Community College Experience

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If your soon-to-be high school graduate has been shut out of their dream university by enrollment cuts driven by the financial crisis, there's still hope. Our local community colleges can bridge the gap, and most have programs that guarantee good students preferential treatment in the transfer process.

But how do community colleges stack up academically? And don't they have incredible dropout rates? Most importantly, what kind of "college experience" do they offer?

Dropout rate at community colleges

Community colleges are different than 4 year schools in that students come with a wide range of goals and preparation.  As a result, the persistence rate for students isn't all that great.  Probably about 40% of the students who start one fall semester enroll for the next fall semester.   However, this isn't as bad as it might seem on the surface.  With no entry requirements, anyone who applies is accepted, so a certain percentage of students find themselves very unprepared for college work and eventually leave. Other students may just sign up for a single class-- say, a class in Excel-- and when they learn what they want, they're finished.  Finally, even at 4 year schools, such as CSU, as few as 20% of the students who enter college one year will be graduates four years later.  The college years are often a very complicated and stressful time for everyone. Which brings us to another key point.

Quality of Education and the "College Experience"

There aren't many 18 year olds who are really ready to take full advantage of a top 4-year school. At the same time, other than moving into the dorms and getting away from mom and dad, the educational experience at a community college is as good, if not better than what would be happening at a large state university or even Stanford for that matter.  Classes meet the same requirements; the teachers are well prepared and committed to teaching -- not research or publishing; and most sections have 35-40 students rather than 80-100 with first year grad students as TA's. My son, a 3rd year engineering student at a large state university, once told me that the best math teacher he ever had was the community college professor who taught the Calculus class at his high school.

Finally, I asked Garber about the "college experience"; specifically, is it possible to feel part of a school community without dorm life.   Sure, he said, but it takes engaging in classes and in various activities. He adds, "when I've talked to students over the years, particularly after they moved on to other schools and their careers beyond, the most common comments are about how their community college experiences were the best and most formative aspects of their lives."  Like any situation, it depends on the individual and how much effort they put into their school community.

The Community College Option

If you are feeling like your child has fewer options than you had hoped for, Garber has some advice: "I would really encourage these students to seriously consider making community colleges part of their plan and not just the end result of bad things happening to their dreams."

As for the quality of education, teachers in the community college system tend to be people with an extraordinary dedication to teaching. If you want to learn, they will do whatever it takes to teach you. All for $20 a unit. And living at home while getting those general ed requirements done (and maturing just a bit more) is not a bad thing.

Read the first article in this series to learn more about how community colleges open doors to 4-year universities.

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