For Many Students, Community Colleges Offer Better Deal and Faster Career Track
Students and educators say any stigma is fading from the nation's community colleges. A growing number of students are choosing 2-year programs to find high-paying jobs—in fields where businesses are actually hiring.
For 21-year-old Vinnie Haynes, the $1,900 annual tuition at his two-year community college is not only a steal in the world of six-figure higher education price tags—it’s a ticket to a thriving career.
“Basically they offer the same courses as a four-year college, and it costs a quarter of the price,” said the welding student at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan. Even better, some prospective employers in his field will pay him to complete a four-year degree.
Despite a recent leveling off of enrollments, community colleges nationwide have enjoyed a massive expansion of student interest and attendance. Haynes and millions like him are seeing community college programs as a way to quickly land great-paying jobs in industries that are truly hiring—and for far less money than they’d pay for a typical bachelor’s degree. And those who run community colleges are finding private companies all but begging them to train more students to fill in-demand jobs, especially in growing areas such as advanced manufacturing, emergency response and medical fields.
According to the National Association of Community Colleges:
- About 8 million U.S. students attended community college in 2011—up from about 6 million in 2010.
- Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States attend a community college.
- Community colleges educate 59 percent of new nurses, and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and EMTs.
“A lot of people thought manufacturing was gone. What we call the high-tech jobs are still here,” said Maria Coons, executive director of Workforce and Strategic Alliances at Harper College in the northwest Chicago suburbs. “A lot of them are made-to-order, and they are very specialized.”
Economic downturns always fuel community college enrollment, but the stigma of community college as the “lesser option” is all but gone among today’s recession-tested pool of prospective students.
Britt Meier, 24, is looking for a one-to two-year program to become a nurse. “I want to get into the field—the sooner the better,” she said.
Meier, who lives on Williams Lake near White Lake, just finished her bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University, after starting her first two years of college at Oakland Community College. Finding a job in her chosen field—health care public relations—has been proving too tough, so she’s instead looking at going back for a nursing degree. Returning to OCC is a possibility.
Among Meier’s peers, the community college option is common, practical and pennywise. “Someone says, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing this summer.’ Everybody’s like, ‘Me too.’”
Also gone is the notion that if you start with a two-year degree, that’s about as far as you will go.
About half of Oakland Community College students will go on to pursue a bachelor’s, said George Cartsonis, communications director at Oakland in Michigan, which saw its enrollment grow 21 percent from winter 2008 to winter 2012.
“Community colleges,” Cartsonis said, “have proved themselves.”
Bringing up nurses
In approximately three years, OCC nursing graduates can take a test to become registered nurses. They pass at a higher rate than their university counterparts, Cartsonis said, and they’ll have paid about $70 a credit hour. Meanwhile, nursing students could pay more than $400 a credit hour for four to five years for a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University.
The community college classes are not blow-offs either, Meier said.
“I will tell you right now, the classes I took at OCC were almost harder than the classes I took at Eastern,” she said. “The beauty of the community college is the smaller the class sizes and the more learning or training you get.”
Plus, Meier said, she doesn't have student loans like her sister, who went to a public university for her entire college career.
Community colleges naturally tout the obvious cost and time advantage they hold over traditional four-year schools, but what does the labor market have to say?
The most recent federal unemployment numbers show the overall economy still favors those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. They have a 4.1 percent unemployment rate versus 7.1 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some community college. But both of those numbers trump the experience of workers who choose not to pursue any education after high school. Their unemployment rate stood at 8.7 percent in July. (And 12.7 percent for those who don’t complete high school.)
About 57 percent of job openings between 2006 and 2016 will require some form of postsecondary-education, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Coons said community colleges work best when they reach out to their communities and train for who is hiring.
Harper started a program to connect local high-tech manufacturers with its graduates, providing internships for students who complete a basic certification while they work on their degrees.
They expected to get 30 jobs to offer students, but they got 87.
And even as the semester was about to start, Coons’ phone was still ringing with employers calling her to get in on the program.
“We still have manufacturers calling us left and right,” she said. “Their workforce is aging. They have orders they can’t fill. They don’t have a pipeline of workers.”
A community college certification not only opens doors, she said, but it ups the pay scale these students can expect. “One manufacturer said that, walking in off the street, they could pay you $10-12 an hour, but with a certification from Harper you double that. High-end operators can make double that,” she said.
Haynes said he looked into welding—an advanced manufacturing field—because he knows he'll find a job when he's done. “There are tons of job opportunities,” he said.
Job vs. career
But aren't advanced manufacturing programs training workers for dead-end jobs?
Coons said no, that the manufacturers offer opportunity for advancement. “These are careers; they’re not just jobs any more,” she said. “And there’s lateral movement—purchasing, supply chain, and sales. There’s also the engineering and design pieces.”
At the end of the day, Coons said, many students are less concerned about where their degree is from than how quickly they can finish and how much debt they and their parents can avoid. “To me, education now isn’t where you are going, but what you want to do,” she said.
Meier agreed. Once you get a degree and start your career, the institution on the certificate isn’t so important, she said.
“A degree is a degree.”