Stigma Receding Around Community College as New Research Shows Benefits

Posted By Derek Johnson on December 8, 2015 at 3:34 pm
Stigma Receding Around Community College as New Research Shows Benefits

Community colleges have historically gotten a bad rap. Despite having long served as a pathway to education, job training and opportunity for two out of every five college-going students, communities colleges have also long suffered from a cultural stigma among students, parents and academia that it is a “junior varsity” form of higher education. In fact, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling found that between 50-80 percent of first-time community college students enter their programs with a desire to eventually transfer to another school. And community college students make up the largest percentage (66%) of transfers to four-year universities nationwide.

Negative perceptions of community college

Some of that can probably be attributed to the desire of many students to enter four-year degree programs, which most community colleges do not offer. But a large part can also be explained by the widespread public perception that community colleges are last resorts for unintelligent or low-achieving students, providing second-rate educational experiences. For example, here are some of the responses given to Minnesota Public Radio reporter Alex Freidrich when he surveyed students and school staffers in 2010 on their perception of community college:

-A high school student reported having “always viewed [community college] as a step for people who want to get their general education requirements done quickly and cheaply (and perhaps less strenuously) or as an education option for someone who isn’t as interested in education or higher-paying/more elite jobs.”

-A counselor reveals that “[s]tudents are sad when I mention [community college] to them (even if they have a 1.5 GPA and earned a 13 on their ACT). Many students say, ‘No, don’t say it — I don’t want to go to a junior college.’ They call it the ‘dumb school’… They call it ‘just like high school’ and not a real school.”

-A parent comments that when she first started telling people that her son was considering a two-year school “teachers, counselors and neighbors looked shocked” and intimated “that he would receive little if any valuable information from the school.”

Research shows the value of community college

These are anecdotal examples, but the perception is real. The good news is there are real signs that this stigma is beginning to recede as more empirical evidence emerges showing the value of community college in a post-recession, post-student debt crisis world. A poll conducted by The Hechinger Report in October found that community colleges are now seen as the best value in higher education, beating out public and private universities by substantial margins.

This doesn’t mean that most Americans think community college provides a superior education to these other institutions. Rather, it has more to do with the return on investment or the value relative to the cost of attending pricier options. As states have continued to cut investment in public universities, two things have happened: tuition has spiked to unsustainably high levels and the quality gap between the education you receive at your average community college and a public/private university has shrunk.

Put in simpler terms: more Americans feel they can get many of the same educational benefits at your average community school that you normally pay tens of thousands per year to get at a private or state-funded university. Though tuition is just one part of the total cost of college, the average benefit for local students is substantial. According to The College Board, tuition and fees at your local community college average $3,347.

UC Davis study shows higher earnings for community college students

This shift has been even more pronounced as new research continues to demonstrate the real-world benefits that come from enrolling in community schools. According to a recently completed study by UC Davis of California, students who completed an associate’s degree in a career technical education program at California community colleges saw an increase in average earnings of 33 percent over their pre-degree income. Even those who opted for short-term certification programs saw a boost of 13-22 percent over the pre-enrollment income.

“Understanding the payoffs to completing these programs is particularly important in California, where two-thirds of all college students attend a community college,” said Ann Stevens, one of the co-authors of the study in a press release.

This jump in earnings was evident across disciplines and subjects, from engineering and business certifications to healthcare and IT:

Bar graph showing increases in earnings for various AA and certificate programs of study

Source: University of California, Davis

The effect was particularly pronounced for women, who are more likely to enroll in healthcare degrees than men, where the earnings boost was most significant. There are over 2.6 million students who attend community college in California, and the researchers believe their findings are applicable to the rest of the community college population across the country.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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