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Are Community Colleges the Future of Higher Ed?

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

“I would encourage the young as well as the old to find what excites them and study it.” -Dr. Russell Hyken

The verdict is in: Stereotypes of higher education past have dealt community colleges and vocational schools a bad hand.

And a Time magazine special report on higher education showed the general population (74 percent) strongly or somewhat agreed that there is just too much emphasis on attending a four-year college as opposed to community college or a vocational school.

So, what’s the deal then? These educational experts weigh-in and dish why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a community college or vocational school for your next educational step after high school.

“Community colleges and/or vocational schools are better than elite universities.”

Surprisingly, this quote comes from Adrian McIntyre, PhD, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s right –– a public university.

So, why would McIntyre have a seemingly conflicting opinion?

“I have over 13 years experience in university teaching,” McIntyre said. “I’ve also lived and worked in over 30 countries as a journalist, educator, social science researcher, and humanitarian aid worker, so my perspective is rather unconventional.”

Here, he lists his top three reasons for attending a community college:

  1. They tend to serve the broad public interest, rather than the narrow self-interest of a privileged intellectual elite. This means that classroom instruction and practical training is more focused on what’s working now in real-world situations, rather than on the esoteric interests of a career academic whose own reference group is almost exclusively comprised of other career academics.
  2. They’re a good deal cheaper, in most cases, and provide a far greater emphasis on the acquisition of important work-related skills.
  3. They provide an excellent environment for students who are unsure of their long-term commitments –– which is most of them, try out lots of things and fail at them. (People tend to forget that trial-and-error necessarily includes error!) In my experience, students are in too great a rush to “get somewhere” in life without having a clear sense of where they’re going.

“I like that the general population is seeing that too much emphasis is being placed on four-year college.”

Dr. Russell Hyken, author of The Parent Playbook, said the “problem” with four-year colleges being the expected next step after high school is that, while some students are fit for the environment, many are better off attending a community college or vocational school.

“The key to being happy is following your passion in life. If a student loves cars, then go to community college and become a certified mechanic; if a student loves animals, then go to vet tech school; if a student loves literature, then go study English at a four-year college,” Hyken said. “I would encourage the young as well as the old to find what excites them and study it. There are growth opportunities in just about every field. Find your passion, work hard, and life will be better than being stuck in a job that does not fit your interest.”

Hyken points out that regardless of what form of education a student chooses after high school, the key is choosing something.

“Community colleges are great places to explore different courses and figuring out where your passion and interests lie.”

Dr. Francisco C. Rodriguez, superintendent and president of MiraCosta Community College District, a comprehensive two-year community college in Oceanside, CA, said he often tells students, “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

“From a two-year community college, students can transfer to nearly any university in the nation,” Rodriguez said. “Here at MiraCosta College, we have a large number of students transfer to UCSD, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and to private universities like Harvard, Duke and USC. The students who take this path are at a substantial advantage because of our smaller classes and emphasis on teaching excellence.”

Rodriguez said students also find two-year community colleges, like MiraCosta, advantageous because they are not only saving money, but learning skills that may not be taught in traditional four-year colleges. As a result, Rodriguez said they’ve seen a jump in enrollment as a result of students who are seeking education as trained workers.

“Most people would be better suited pursuing vocational training instead of attending a traditional college program.”

Chris Surprenant, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Orleans, maintains that the focus in today’s society needs to be on “vocational training, and not so much on the type of school that someone is attending.”

“Advanced study of the sciences, arts, or humanities is not suited for everyone. But everyone needs to get a job, and to get a job you need useful skills,” he said. “To the extent that vocational training will develop these skills, the vast majority of people should be pursuing some form of vocational training beyond high school.”

“Not everybody has to follow the same path to find career satisfaction and a good source of income.”

Dr. Brian Mauro, the associate provost of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s College at Florham in Madison, NJ, said that regardless of what path a student chooses, it’s important he or she considers whether the time, energy and expenses will provide career earning potential and career satisfaction.

“Each individual must choose his or her own educational path,” Mauro said. “He or she must determine which educational experience will provide the quality experiences he or she is looking for as well as the support to help him or her succeed.

Mauro said benefits of attending a traditional four-year college, such as FDU, include more job opportunities because the “unemployment rate is significantly lower for people with a college degree.”

“Community colleges offer locality.”

Dr. Kelli DuCloux offered a unique perspective on the subject when explaining the reasons she sent her 13-year-old son to Riverside Community College District in Perris, CA, after realizing his academic advancement.

“The community college setting offered a more conducive arena that could bridge that gap from the rigors of a major university setting with all its nuances, while still providing some academic challenge beyond that of traditional school for a 13-year-old child,” she explained.

DuCloux said she was also drawn to the fact that the local community college was close to home.

“Our local community college has three colleges in our vicinity,” she said. “He has taken classes onsite at a satellite location as well as online classes with instructors based at the main campus. Both sites are within 15 miles of our home.”

“Today’s community college students are looking for more than simply value.”

Jon Frank, founder and CEO of Admissionado, pointed out that, while budget concerns might have been the original reason students were choosing community colleges or vocational schools “today, reduced cost is just part of the picture.”

Frank referenced a study from Sallie Mae that reported 22 percent of college students with a family income of over $100,000 opted for a community college last year. Four years ago, it was at 16 percent.

“The bottom line is this: the image of the older student returning to community college to take a few certificate classes is changing,” Frank said. “Across the U.S., 46 percent of community college students are younger than 21, according to a 2007 report from the American Association of Community Colleges, up from 42.5 percent in 2003. These younger and often more affluent students also expect a rich on-campus community, complete with extra-curricular activities, upgraded campus facilities, perhaps even the ability to earn credits through summer travel experiences. To meet this demand, today’s community colleges are cultivating ‘the complete college experience.’”

“Students should pursue the degree program that is the best fit for their needs and aspirations.”

Ultimately, said Meredith Principe, vice president of operations and college counseling at CampusBound.com, the driving factor behind any choice to attend an institution of higher learning should be the student’s goals for his or her career path.

“The pressure to attend college directly after high school, as opposed to taking time off to work, explore careers, volunteer, or travel, causes some students to enter college without putting serious thought into what career path will be best for them,” she said. “As a result, some students end up in a four-year curriculum before determining whether or not they need a four-year degree.”

Quick Tips:

  • Adequately research all higher learning opportunities to discover the school that will offer the best training for your future career.
  • Don’t let traditional standards interfere with your goals for school.
  • Keep in mind that a community college or vocational school can be used as a stepping stone toward eventually earning a four-year degree.

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