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In Praise of Community Colleges

Jo Calhoun

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With Lisa Matye Edwards, Ph.D.

Dr. Everette Freeman, president of the Community College of Denver, describes community colleges as “America’s best-kept secret.” In the past, many of us understood community colleges to be “less than” four-year institutions. But they’re not; they’ve grown.

Today’s community colleges offer ready-to-work technical degrees, associate degrees that transfer to four-year colleges and universities, and bachelor’s degrees. Some are even beginning to offer master’s programs.

Here are six reasons for students to take a serious look at the community college option:

1. Community colleges feed into four-year universities.

Community colleges have state-wide “articulation agreements” with public universities in the state. That means that students’ first two years of coursework (with grades of C or better) are guaranteed to transfer to public institutions in the state. Some community college students enroll in “degrees with designation” or “direct transfer” coursework designed for specific four-year degree programs.

Because community college students are guaranteed transfer within the state, they may be able to enter a four-year university to which they would not have been accepted directly out of high school.

2. CC grads are employable!

Community colleges offer both career and technical options that are in demand in the workforce. They have apprenticeship programs partnering with businesses in multiple content areas, including automotive, nursing, welding, water management, advanced manufacturing, computer-aided design, machining and graphic design. In addition, community colleges offer shorter-term certificate programs resulting in high wage career areas like sonography, equine management and health information technology.

Community colleges have a significant edge on four-year institutions in their ability to respond quickly to the needs of area employers.

3. The quality of instruction and advising is high.

Community colleges provide strategic career exploration and academic advising, suggesting “guided pathways” to assure that students’ goals align with their coursework. Students receive substantial support from qualified faculty members or professional academic advisors. Nationally, 75% of community college faculty members hold a master’s degree in their field and 20% have a Ph.D.; faculty teaching in technical fields are experts in their industry.

4. Community college students’ graduation rates from four-year institutions are higher than those of non-transfer students.

They are more likely to persist to degree completion.

5. Community college saves money.

Relative to four-year institutions, community colleges’ affordability is indisputable. Students and families concerned about high levels of debt may be able to reduce that burden significantly by opting for two years of community college. Grants, scholarships and loans are all available, and many state community colleges also offer work-study options, allowing students to work on campus gaining valuable career skills.

6. CC’s provide personal attention and support for success.

Community colleges offer free and extensive support to help students succeed, including tutoring, writing or math support, learning communities and supplemental instruction for challenging courses. Small class sizes and faculty who love to teach and not just do research are accessible to students from day one.

How can parents best support their community college students?

First, encourage involvement on campus. Because most community colleges do not have residence halls and because the majority of community college students hold jobs while attending school, students may be tempted to go to class and come home without becoming part of a community. Parents may want to suggest that students find part-time work on campus. Students will want to explore ALL the on-campus resources available to them, from researching credit for prior learning in the admissions office to frequent visits to the advising office. The student clubs and organizations at community colleges are identical to those at four-year institutions. Everything at a four-year college is present at a community college, and there’s a bonus — lots of support for transferring, including the option of free campus visits to area institutions.

Community colleges are no longer a second-choice option. As Dr. Freeman notes, they “provide a rich academic foundation in a supportive setting, including accessible, highly qualified faculty and state of the art learning environments. And it pays off with tangible, highly visible dividends.”

Co-author Lisa Matye Edwards is currently Vice President of Student Affairs at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado. Jo Calhoun has spent over 30 years in higher education administration, most recently as Associate Provost for Academic Resources at the University of Denver.
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Jo Calhoun worked in Student Affairs for over 30 years at institutions including Grinnell College in Iowa, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Her specializations include first year programs, academic advising, career services and parent relations.
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