Episode 113: The Community College Challenge

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Today’s episode focuses on a higher education issue that we have talked about before at USACollegeChat, though not recently–that is, the pros and cons of attending a community college, which is a marvelous institution in theory, but a somewhat more disappointing institution in reality. At least, that has been our position in the past.

When I read a recent article about where community colleges find themselves these days, I thought we might look at them one more time. If you are the parent of a senior, we will offer some recent facts that might affect your decision to send your own teenager to a community college next fall. If you are the parent of a junior, these same facts might affect your wanting to use a community college as your teenager’s safety school option or as your teenager’s only option during the application process next year.

1. The Funding Picture

The article I read was written by Jeffrey R. Young and disseminated online by EdSurge. EdSurge is an organization that, in its own words, “report[s] on [the] latest news and trends in the edtech industry to help . . . entrepreneurs who build new products and businesses; educators who use these tools; [and] investors and others who support companies and schools” (quoted from the EdSurge website). So, here is some background for our discussion, thanks to Mr. Young and EdSurge:

Nationwide, enrollments in community colleges have been declining for several years, in part because the job market as a whole has been improving, so fewer people have felt the need to . . . [head] back to school. And even as some states and cities propose efforts to make two-year colleges free to students, the broader trend is that many state governments have scaled back public support for community colleges in recent years. In Arizona, for instance, the state funding for two major community college districts [Maricopa Community College District and Pima Community College District] is down to zero.

“Like all public higher education support, the funding is going down,” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “It’s worse in some ways at community colleges,” she adds, because the total amount that community colleges spend per student has been decreasing, according to The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing. “They just don’t have the money to serve students the way they did,” she adds. “That’s a reason to be very concerned.” (quoted from the article)

Yes, that is a reason to be concerned–for sure, if you live in the Phoenix-Tempe-Tucson area, where funding is “down to zero,” and presumably if you live in other community college districts in similar financial trouble. We have read plenty in the news over the past year about public four-year universities that are living in a world of declining state funding and, often, that are raising tuition to make up for that loss, much to the anger of the state residents.

But, if you thought that public community colleges could be your fallback position, perhaps it is time for you to think again. Because what happens when state and local governments cut back on their funding of their community colleges? Clearly, the community colleges are going to have to raise their tuition–which, to be fair, is typically very low–or they are going to have to reduce educational and support services to their students. Unfortunately, there’s no free lunch, even at community colleges. For some students, whose only viable option is their local community college, either choice that a community college is forced to make will be a serious blow.

2. The Pros of Community Colleges: A Review

Let’s review quickly some of the pros and cons about community colleges, also referred to as two-year colleges. Here’s a list of reasons to put two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of colleges to apply to (these reasons are conveniently taken from our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students):

  • Two-year colleges offer associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers, including high-paying technical careers. Later, if the student wants to do so, the credits earned for an associate’s degree can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree.   (In fact, some two-year colleges in some states are now authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, especially in technical fields where workers in the labor force are in short supply. Students pursuing those bachelor’s degrees would need to stay at the two-year college longer, of course.)
  • Two-year colleges offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills and study habits they will need to succeed in more advanced college study. After doing well at a two-year college, such students can get into a better four-year college than they could have gotten into right out of high school.
  • Two-year colleges can be a good choice if a student is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career. Trying out different academic majors and different programs leading to different career paths is cheaper and likely easier to do at a two-year college than at a four-year college.
  • Two-year colleges offer their students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very low price. Putting two-year colleges on your teenager’s list of college options is a reasonable decision if paying for college?either right away for a two-year degree or eventually for a four-year degree?is a critical concern for your family.

Let’s underline that last point, which, I think, is the primary point for the kids who head to a community college right out of high school. The fact that it is so much cheaper than any four-year option is sometimes irresistible. We know that students can get financial aid of all kinds from four-year colleges, which could make their time there essentially free, but none of those deals is a sure thing. Paying the very low tuition at a community college, especially with whatever financial aid is available, is a sure thing.

Let’s also acknowledge that we understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Sometimes it is hard to argue against family reasons like that.

3. The Cons of Community Colleges: A Review

So, what’s the downside of going to a community college? As we have said before at USACollegeChat, the choice of a community college for students coming right out of high school is quite different from that same choice being made by adults returning to college or starting college for the first time. But, we are focused here on students coming right out of high school, just like your own teenager. Here is what Mr. Young’s article says about one very important college statistic:

? [T]he truth is that community colleges don’t always pay off for students. Completion rates are notoriously low–only about 38 percent of students who started at a community college in 2009 completed a two- or four-year degree within six years. And students who take out even small loans to attend can end up with crippling debt if they end up with no degree to show for their efforts. As [Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute] puts it: “You really can’t pay back anything if you’re working at the minimum wage.” (quoted from the article)

That is a sobering statistic: Not even half of community college students complete any college degree in six years–not even a two-year associate’s degree. Admittedly, that statistic includes all kinds of students who attend community colleges–from bright kids right out of high school who need to save money to returning adults who have been out of school for a decade to kids who struggled in high school and couldn’t get into a more selective college. Nonetheless, we quoted evidence many episodes back that said that students are more likely to graduate if they go to a more selective college, for many reasons. You have to put that in the scale as you weigh college options for your teenager.

In addition to that seriously low completion rate, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is also shockingly low, as we reported back in Episode 64, based on an article in The Hechinger Report. Here is that statistic, which was taken from a report from Teachers College, Columbia University:

. . . 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article)

So, as parents, you need to think hard about whether your teenager is different from the typical community college student–smarter, harder working, more motivated, more goal oriented, or something. Because, otherwise, the statistics are telling you that he or she is likely not to graduate with even an associate’s degree and is likely not to transfer to that more expensive four-year college you say you are saving up your money for. We all think our own kids are different and, maybe, better. But how much are you willing to gamble on that?

4. What Is the Answer?

Mr. Young’s article also noted that community colleges are trying out a few ideas in the hope of improving those statistics, and that’s a good thing. Let’s look at two of them. The first idea is something that community colleges are calling “guided pathways,” and the idea really couldn’t be simpler. Here it is:

The metaphor for the traditional community college is a “cafeteria” of course offerings, says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “We’ve since realized that too much choice is actually overwhelming,” she adds, “and too many students are unable to put together a program of study that gets them where they want to go.”

John Hamman, a dean at Montgomery College, agrees. “What we need to do is help and talk to students about, what do you want to do?” Many community college students who struggle with subjects like mathematics, for instance, might prefer a different track that requires less math–but may not know the option exists. . . . And we don’t do a good enough job helping students [take] those smart pathways.” (quoted from the article)

Well, this problem exists at all levels of schooling and can be solved, at least partly, by intelligent and experienced advisors. Certainly, we had to serve in that capacity at the high school we co-founded in NYC. It was clear that we had to be vigilant to make sure that students were taking what they needed to take in order to graduate–and, in our case, to graduate early in three years. But, it is also true that four-year college advisors need to pay attention to course selection and graduation counseling–especially, as we just said in our last episode (Episode 112), if students are trying to do four years of college in three years.

In this case of community colleges, given their low graduation rate, they absolutely need “guided pathways” to make sure that students get onto a track as soon as possible and stay on track to finish the courses needed to earn a degree. If you are looking at a community college for your teenager, it would be wise to check out whether it has these pathways spelled out and this kind of academic advising available.

The second idea aimed at improving community college statistics is making online coursework more available. Here is what the article said:

Community colleges are . . . starting to do more to offer online courses, says Rufus Glasper, president of the League for Innovation in the Community College. But they are more likely to offer blended programs and require at least some in-person attendance, rather than set up all-online programs, he adds.

“Community colleges need to do more with online so that we can have lower price-point options for our students as well,” he says. That can be especially tough for two-year colleges, though, since they often don’t have the resources to invest in new online infrastructure that it takes to start fully online programs. (quoted from the article)

On the other hand, I am wondering whether the fact that community colleges often offer blended courses instead of fully online courses is actually a plus. Quite recently, in Episode 107, we discussed the pros and cons of online courses for various groups of students. We remained concerned at the end of that episode about the ability of most freshmen to take important introductory or foundational courses online (like Calculus I or Composition 101 or Introduction to Sociology or Spanish I or Biology 101) and get everything out of them that they would get if they were in a classroom with a professor two or three times a week. Offering courses fully online to save the student money may backfire if the student cannot complete the course with a satisfactory grade or with a satisfactory amount of knowledge. We are going to remain concerned that fully online courses might not, in the long run, improve a community college’s graduation rate or successful transfer rate.

5. Where Does That Leave Us?

Toward the end of Mr. Young’s article, he again quotes Ms. Karp, of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College:

“This is their moment because [community colleges] are the access and equity engines of higher education,” argues Karp. . . . “In this age when we’re talking about how do we open up access to higher education but also make sure our labor force is prepared for . . . jobs of the future, they’re in an ideal position.” (quoted from the article)

Community colleges might indeed be in an ideal position in theory, but they are going to have to improve their results in practice. Those results are what continue to worry us as seniors choose their first step into higher education. Let me simply repeat what I said a few minutes ago: Unless you think your teenager is smarter, harder working, more motivated, and more goal oriented than the typical community college student, your teenager is likely to have some difficulty graduating from a community college and/or transferring to a four-year college. So, talk with your teenager and think hard about your choice.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college with an interview with Andrea Mulkey.

NYCollegeChat podcast, Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EdWorks, a subsidiery of KnowledgeWorks

Listen to Andrea Mulkey talk about the great guidance and support that her organization, EDWorks, gives to innovative high school and college partnerships across the U.S. An early advocate and designer of the Early College high schools initiative, Andrea has done a lot in the past decade to spread this win-win idea from state to state—including a long assignment right here in New York State.

In the interview, Andrea chats with Marie and Regina about the impressive numbers of high schoolers taking college courses for credit and the kinds of successes these students have had. Students enrolling in college courses for credit—whether through an Early College high school program or in a traditional high school with a college partner—is truly one of a handful of education innovations with no downside. Every high school parent should know about it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The impact of college study on struggling high school students
  • Saving on college tuition by taking college courses during high school
  • What community colleges might have to do with it

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Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/13

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why up-front honesty with your teenager is the best policy
Why starting college close to home and then going away can be a good compromise
Why your teenager’s personality might dictate large vs. small colleges
Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/9

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

For some parents and their teenagers, there is one decisive factor in choosing colleges to apply to and eventually to attend. Once that decision is in place, they are willing to consider a variety of options that preserve that fundamental decision. For other parents and their teenagers, there are two—or more—decisive factors. And, because some factors are more important to some families than to other families, there is no way to rank the factors in one universal order to importance.

Nonetheless, you need to understand which factors are the decisive ones for you—the deal breakers, if you will. It is a useful first step in narrowing down your choices among the more than 4,500 two-year and four-year degree-granting institutions in the U.S. (plus all of those outside the U.S.).

Let us also say that this is the time for you to be honest with your teenager about what, if anything, is a deal breaker for you. For example, if you really cannot imagine letting your teenager go away to college, then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to colleges close to home. Or if you really cannot imagine how you could pay for a private college (because no one can count on a big scholarship and you do not want to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government through a Direct PLUS loan for parents), then that becomes one of your decisive factors. With that decision made, you can narrow your teenager’s choices down to public colleges. Ignoring your deal breakers now is likely to cause some disappointment later on. So have the conversation first.

Similarly, this is the time for your teenager to be honest with you about his or her own deal breakers. For example, if your teenager is going to refuse to study hard in a science major (your idea) because her heart is set on studying music (her idea), then that becomes one of her decisive factors. So, as we said, have the conversation.

Of course, there might not be any decisive factors—no deal breakers—for either you or your teenager, leaving your family the full range of colleges to consider. That would make life easier. But, just in case, here are four deal breakers to consider.

1. Colleges Away from Home or at Home?

For many students in the U.S. over a couple of centuries now, going away to college has been a rite of passage. Trunks are packed, car trips are taken, and teary good-byes are said in a dorm room on a campus of ivy-covered buildings. Hundreds of movies and televisions shows picture college kids doing crazy things on those campuses in those dorms or in fraternity and sorority houses. In some ways, the idea of kids going away to college has been part of the American dream.

That is not just a notion from the past. Today, there are still a lot of reasons why many students want to go away to college and why many students should go away to college. Let’s look at four of them:

  • It is a chance to grow up. Clearly, many 17- and 18-year-olds like the idea of living away from the daily oversight of their families. Who can blame them? This is their first step in making their own unsupervised decisions about academic issues and about social interactions—about what courses to take, when to schedule their classes, what to do on weekends and with whom, how to manage their time and their money, and more. Going away to college is their first step at separating from their families and becoming the adults they are soon to be. Everyone has to do it. Is there a better way to learn how to live on your own or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to live in a different geographical location. If a student grew up in the city, it is a chance to live in the country or in the suburbs. If a student grew up in the Northeast, it is a chance to see the South or the West or the Midwest. If a student grew up in the U.S., it is a chance to experience life in Europe or in Asia or in South America. You get the idea. There is a lot to be said for going to college outside of your hometown or home state or home region or home country. Is there a better way to learn what other places are like or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to live in a different social setting with people who are not like you. If a student did not grow up and attend school in a multiethnic, multicultural, and racially diverse setting, going away to college is a way to broaden that student’s personal experience with people of different backgrounds. Learning how to work with people of all backgrounds is a life skill most students will need in their futures. Is there a better way to learn what other people are like or a better time to learn it?
  • It is a chance to attend a college with a special focus or to major in a particular field a student cannot get close to home. If a student wants to attend a single-sex college or a faith-based college or an HBCU, for example, that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has an interest in a college that focuses on one academic field (for example, the fine arts or business), that student might have to leave home to find it. If a student has a strong interest in a certain academic field (for example, computer science or journalism or linguistics or theater or mathematics), that student might have to leave home to find a college that has a well-regarded major in that field. Of course, students might change their minds once they get there, but these are still reasons to look at colleges away from home.

There are at least as many reasons for students to stay at home to attend college—sometimes living at home and sometimes living on campus or in a nearby apartment. Let’s look at a few reasons to stay at home:

  • It is a way to save money. This is a complicated reason, because it is possible that a student will get an amazing scholarship, which also covers living costs, at a college far from home. In that case, it is possible that going away actually saves the family more money. However, it is fair to say that most students do not get full scholarships, including living expenses; so, for most students, going to college in their hometown saves money. Staying at home for college saves even more money if the college is a public college, where tuition will be far lower for residents than tuition would be at a private college anywhere. And staying at home for college saves still more money if the student actually lives at home and attends a public college. But, remember that it is complicated. For example, going away to a public college in your state, but not in your hometown, might be cheaper than staying at home and attending a private college.
  • It is a way to keep a student involved in the family culture. For some families, cultural traditions in the family or in the community are very important, like attending the family’s church and participating in church activities or being part of social groups that represent the family’s ethnic or cultural background. For these families, sending a child away to college breaks the social and family bonds that are very much a part of that family’s lifestyle. Whether the family can adjust to that sort of break would need to be the topic of a serious discussion.
  • It is a way to give a student a little more time to get ready to be on his or her own. Some 17- and 18-year-olds are not quite ready to live on their own too far from home. That is especially true of young people who have not traveled much with their families, who have not attended camps or summer study programs away from home, who have not participated in many outside-of-school activities, or who are younger than the typical high school graduate (including bright students who graduate early).
  • It is a way for a student to attend a great college that happens to be in that student’s hometown. As a matter of fact, sometimes a great college—or even the perfect college—for a student happens to be located in the student’s hometown. For example, it has the right academic program or the right special focus. When that is the case, going away to college just to go away does not really make sense.

By the way, sometimes it is the parent who thinks the teenager should go away and the teenager who wants to stay home, though you might think it would usually be the reverse. Either way, is it a decisive factor in putting colleges on your list—that is, will you put only colleges near home on your list or only colleges away from home on your list? In other words, is going away or staying at home a deal breaker for you?

2. Two-Year or Four-Year Colleges?

In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 2, we talked a lot about two-year colleges vs. four-year colleges and universities and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both two-year colleges and four-year colleges or universities for your teenager’s first step into higher education.

As we said, two-year colleges, which are largely public community colleges, offer students core liberal arts courses (which can often be transferred to four-year colleges later) and/or technical training in many different fields at a very reasonable price. They also offer two-year associate’s degrees, which can be enough for some careers or can be transferred to four-year colleges and applied toward credits needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Two-year colleges also offer students who have struggled in high school a chance to improve their academic record and gain the fundamental skills they will need in higher-level college study.

Public community colleges can be a good choice—and possibly decisive factor—if your teenager is undecided about an academic field of study in college and/or about a future career, has a spotty high school academic record, does not yet have good enough study skills for advanced college work, and/or believes that a two-year associate’s degree is sufficient college study for the immediate future. Putting only two-year colleges on your list is also a reasonable decision if paying for college is a critical concern for your family.

Turning to four-year colleges, which come in all shapes and sizes, we know that there is probably one that would be a good fit for almost any student. If you and your teenager believe that a bachelor’s degree is eventually what your teenager will want to earn and if he or she is ready to tackle the academic work at a four-year college, then that might be a decisive factor for you. The range of four-year colleges is so broad in what they offer, where they are located, how much they cost, and how selective they are that choosing to put only four-year colleges on your list still leaves a lot of options open to you.

3. Public or Private Colleges?

In our last series, Understanding the World of College, in Episode 1, we talked a lot about public colleges vs. private colleges vs. proprietary institutions and the pros and cons of each. The question now is whether your family wants to consider both public colleges and private colleges (by the way, all proprietary schools are private) for your teenager’s first step into higher education.

The main factor here is cost. Public colleges are less expensive than private colleges when it comes to tuition. But considering the cost of college can be complicated, as we said. A private college that offers your teenager a substantial scholarship could turn out to cost your family less than a public university that does not offer you any scholarship money. Of course, you cannot count on a scholarship. So, where does that leave you?

If money is a critical factor in where to send your child to college, then think hard about looking only at public colleges. And have that serious discussion with your teenager. Talk about whether applying to private colleges is a good idea, knowing that a scholarship would be required. Or does that simply set your teenager up for a disappointment down the road if no scholarship is forthcoming? Talk about whether summer and part-time jobs could make up the difference in what you can provide financially and what would be needed. But help your teenager understand that working while in college—though many, many students do it—is actually very demanding.

With all that being said, if the best choice for your teenager could be a public college or could be a private college—because of majors being offered or location or size or special focus or even family sentiment—then public vs. private college is not a deal breaker for you.

4. Large or Small Colleges?

You might believe that a small college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a small college is more nurturing; that your teenager is less likely to “get lost” in it; that classes are smaller, affording students more attention from professors (and not from teaching assistants); that it is easier to join extracurricular clubs and sports teams; and that it is better to be a big fish in a little pond. Many people would agree with that.

On the other hand, you might believe that a large college provides the best academic and social environment for your teenager. If so, you probably believe that a large college offers more courses and a greater variety of majors to choose from; that a large college has more laboratories and libraries and theaters and other academic facilities; that there are more and better social activities available, including fraternities and sororities; that sports teams are of a higher caliber; and that there are more alumni to help connect your teenager to the outside world after graduation. Many people would agree with that.

Of course, you could split the difference and prefer medium-sized colleges. Remember, the question now is whether the size of the college is a decisive factor either for you or for your teenager. For example, do you want to put only small colleges, or only small and medium-sized colleges (but no large colleges), or only large colleges on your list? If you can accept the advantages and disadvantages of each, then size is not a deal breaker for you.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why up-front honesty with your teenager is the best policy
  • Why starting college close to home and then going away can be a good compromise
  • Why your teenager’s personality might dictate large vs. small colleges

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Episode 2: Two-Year Colleges, Four-Year Colleges, and Universities

This episode is part of our series on understanding the world of college. In this episode, we talk about the differences among two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities.

For detailed show notes including links to all the colleges mentioned in this episode, visit http://usacollegechat.org/2.

NYCollege Chat is a weekly podcast for parents and high school students about the world of college brought to you by Policy Studies in Education.

Connect with us! Follow us on Facebook or Twitter as NYCollegeChat. Contact us with questions at 516-900-NYCC.

This episode is part of our series on understanding the world of college and is focused on the differences among two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities.

NYCollegeChat Episode 2 - Two-Year Colleges, Four-Year Colleges, and Universities1. Types of Two-Year Colleges

There are over 1,100 two-year colleges in the U.S., with almost 1,000 of them being public colleges, usually referred to as “community colleges.” Some two-year colleges might still carry the name of “junior college,” which was more popular 100 years ago. Today, some two-year colleges have dropped the word “junior” or “community” from their names altogether, such as Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland.

2. Costs at Two-Year Colleges

As tuition increases across the U.S., more and more students are considering attending a public two-year college first—before transferring to a four-year college to finish a degree. Because two-year colleges have lower tuition rates than four-year colleges, this strategy saves family money for use later at a more expensive public or private four-year college.

Just like public four-year colleges, public two-year colleges can be funded by local (city or county) governments and state governments.

3. Students at Two-Year Colleges

Although more and more students are choosing two-year colleges as their first college step, the average age of two-year college students is in the mid-twenties. That is because many adults returning to college also choose two-year colleges.

So the atmosphere in classes can be a bit more serious than an 18-year-old’s recent high school classes. Plus, most two-year colleges are commuter colleges; students do not live on campus in dorms, but rather commute to classes from their homes. That can make the atmosphere on campus different from a traditional four-year college.

4. Degrees Awarded by Two-Year Colleges and by Four-Year Colleges/Universities

Two-year colleges award associate’s degrees for two years’ worth of completed courses, usually totaling about 60 credits. Students can study part time at a two-year college and take three, four, or even more years to complete those credits and earn an associate’s degree.

Only four-year colleges and universities can award bachelor’s degrees. A bachelor’s degree indicates a higher level of college study, which is preferred by many employers and which is required by universities if a student wants to pursue a graduate or professional degree, like a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in any field of study.

5. Transferring to Four-Year Colleges/Universities

Credits earned at a two-year college can be transferred to a four-year college or university. But some four-year colleges and universities will not accept all of the credits that were earned at a two-year college. (Some will not accept all of the credits that were earned at another four-year college or university, either.)

The best way to make sure that all two-year college credits transfer is to earn an associate’s degree. A four-year college or university will accept an associate’s degree (and all the credits that went into it) from a transfer student.

6. Universities Defined

A university is usually a larger institution with more students and more professors than a two-year college or a four-year college. A university offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Undergraduate degrees are associate’s and bachelor’s degrees; graduate degrees are master’s and doctoral degrees.

A large university typically is made up of more than one “school” or “college,” which are focused on different fields of study.   One of these components usually focuses on the liberal arts (more about that in Episode 3); others might focus on education, engineering, fine arts, business, health sciences, or other subject fields.

Universities usually award different types of four-year bachelor’s degrees, depending on a student’s major field of study, such as a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Architecture, Bachelor of Business Administration, and more. Some universities offer two-year associate’s degrees as well.

Sometimes the schools or colleges within a university are only for graduate students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree. Graduate students might attend a university’s medical school, law school, school of theology, journalism school, or others. A university awards master’s degrees and sometimes doctoral degrees to graduate students.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The pitfalls of trying to transfer college credits
  • Universities as research institutions
  • The pros and cons of large universities and small colleges

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

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Outside of New York State

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  • Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
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