Demystifying Community Colleges ...

... for the average Massachusetts resident.

September 10, 2014
A colleague in marketing recently asked me to write a blog post on community colleges. She was astounded by the number of people in the state who don’t know what community colleges are, what they do, and whom they serve. I commiserated with her. This past year, a big part of my work focused on outreach and very quickly I realized that I could not assume that every potential partner—industry or community-based— or person knew about community colleges. In a state that is home to many elite higher education institutions and a strong cadre of second-tier, highly competitive schools, it is not surprising that the public knows very little about community colleges. After all, the first community college in Massachusetts was not established until 1960, some 60 years after the first community college in the country.

Origins of Community Colleges

The first community college in the United States was established in 1901 in Joliet, Illinois. The creation of other community colleges was slow and steady through the second World War. The passage of the Federal GI Bill of Rights in 1944 led to a boom in enrollment of veterans, women, and Blacks at community colleges. This continued through the 1960s when the country experienced an explosion in the number of community colleges established. It was also during this period that community colleges were established in various regions of Massachusetts, beginning with Berkshire Community College in 1960.

An Overview of the Community College

Community colleges are open admissions higher education institutions, meaning that they accept any student with a high school diploma or GED. These higher education institutions do not require college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT. Their students range from being very well academically-prepared to those needing remediation in math and English. Community colleges offer certificates, typically requiring 6 to 12 months of study, and Associate degrees that are the equivalent of the first 2 years of a Bachelor’s degree or a terminal middle-skills credential for those going straight into the job market. According to the College Board, the national average annual tuition and fees for a full-time degree-seeking student at a community college is $3,260. In Massachusetts, average tuition hovers around $5,000 annually. Community colleges also provide corporate training, typically aligned with local business and industry needs. In addition, they offer continuing education for either short-term professional training or personal development.

The National Profile of Community Colleges

Nationally, there are 1,132 community colleges enrolling 12.8 million students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that community colleges account for nearly 50% of all undergraduate students in the country and over 40% of first-time college freshmen. Community colleges are very diverse institutions, accounting for nearly 60% of Hispanic students in college nationally; 60% of Native American students; about 50% of Blacks; and 45% of Asian/Pacific Islanders. According to NCES, 36% of community college students are the first in their family to attend college. Seventeen percent of students are also single parents. At least 60% of community college students are employed while working toward their college degree. Finally, about 60% of community college students receive some sort of tuition assistance in the form of federal and state financial aid or grants.

The Promise of Community Colleges in Massachusetts

In the last three years, community colleges have received a lot of attention from an array of stakeholders. Where attention has been most lacking is from savvy consumers. While anecdotally, most of us would agree that more financially-savvy middle class students have been enrolling at our community colleges, the increase in public attention, however, has not led to a corresponding strong increase in enrollment. Perhaps that is due to our own shortcomings in educating consumers about the cost benefits of starting one’s higher education career at a community college. Community colleges have a strong value proposition.

A recent article in the Boston Globe citing the U.S. Department of Education noted that the median annual “net price” for tuition in Massachusetts rose to nearly $30,000 between 2008 and 2013. The net price is the cost that the student pays for tuition and fees, after taking into account financial aid and grants. Thirty thousand dollars times 4 years of college brings the median out-of-pocket cost of a Bachelor’s degree for Massachusetts residents to $120,000. Most people would agree that in this knowledge-driven state, the Bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement that provides little upward professional mobility. Thus, college graduates sticking around the state will need a graduate degree to be competitive in the job market. With a foundational undergraduate degree costing $120,000 it’s not hard to see how a middle class life style can quickly become an elusive dream for a recent college graduate.

Massachusetts residents have a compelling financial reason to start at a community college. Recently, the University of Massachusetts system, Robert Caret, explained in an interview, how a Massachusetts resident could earn a Bachelor’s degree for a total price of $30,000 by starting at a community college and continuing on to a public 4-year university to complete their degree. It is a strong value proposition in a knowledge-driven economy!

My Advice to the Soon-to-be College Applicant

To the savvy consumer or parent of the young impressionable high school graduate, I’d say forget where all your friends are going to college. Start at a community college. You’ll be able to afford your own apartment after college! The only downside to saving all that money is that you’ll likely be the one picking up the tab at the end of a night out four years from now since you’ll have more disposable cash.


This post was originally published at Community College Life.



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