family factor into your success?

Families might offer moral support but not necessarily the specific knowledge needed to navigate the higher education landscape; this is an area where community colleges and their support services shine. They often provide specific services that create connections that help students succeed, weaving them more deeply into the fabric of the student body. These connections mimic familial networks, providing familiarity and meaning across the educational experience that can determine whether, or not, a student remains in school. They invite learners to bring their full selves into the campus environment. Other opportunities also exist, such as participating in a program like Exploring Transfer, where community college students are selected to join in a learning and living summer community at Vassar College. All these opportunities for connection and horizon broadening are essential aspects of getting students started on the right foot.

Community colleges allow students to develop their college identities and, in most cases, allows them to do so at a much lower cost. The risk factor is minimized, and the return of investment is much greater. In the end, attending a community college may be the most empowered and wise decision a student and their family can make. Choosing a community college that offers precise support can create a network of known people that are there to champion and bolster the student who is unsure of their abilities in the higher education landscape.

When it comes to the perception that going to community college is somehow a second-rate experience, we contend that students receive both first-rate attention and a broader range of opportunities. Attending a two-year school is often seen as a last resort, but for many students it is the first resort choice. Rather than seeing attending community college as a compromise, lesser-than choice, we suggest for many students, it is the smart and savvy choice. And instead of seeing community college attendance as a disappointment, we assert that is an empowered, financially sound choice. Starting on the right path isnt enough; having a solid footing underneath is equally important.

Steven Posada is the director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Dutchess Community College.

Charlotte Gullick is Exploring Transfer Together Program Manager at Vassar College.

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