• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Borrow or Work?

A choice -- with risks either way -- for community college students.

August 28, 2016

I know that back-to-school advice often falls on deaf ears, but I feel honor-bound to give it a shot. I’ll outline a very common scenario, offer some thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers for theirs.


Ashley is a pretty good student. She’s fresh out of a local high school, and still not sure what she wants to do. She’s attending community college to explore, to “get her gen eds out of the way,” and, frankly, for lack of any better ideas. She knows that a college degree will help her get a better job, and she has no interest in waiting tables for the rest of her life.

Her Mom is helping her, but not very much. She has two younger sisters who also plan to go to college, so she can’t take too much from her Mom. Dad is out of the picture. She can scrape together some money towards school, but on her own, she’s thousands short. She’s in that frustrating gray area where she’s too affluent for Pell, but not affluent enough to cover her own costs.

She has crunched some numbers and found that she has a choice. She can work 30 or so hours a week at the restaurant and attend college part-time, or she can take out loans, work 10-15 hours a week, and attend full-time.

What should she do?


I tried to build a scenario that reflects a fairly representative real life. Should Ashley avoid loans and attend part-time, or cut back her work hours, borrow, and attend full-time?

It comes down to weighing risks. If she goes part-time and works a lot for pay, her odds of actually finishing her degree drop dramatically. If she bites the bullet and goes full-time, the odds of finishing the degree are markedly higher.  

I’d recommend biting the bullet, taking out the loans, cutting back on work hours, and jumping into college with both feet. Yes, there’s a risk, but the chances of a better life -- of life with the kind of job that a degree can help you get -- are much higher with this strategy.  

Part of that is because of a variation on the old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Students who immerse themselves in college get the hang of it faster. They’re likelier to make connections, both personal and professional, which will help them get through.  

Part of it is because going full-time means finishing sooner, which means there’s less chance for life to get in the way. If she finishes in two years instead of four, she has cut the odds of a catastrophic interruption in half. Students often have complicated lives, and well-intended advice about hedging bets often results in half-baked efforts and eventual surrender. College is hard enough when you’re actually focused on it; when your attention is divided, it’s that much harder.  When your attention is divided for years and years, it’s harder still.  Better to plow straight ahead.

I know the “jump in with both feet” strategy can be a difficult sell.  It’s a risk.  But it’s far likelier to end with both a degree and a higher-paying job than the “hedge your bets” strategy.  Our task as educators is to make sure that both students and parents know that.

Wise and wordly readers, what do you think? Is this good advice for Ashley?



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