Texas Ed: Comments on Education from Texas

February 22, 2007

Community Colleges: To go or not to go

Filed under: Accountability, community colleges — texased @ 8:16 pm

College has been popping up in my life lately. My son would be a freshman in high school so I’ve been thinking about things like transcripts, dual credit, and how the heck we’re going to pay for it. Since he can take dual credit classes for free, I would like for him to try a class or two at our local community college, San Antonio College (SAC). But I think it would be a mistake for him to start his college career at SAC with the intention to transfer to a four year university later. Why? Because it’s highly unlikely that he would ever make the transfer.

Let me explain. First, I know that community colleges provide an important avenue to higher education for a lot of people. Like my mother. After immigrating to the United States and getting her GED, she took classes at the local community colleges. She went full time the year I was a senior in high school and then transferred to a four year private university to complete her degree.

I have a friend who dropped out of high school, got his GED at SAC, and eventually graduated from UTSA. I have another friend in her thirties who started with some remedial classes at SAC and is now transferring to UTSA.

These people all have something in common that I think was a critical factor in their success at actually completely a four year degree–they all knew what they wanted. They weren’t taking classes to figure out what they were interested in or to decide if they even like college. They were doing it for very specific academic and financial reasons.

The people I know who started at SAC because they weren’t sure what they wanted to do in college and didn’t want to spend the money to start out at a four year institution never finished. The very attributes that made SAC valuable to my mother and others, undermined those who were less certain about the purpose of college.

It’s easy to work part-time or even full-time while attending SAC. Maybe you could use the extra money and you don’t take a full load. Maybe your boss sees you as a full-time employee and doesn’t care about you needing to meet with a professor during work hours. Maybe without being inundated in an academic culture, it’s easier to give in to distractions.

Since you don’t know what you want to do in college, you don’t pay attention to which classes transfer and which don’t. You fail some classes because you didn’t drop them in time and it affects your gpa and ability to transfer. The money you might have saved is lost when you have to repeat classes because you couldn’t find the time to fit it into your work or study schedule.

This isn’t just me bad mouthing SAC or community colleges in general. I actually took my two required government classes in summer school at SAC and I thought the professors were very good. But I knew exactly which classes I could take at SAC and have them transfer. I wasn’t trying to figure out what I wanted out of college, I already knew.

Less then 13% of students in 2005 transferred from SAC to a four year institution. This number has actually declined since the year 2000. Less than ten percent of the students actually receive a Baccalaureate degree or above within six years. So who do you think make up most of that ten percent–non-traditional students who have returned to school with a goal or younger students trying to figure out what they want to do?

Many people would say then why spend more money to send these students to a more expensive, four year university? Because they do a better job of focusing their students on academics and graduating them. Granted, a 50% graduation rate in six years is nothing to brag about (I think UTSA’s is in the 30% range) but that’s better than ten percent.

As for it costing more, there’s also more financial aid available as well. And which costs more, a student flunking out after a year at a four year institution or a student spending two or three years taking a classes at a community college before dropping out to work full time?

Then there is a role model effect of being on campus and interacting with other students who are about to graduate and are interviewing with employers that is missing from community colleges. It can be a lot harder to see the payoff taking classes here and there with people you won’t see again after the class is over.

Ultimately, college is what you make of it. And community colleges like SAC play an important role in providing opportunities for higher education that simply do not exist in other countries. It may be the only financially viable means for a person to start college. But if you think starting off at a community college is a way to save money while getting pre-requisites out of the way and figuring out what you want to do, you’re going to be wrong somewhere around 80 to 90 percent of the time.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has a Higher Education Accountability System available online. Some of the SAC information is at http://www.txhighereddata.org/Interactive/Accountability/CC_Success.cfm.


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