Should Your Child Consider Community College?

There are so many decisions to make when your child is approaching college age. My own daughter is a junior in high school right now, and I can tell you firsthand that the choices, opportunities, and possibilities seem endless! Among the first decisions you should consider is whether community college is a good fit for your child.

Community college is a viable options for many high schoolers. When you look at college graduation statistics, the results are pretty dismal. About 60% of students graduate in 6 years or less. And the truth is that much of the student loan debt crisis comes from students who take out loans to attend college, then never actually graduate. There are many reasons students fail to graduate from college: high costs, lack of college readiness, or even outside responsibilities and scheduling difficulties. Given all of these challenges, families should at least consider the option of community college.

Let's start with what makes community college great

Well, for one thing, it costs less

Ok, I'm a finance person, so admittedly I am biased toward thinking about costs. It's just a fact: community college is far less expensive than traditional college. That's as good a reason as any to at least consider community college as a starting point for your child.

According to Student Loan Hero, community college on average costs about 60% less than four-year public schools. That means a student starting at a community college for two years before transferring to a traditional four year college to finish would on average pay $11,377 less for a four-year degree.

Of course the savings varies by state. But in any case, the savings are usually substantial.

Also, it's not the same as when we were young

These days community college is a lot more than just your general education requirements. Today, community colleges receive funding and maintain partnerships with a variety of different sources. They partner with federal agencies (like NASA) and charities (like the Gates Foundation), as well as businesses (like Ford Motor Company, Honda, Apple, and Facebook). These partnerships enable them to stay on the cutting edge of technology–offering programs in cybersecurity, electro-mechanical engineering, digital marketing, or even automotive technology.

The smaller size of most community college allows them to innovate, evolve, and quickly implement new programs to meet the needs of tomorrow's employers and future career fields. Community colleges also tend to attract dedicated professors who often have real world experience they bring to the classroom.

It's a great way to "ease" into college

We all know that not every high school graduate is fully ready to step right onto a four year college campus. When students are unprepared for four year college but go anyway, they are often setting themselves up for failure. They may be faced with taking remedial level courses when they get to college just to get by in that first year.

Community college can offer a better alternative and a way to ease these students into a college setting. By taking away the distractions and challenges of moving to a new setting and being totally on their own, community college students can make their coursework their main focus. Smaller class sizes provide the comfort of a high school feel while still offering challenging coursework.

Students who struggle academically or who just weren't focused or motivated in high school may not be sure if college is the right choice for them. Community college offers a great way to try out college without the commitment and the high expenses that come along with it.

Flexible schedules are available (and highly valuable)

For those who plan to work outside of school, community college offers a lot more flexibility. Working while attending a traditional four year college can be much more challenging. Most students attending a four year college take on a full time course load in order to graduate on time and keep costs low. Community college offers students the ability to choose a part time schedule if needed and arrange their classes around their work schedules with a little more ease. This has the added benefit of allowing students to get "real world experience" that will inform the choices they make (from their major to the courses they take) while attending community college.

There's also the added benefit of the choice to opt for two-year degree or a certificate program to get a quicker start to their career. They can learn exactly what they need to in their career-oriented field and get an early start in high paying fields.

What are the downsides of community college?

Transferring college credits requires planning

While the community college student may not have a clear path in mind, it really is important to go in with a plan and an end goal. If a student goes to community college without a plan and takes a random course load, it's sometimes a lot harder to get those credits transferred in an efficient way. It's critical to understand the transfer policy of the college they hope to graduate from. To make community college maximally cost effective, you'll want to be sure each community college credit counts towards their four year degree.

Maybe community college is not the college experience parents may remember or want for their child?

In my experience, parents' own college experience and their expectations for their child is often the biggest hurdle. There's no getting around it: attending community college is not the same as heading off to live in a dorm, packing the car full, navigating the community center and eating dining hall food, and making your way in a whole new experience. Community college just does not have the campus life and feel of football games and fraternity parties. Most community college students are juggling multiple priorities and are often just not as involved in campus life. The student body also includes non-traditional students returning to college to improve their skills, who aren't interested in the traditional aspects of the college experience.

Please note that not being a “typical” college experience can sometimes be a good thing. Maybe a shy student can hone their social skills while having the security of living at home. Students can ease into successful study habits without the distraction of campus life.

It is certainly true that some students will still need that college experience, and they should get it. If community college were right for everyone, then everyone would do it. The same can be said for attending a traditional four-year college. The important thing is to consider all the options available and find the best fit for your child.

How to decide which path is the best fit?

If you've read this far, you've got a good understanding of some of the pros and cons of community college. How can you know if it's the best choice for your child? First, it's important to keep your options open. I would still recommend applying to 6 - 8 colleges on the regular timeline and make sure you meet their admission and financial aid deadlines in the fall of the senior year of high school.

The sticker price of college is often unimportant — it's the true out of pocket cost of college that actually matters. Unfortunately, you won’t truly know what that cost is until you have the financial aid award letter from the college in hand, which usually comes in the spring of the senior year of high school.

Once you have all of the cards on the table, you can then weigh your options for the best fit academically, financially, and socially.

Did you know...?

What do all of these people have in common?

  • Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet

  • Eileen Collins, former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut

  • Joyce Luther Kennard, California Supreme Court justice

  • Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former United Nations ambassador

  • Nolan Ryan, retired Major League Baseball professional athlete

  • Jim Lehrer, news anchor

They all attended community college! Community college was the right fit for them. Despite any preconceived notions you might have, community college can start your child on the right career path for them. Weigh the pros and cons carefully and consider your child’s specific situation to find the best path for their future. Don't write the idea off before considering community college as a possibility.

Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Alyssa Lum, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.