A very good friend asked me to address the following question about attending a community college, so I thought I would share my response this month.

“What will the student be giving up in bonding/relationship/experience/alumni/networking benefits if they don’t go the 4 year route….what’s the trade off there? (beside financial).”

I saw this question and knew it would take way more than a few lines of cheerleading the community colleges to answer it completely.  You are asking for custom made cost/benefit analysis in an off the rack world of education and life, but I will give it a go.

Let me begin by saying, I always counsel kids and parents to apply to baccalaureate granting institutions.  But, simultaneously, especially in our state, that should include “applying” to community colleges.  I have “applying” in quotes because students get into wherever they ‘apply’ for community college.  It takes little time to apply, and by getting the application in, it moves students up the queue for getting classes (if they choose to go).  No fee to apply, no SAT, no essays.  Eventually, placement exams and mandatory Orientation, but not initially.  And, some baccalaureate institutions, like USC, defer freshman to Spring for admission, and encourage students to go to community college for the Fall.   And this is one of the few times I would tell parents that if you have an uncooperative child that will not fill out their community college application, do it for them!!  You fill out their health insurance forms, hoping they won’t get sick.  Consider the community college ‘form/application’ their education insurance.  Lost jobs, broken families, tanked college funds, God forbid, their own health issues or yours, I have seen it all happen.  Just do it (with apologies to Nike).

Now, your student has applied to multiple institutions, has a fist full of admit letters, and a few reje….., wait, we don’t use the “R” word, we say “Not selected”, or my favorite, “Declined”.  And, you now know how much college is really going to cost, because you have the financial aid award letter.  Now, I can finally begin addressing the issues you set forth at the beginning if the student chooses the community college route, ie, bonding/relationship/experience/alumni/networking benefits.  I am going to assume you left educational benefits off this list, because we both know from personal experience that, at the lower division level (freshman and sophomore year), the education offered is equivalent, not equal, but equivalent.

Bonding: As a parent, you first have to ask, how good is my child/young adult at establishing bonds?  Yes, the 4 year residence hall, frat/sorority, football games, living away from home jitters cannot be replicated at the community college.  But upon transfer, those opportunities do exist for transfers.  But, it all comes down to the individual seizing the opportunity after transferring, in an environment conducive to that kind of experience.

Relationships: If the student doesn’t participate fully at the community college, and treats their education like a 7/11 experience (drive in, go to class, drive away), then they will walk away from the 4 year experience the same way if they treat it the same way.  If, at the community college, they get involved in student clubs, government, and the honors program at the CC, then they will continue that same behavior at the 4 year.  Again, how good is your student/child at reaching out?

Alumni and networking benefits:  Again, depending on the individual, an outgoing, personable transfer student can have two sets of alums and networking benefits, even more so now with social media.  And my observations over the years–including my two kids that attended and graduated from 4 year colleges–most networking relationships (students, faculty, and internships with potential employers) grows exponentially in their last two years of college.

The answer to your summation question, “What’s the trade-off?”, is, “It depends.”  I think that for parents trying to help their kids make the right decision, the answer is complicated by the amount of control they have had for 16, 17 or 18 years.  And there isn’t a 4 year college on the planet that can say unequivocally, “By attending and graduating from this institution, all your needs will be met.”  At least at the community college, students that want a BA/BS/BFA, walk in knowing that we are a stepping stone, and they must move on to achieve their goal.  That, in and of itself, is a valuable lesson.

I have purposely left the ‘financial’ question for my closing, even though you didn’t ask me to address it.  I share two facts, and one probable predication.  First, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt.  And that debt doesn’t included second mortgages parents have taken out to send kids to college.  Second, couples are having children later in life, so those couples are closer to retirement, while trying to figure out how to pay for college expenses.  Will that delay retirement, or will folks retire underprepared financially?  And my probable predication, the kids will want to go to graduate school or need help with a down payment on something.  Does your desire to help your children end once they have the BA/BS/BFA, or does it take on new definitions of what you can or cannot do?

Knowing these 2 facts, and giving some credence to my prediction, what financial decision making behavior do you want to model for your young adults?

By Dan Nannini