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Higher education in America is at a crossroads of two compelling, but competing, forces — the traditional approach versus a new reality.
Traditional four-year institutions are motivated to keep the “college experience” as the defining element for students, while students today are seeking colleges that are affordable and provide the knowledge and technical skills leading to a rewarding career.
Public higher education institutions, including community colleges, struggle to remain relevant and affordable in a rapidly changing economy as public funding continues to decrease. While employers are challenged to find knowledgeable and skilled workers, the rising cost of higher education is making college even less accessible to many Americans.
National leaders struggle to support a swelling sea of under-prepared people who can’t afford college or the debt that it often requires. An expanded federal student loan program was designed to help, but after receiving more than a trillion dollars in such loans, tens of thousands of students don’t finish college, or if they do finish, cannot find a sustainable job and are saddled with considerable debt.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in a few months, approximately 3.5 million students will be choosing a learning-to-career path that will define their future earning power and quality of life. They should ask themselves some basic but critical questions.
Choosing the right college
Families and students have multiple options for career preparation including apprenticeships, technical and community colleges, four-year colleges or universities. There are many online services that may be helpful when choosing a college. Public libraries, high schools and many colleges also have free services that help match students’ interests and aptitudes to the appropriate colleges. For example, Central Piedmont Community College (North Carolina) provides a free service for this purpose on its website called Career Coach.
Students who are unsure of their career choice should visit the career center at their high school or local community college or sign up for a career exploration course. The sooner they select a major field of study, the more likely they will be to finish a credential or degree related to that occupation.
Is the college affordable?
The cost of higher education, especially at the four-year level, has risen even faster than health care. Community college tuition is also increasing, but these accessible career-focused colleges are still quite affordable.
When evaluating colleges, students should look at comparative costs, including fees. Online services can be helpful, however, checking college websites for all costs of attendance will provide more thorough information. The average annual price for four-year undergraduate tuition and fees for 2013-2014 was $8,893 for public institutions and about $30,094 for private nonprofit institutions. But room and board and other living expenses can add thousands. For the same time period, the average tuition and fees for community colleges was just under $3,500.
The goal for families and students is to make informed choices regarding the value and cost of colleges. Almost half of all undergraduates are attending community colleges their first two years and then going directly to work or transferring to four-year colleges.
Weigh the options
Another baccalaureate option is emerging. Twenty-three states now allow community colleges to offer applied bachelor's degrees in selected high-demand fields. This option is popular since both students and taxpayers save money and receive high value in return. North Carolina has not yet pursued this option.
Building on apprenticeships
Perhaps the best value is realized by students who choose to participate in an apprenticeship experience. These pragmatic programs include both industry-based training and community college degrees. Industries pay college costs plus a salary as apprentices work through their programs. The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced the availability of $100 million in grants to expand registered apprenticeship programs.
Finally, astute families and students should apply for federal Pell Grants and available scholarships before considering loans. Currently, four-year graduates average about $30,000 in debt and many students are more than $100,000 in debt by the time they graduate. Prudent students will look at the return on investment before leaping into unnecessary debt.
Leading to a career
Students, parents and employers want to know the answer to this critical question. One good source for answers the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both its Occupation Outlook Handbook and O-NET resources are available online. Reviewing the job-placement data by occupational fields offered by colleges you are considering is even more useful.
Students should understand that not all potential career fields offer equal opportunities. In today’s high-tech economy, generalized majors including psychology or the humanities offer few job options. Current in-demand fields include science, information technology, advanced manufacturing, engineering and health care.
Employment experts stress that the majority of future new jobs will require some college and/or advanced training. It is our shared responsibility as parents, educators and employers to help students choose wisely. Completing college with a job and no debt should be the primary goal.
Zeiss is president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges