Which College? A Consumer Advocate’s Approach

Why even strong students should consider community college.

Posted Oct 07, 2014

It seems almost absurd to argue that even good students should consider a community college rather than a fairly prestigious university. But a good case can be made.

$1 million more over your lifetime? Not.

Many people justify spending the $200,000+ on a college education because they believe they’ll learn a lot and be much more employable. For example, they rely on the old, misleading statistic trumpeted by colleges’ PR departments that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime. That’s misleading because it’s retrospective, pertaining to an era in which a far smaller percentage of high school graduates went to college. Now a far higher percent do (72%) at the same time as employers are eliminating, outsourcing, and temping ever more white-collar positions. The million-dollar-more statistic is misleading also because the pool of college graduates is brighter, more motivated, and with better family connections. They could scoop ice cream for those four years before starting a career and over their lifetime, they’d still end up earning much more than people without a degree.

The truth about college outcomes

Here are more recent, more valid statistics. A major study found that 45% of college students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" in their first two years of college and 36% had still had shown no improvement in four years! Then, The Atlantic published a report that found that 53.6 percent of college graduates under 25 were unemployed or doing work they could have gotten without a college degree.

And now, just released is another major study. Its major findings:

  • 71 percent of the surveyed graduates from the class of 2009 were still receiving financial help from their parents two years after graduating.
  • 24 percent were living back home.
  • 23 percent of those in the labor market were unemployed or underemployed.
  • Only 1/4 of grads in the labor market had full-time jobs paying $40,000+.

And those statistics are for the graduates. 43 percent of freshmen at so-called “four-year” colleges never graduate, even if given six years.  

Defer or even forgo college?

But how can someone forgo college with experts claiming a college degree is important for most good jobs today?

Even many of those experts would agree that many high school graduates should at least take a year to do some real-world exploration before retaking their seat for four to six years more academics, a so-called gap year. Indeed institutions such as Harvard and MIT encourage that. Perhaps they should apprentice at the elbow of a master entrepreneur, techie, or nonprofit leader, join the military, or start a business. The latter may fail but much about making a living and creating a life accrue from running even a tiny operation.  And of course, a student could take individual courses of interest, perhaps at a local college, a university extension program, or online, including offerings from prestigious universities (Coursera and edX) or more practical courses, for example, those offered by Udemy.

But forgoing college for more than a year feels too radical for most people. If so, what should they do?

When to pay the big bucks

If a student can get into a “Top 12” college—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and the four U.S. Military Academies—they probably should go. In our designer-label society, that prestigious name on the diploma does open doors. Also, there is powerful advantage to spending four years living and learning around the best and brightest. The exception would be if a student knows s/he’d clearly do better as a big fish in a less selective pond. What about the cost? Because those institutions have large endowments, they tend to give generous financial aid. And the Military Academies are free, although you must agree, after graduation, to be an officer for four years.

The case for community college

Of course, the vast majority of high school students can’t get into a “Top-12” college. Many such students opt for a second-tier residential university but a strong case can be made for forgoing those in favor of a community college:

  • The vaunted residence-hall life at 2nd- and 3rd-tier universities too often consists less of the romanticized making of lifetime friendships and discussing life’s Big Issues and more of a shallow debauchery that increases chances of a substance abuse problem and of dropping out. Although most 18-year olds would disagree, assuming a decent home life, most of them would do well to spend another couple years under parent(s)’ watchful eye.
  • Learning is likely to be greater. True, community colleges attract many weak and unmotivated students. If you’re not self-motivated, you could find yourself dragged down into academic apathy, even life apathy. But even quite capable students can find sufficient challenge at a community college especially if you choose one that has a large percent of students who later transfer to four-year colleges and then, once enrolled, you take honors classes and get involved in intellectual extracurricular activities: student newspaper, student government, hosting a news and information show on the campus radio station, leading a career-related student club, being the student representative on a college-wide committee, etc. Perhaps most surprising, teaching quality, on average, may be better at a community college than at universities. At community colleges, faculty is hired largely on how well they teach not how much research they publish. And the attributes of a good undergraduate instructor are different from those required to be a researcher.  
  • The cost of community college is generally far lower. Unless you’re rich, financial aid at “four-year” colleges usually requires going into major debt. That can severely strap the financial security of even upper middle-class families.

The biggest obstacle: peer pressure

There is enormous pressure from peers and parents to attend the most selective institution you can get into. But it may be a useful life lesson to resist that pressure in favor of doing what is actually right for you.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.