The Case for Community College

Why it Matters

• Student loan debt is on the rise.

• Debt can put a dent in your wealth and health.

• Community college may offer a respite from that cycle.

Andy Bartosch tkc.profilePicture Written by: Andy Bartosch | Transamerica
June 30, 2017

5 Min readClock Icon

People say you can be sure of two things in life: death and taxes. But you might want to add one more thing to that list: the rising cost of higher education.

Politicians remain at odds on how to deal with the issue of widespread, crippling student debt. Meanwhile, a college degree from a four-year university doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job that allows young people to pay off student debt and live more comfortably than their parents.

These realities have families all over America wondering whether they have other options. So that begs the question, does community college make sense?

Let’s take a look.

Why community college?

Two-year community colleges offer educational programs that can lead to associate’s degrees and certificates that often focus on career readiness, or allow students to prepare to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution.

More than 40% of U.S. undergraduates attend community college, according to The College Board. If that number surprises you, consider this: Community college is affordable.

On average, tuition and fees are around $3,520 per year for in-district students at a public two-year school versus $9,648 for in-state residents at public four-year colleges and $33,479 at private institutions, according to The College Board. Those figures don’t even include all those extra costs often incurred at four-year schools, like pricey room and board and dining hall meal plans.

Not only are community college students saving money, they’re going on to make it too. College Measures from the American Institutes for Research researched Colorado workers’ earnings after graduation. The study showed that a post-secondary education in Colorado led to middle-class earnings.

“They’re not only doing it with bachelor’s degrees. Those with an associate’s of applied science, for example, make more than $40,000 in median earnings a year after college, or about $10,000 more than the state median per capita income,” Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, said in a news release.

Earnings for graduates with certificates in three fields – legal support services; criminal justice and corrections; and allied health diagnostic, intervention and treatment professions – are higher than the median earnings of graduates with bachelor’s degrees, the study showed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. only require a community college education. That includes occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants whose median pay is nearly $60,000 per year.

When it comes to community college, it seems the benefits lie in the options available to undergraduates. Community college students can build toward bachelor’s degrees without taking on the potentially higher costs of starting at a four-year college. And if they choose not to move on to a four-year college, they can enter the workforce early, possibly in high demand, and start making money rather than spending it. Plus, valuable on-the-job training and experience could make them better, more focused students should they choose to return to school later.

No guarantees

The statistics can also tell another story. Although many workers with community college degrees and certificates earn competitive wages alongside their four-year peers, some, like those with certificates in precision metalworking and business administration, earn well at first but see the gap narrow by year 10.

And the demand for college graduates continues to grow. In 1978, 28% of jobs in the U.S. required a college degree. By 2020 it’ll be 65%, according to J.P. Morgan’s College Planning Essentials.

Another criticism is the campus experience, an important factor for many young people, especially in our social media-obsessed world. Students might want a post-secondary decision that looks good on Instagram, even if it’s hard on their wallet. The upside, though? Most community colleges have more age and socio-economic diversity among their students, which can lead to connections that might not otherwise have happened at a more traditional four-year school.

Of course, there are no guarantees for perfection when it comes to a community college experience and a successful future after graduation. But there aren’t guarantees for any college experience.

Which begs the question. Why do it?

Why any kind of college?

People don’t attend college just for the fun of it. People go in order to have long, fulfilling, financially comfortable lives. The numbers show that demand for higher education isn’t going away any time soon. And taking on debt to get there isn’t always a great option either.

The Stanford Center on Longevity Sightlines Project, which investigates human longevity in the 21st century, shows us how lack of education and debt can stunt health and wealth. According to the project’s findings, “Financial security is less likely for Americans in 2014 compared to 2000, particularly among the least educated.”

“The youngest adults are faring the worst: with notable increases in pervasiveness and scale of student debt, there are accompanying delays in wealth-building activities,” according to the project.

The assumption is, these delays in wealth-building activities lead to less wealth over time, delaying or reducing savings for retirement. All of this debt could ultimately force people into situations where poor diet, lack of sleep, stress, and unhealthy coping mechanisms cause further health problems combined with a delayed building of wealth.

The case

It is known a good, solid college education gives us the best chance to build our wealth and protect our health. But for lots of people, student loan debt could be standing in the way. If all the benefits that come with a college degree can be reaped for less money – either by taking on less risk in the first two years of college or by receiving an associate’s degree or certificate in a growing field – it makes community college look pretty darn good.

So should you do it?

As Schneider of College Measures puts it: “If you know how to fix things or fix people, you win. It will get you into the middle class.”

Or, just ask George Lucas, Tom Hanks, author, Amy Tan, and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona. Community college seemed to work out well for them.

Learn more and share your own thoughts about community college and student loan debt in our community.

Things to Consider

• The teens in your life can consider taking a community college class while still in high school to test it out.

• Support students in your family in basing decisions about their education on personal life goals, not the name of the school on the diploma.

• For those still figuring out a major, community college may be a great option to begin exploring options.

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