By Barbara Trainin Blank
People attend community colleges for many reasons. One of them is saving money--both in terms of reduced tuition and not accumulating academically related debt.
Community colleges have been seeing a boom in enrollment, due at least in part to the weak economy and the skyrocketing costs of private and public universities.
Matt Braswell, director of counseling and advising, career transfer, and disability services at Harrisburg Area Community College, reported that the Pennsylvania school saw a 13 percent increase in enrollment last year.
"That's a huge increase," Braswell said. "We've noticed classes filling up much earlier and needing to add more sections, beginning in July. Usually that happens in late-August".
Students who spend two years at a community college, then transfer to a four-year school, get the same diploma as someone who attends the four-year college all along--with a lot less debt. A year at a community college might cost about $5,000 in tuition, as compared with $12,000 to $20,000 or more for even a relatively inexpensive four-year institution.
Students at community colleges are also eligible to apply for federal financial aid programs, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA form indicates how how much students might be able to obtain in loans as well as in grants from their specific schools.
Price has always been a selling point of two-year colleges, according to George R. Boggs, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges.
"With their lower tuition costs, community colleges give students a way to save money while learning in a supportive environment," Boggs said. "They also allow students to access training for associate-degree or non-degree careers, and they offer continuing education and personal development classes for the broad spectrum of adult learners."
Moreover, community colleges can offer the boon of easy-to-transfer credits. Most of these schools have articulation agreements with four-year colleges and universities, ensuring that credits earned at the community college will count toward the four-year-degree program once the student has transferred.
HACC, which has more than 600 articulation agreements, has seen an increase in transfer students to four-year colleges, as opposed to those stopping at an associate's degree.
"Finances are a big part of it," Braswell said. "Students are very cost-conscious. A percentage of our students didn't meet the criteria at the four-year-college [they were interested in], but well over half are here because it's cheaper".
Students at four-year colleges can save money by heading home for the summer and taking low-cost credits at a local community college. Every credit earned there rather than at the four-year institution can cut hundreds in tuition. .
Moreover, many community colleges offer courses to high-school juniors and seniors. If courses are dual-enrollment, students can earn both high-school and college credits simultaneously.
"Community colleges are an underfunded community asset and an invaluable resource for first-generation college students, low-skilled adult workers and immigrants aspiring to enter college, and downsized workers and mid-career changers transitioning to ar recession-proof career," according to Phil Ciciora, education editor of of illinois.edu.
Since first-generation college students and adults with a high-school diploma often have little knowledge of what higher education is about or what their career goals are, "Community colleges can be a gateway to an associate's or a bachelor's degree, at a fraction of the cost of entering a public four-year college and just about any private institution", said Debra Bragg, a professor of higher education and the director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois.
Moreover, she added, aside from community colleges, there aren't many affordable alternatives with a successful track record at preparing students and adult learners.