Affordable College is a public benefit corporation with a mission to help more community college students afford and attain a high-quality degree, certificate or credential. Although we have a point of view, we want to provide you with valuable, useful information that tells both sides of a story.
Let’s begin by tackling one of the hardest questions that we hear most often: “Is community college worth it?” Well, it really depends on the answer to a related question: “What’s the cost of not going?”
The Rising Cost of Not Going to College
In February 2014, the Pew Research Center published a report entitled, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” While reading it, I couldn’t help thinking that the authors were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. In fact, I’d like to make the case that the report be updated and retitled, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to Community College.”
I don’t dispute the report’s findings. They are based mainly on data from: (1) A new nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 2,002 adults, and (2) a Pew Research analysis of economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau. What I question are the assessments based on these findings.
According to Pew, “For those who question the value of college in this era of soaring student debt and high unemployment, the attitudes and experiences of today’s young adults – members of the so-called Millennial generation – provide a compelling answer. On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment – from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time – young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.”
Does the economic well-being and career attainment of college graduates from any generation mean that we can afford to ignore their peers with less education? I don’t think so. Does the disparity in economic outcomes make it any less urgent for us to find ways to help Millennials with a two-year degree or some college to transfer their credits to another institution where they can get a Bachelor’s degree or more? Not if you take a hard look at the data.
The Pew Research Center provided a handy “Fact Tank” of its new “findings about the rising value of a college degree (as well as the rising cost of not going to college).” Let’s take a look at the six key findings and ask ourselves: Is a two-year degree or even some college worth it?
According to Pew, “A college education is worth more today. There’s a wider earnings gap between college-educated and less-educated Millennials compared with previous generations.”
This is especially true if you compare those with a Bachelor’s degree or more with high school graduates. However, what is surprising is the fact that the gap between those with a two-year degree or some college and high school graduates has narrowed to its lowest point for the millennial generation.
According to the report, “College benefits go beyond earnings: In addition to earning more, college-educated Millennials also have lower unemployment and poverty rates than their less-educated peers. They’re also more likely to be married and less likely to be living in their parent’s home.”
Again, this is significantly truer for those with a Bachelor’s degree or more, but it is significantly less true for those with a two-year degree or some college. In fact, if you do a global search for “college-educated Millennials” in the report and replace that phrase with “young college graduates”, then you’ll get a far more accurate picture of the data.
Pew says, “College grads are more satisfied with their jobs: College-educated Millennials are more likely to see themselves on a career path, rather than just working at a job to get them by.”
Once again, you can do a global search and replace of “college-educated Millennials” with “young college graduates” and get closer to the truth. Nevertheless, the disparity in job satisfaction is somewhat greater between those with a two-year degree or some college and their peers with less education.
The report says, “The cost of not going to college has risen. Millennials with just a high school diploma are faring worse today than their counterparts in earlier generations by almost every economic measure examined.”
This is painfully true, especially in today’s knowledge economy. But the report sidesteps the question: Is a two-year degree or even some college worth it?
Pew adds, “College grads say college is worth it: About nine-in-ten college grads in every generation say college has been, or will be, worth the investment. Despite a steep rise in college tuitions, Millennials agree.”
It’s great that those with a Bachelor’s degree think college was worth the investment, but I wonder how those with two-year degrees or some college would have answered this question. And I really wonder what we can all do to improve community college students’ upward transfer to Bachelor’s degree programs and four-year institutions.
The report adds, “College majors matter. Among all grads, science or engineering majors are the most likely to say their current job is very closely related to their field of study and the least likely to say that a different major would have better prepared them for the job they really wanted.”
Of course, that’s true. That’s why 67% of students switch degrees on the complex path to graduation, according to Civitas Learning. That’s also why 60% of students switch institutions when they answer the question, “Which school and degree is best for me?”
Unfortunately, the Pew Research Center’s report looked through the wrong end of the telescope. That’s why it should be retitled, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to Community College.”
Benefits of going to community college then transferring
Last year, community colleges across America helped over 1.3 million of their students save $20 billion dollars in tuition on their way to a bachelor's degree. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that 72% of transfer students lost credits when transferring colleges. According to a survey conducted by The Affordable College Public Benefit Corporation, 41.5 percent of college students have transferred from one college to another. Of these transfer students, 72.3 percent said, “Yes, I have lost credits when transferring colleges,” while only 27.7 percent said, “No, I when I transferred, all of my credits transferred, too.”
Of the students who lost credits transferring from one college to another, 25.0 percent said, “I wish my advisor had provided more help,” 23.3 percent said, “my old college had no relationship with me new one,” 15.0 percent said, “my new college was more selective than my old one,” 13.3 percent said, “I changed majors,” 11.7 percent said, “My GPA was too low,” and 11.7 percent said, “I lost credits, but I don’t know why.”
The survey of 200 full-time students in the United States has a margin of error of 6.93 percent. The survey was conducted on January 12, 2016, and only took 16 minutes to complete by using 1Q, a technology startup whose mission is to “radically revolutionize the rules of market research.”
The organizers of The Affordable College Public Benefit Corporation conducted a survey in April 2014 that found up to 56 percent of students who were then enrolled in college were likely to transfer to another institution. The survey of 1,027 college students, which used Google Consumer Surveys, also found that “transfer of most credits toward degree” was the most important factor when selecting another institution.
When we drilled down into the data back then, we discovered that 14 percent of the students who were enrolled in college said they were “completely likely” to transfer, 13 percent said they were “very likely: to transfer, 18 percent were “somewhat likely” to transfer, 11 percent were “slightly likely” to transfer, and only 44 percent were not at all likely to transfer to another institution.
So, the first finding in our new study – 41.5 percent of college students have transferred from one college to another – wasn’t that surprising. It indicates that college students who said two years ago that they were completely, very, or somewhat likely to transfer actually did.
However, the real surprise in our new study is the second finding that 72.3 percent of transfer students have lost credits when transferring colleges, while only 27.7 percent transferred all of their credits when they transferred. Losing some or all of the credits that have already been paid for by a student (and/or the student’s family) is one of the reasons why college is less affordable today.
So, is community college worth it? Well, it really depends on what Affordable College and entrepreneurial community colleges leaders can do to tackle this problem. Based on the responses of the college students that we surveyed in 2014 and 2016, there are no magic bullets.
In some cases, we need to provide college advisors with more information, resources, training, and tools so they can provide more help to students who are thinking of transferring. In other cases, we need to provide college students with more information, resources, training, and tools so they can changed majors or improve their GPA in order to successfully transfer more of their hard-earned credits. In addition, we need to build new transfer pathways between a broad spectrum of two-year and four-year institutions, including more selective ones. Finally, we also need to be more transparent so that if students lose credits, then at least they will know why.
But, we will get a lot farther faster with your help. If you fill out the short form below and give us your email address, then we along with our strategic partner, Onondaga Community College (OCC), will provide you with unique, relevant information that’s tailored specifically to you. Together, we can help you discover the most affordable path toward your goal of a bachelor’s degree. And that will answer one of the hardest questions that we hear most often: “Is community college worth it?”
(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)