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More Students Finding Community Colleges Better Deal, Faster Track to Careers

Students and educators say any stigma is fading from the nation's community colleges. A growing number of students are choosing 2-year programs to find high-paying jobs — in fields where businesses are actually hiring.

For 21-year-old Vinnie Haynes, the $1,900 annual tuition for two years at community college is not only a great deal, it’s a gateway to a career.

“Basically they offer the same courses as a four-year college, and it costs a quarter of the price,” said the welding student at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan.

Haynes is like a growing number of college students who are seeing community college programs as a way to quickly land great-paying jobs in industries that are actually hiring and for less money than they’d pay for a bachelor’s degree at a bigger school.

Community colleges once were seen as a place to go when you couldn’t get into a four-year school, but students say that’s not the case anymore. Community colleges, for many, are becoming the place to go instead of a four-year college or university.

Proving themselves

“Community colleges have proved themselves,” said George Cartsonis, communications director at Oakland Community College in Michigan, which boasts the state’s largest nursing program.

Community colleges across the country are seeing spikes in enrollment, at a time when companies are all but begging them to train more students to fill their in-demand jobs — especially in growing areas like advanced manufacturing, emergency response and medical fields.

According to the National Association of Community Colleges:

  • About 8 million U.S. students attended community college in 2011 — up from about 6 million in 2010.
  • Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States attend a community college.
  • Community colleges educate 59 percent of new nurses, and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and EMTs.

Oakland Community College saw enrollment grow 21 percent from winter 2008 to winter 2012, Cartsonis said. “The economy goes down, community college enrollment shoots way up,” he said. 

Bringing up nurses

Community college programs are attractive, especially in a down economy, partly because of their lower tuition rates and quick turnaround time from college to career. 

“People can’t afford to send their kids away for school, or people want to learn to get a job they can get quicker, in like two years,” Cartsonis said.

In approximately three years, OCC nursing graduates can take a test to become a registered nurse. They pass at a higher rate than their university counterparts, Cartsonis said, and they’ll have paid about $70 a credit hour. Meanwhile, nursing students could pay more than $400 a credit hour for four to five years for a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University.

Student Britt Meier, 24, is looking for a one-to-two-year program to become a nurse. “I want to get into the field—the sooner the better,” Meier said.

Meier, who lives on Williams Lake near White Lake, just finished her bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University, after starting her first two years of college at Oakland Community College. Finding a job in her field — health care public relations — has been proving too tough, so she’s instead looking at a nursing degree. Returning to OCC is a possibility.

Among Meier’s peers, there’s no stigma about going to community college, she said. It’s common, practical, and pennywise. “Someone says, ‘Oh that’s what I’m doing this summer.’ Everybody’s like, ‘me too,’” she said of her friends.

And, she said, the community college classes are not blow-offs.

“I will tell you right now, the classes I took a OCC were almost harder than the classes I took at Eastern,” she said. “The beauty of the community college is the smaller the class sizes and the more learning or training you get.”

Plus, Meier says, she doesn't have student loans like her sister, who went to a public university for her entire college career.

Advancing through manufacturing

Community colleges also have an appeal because they train students for highly skilled fields where businesses are hiring.

“A lot of people thought manufacturing was gone. What we call the high-tech jobs are still here,” said Maria Coons, executive director of Workforce and Strategic Alliances at  “A lot of them are made-to-order, and they are very specialized.”

“A lot of them are made-to-order, and they are very specialized.”

About 57 percent of job openings between 2006 and 2016 will require postsecondary education, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coons said community colleges work best when they reach out to their communities and train for who is hiring.

Harper started a program to connect local high-tech manufacturers with its graduates, providing internships for students who complete a basic certification while they work on their degrees. They expected to get 30 jobs to offer students, but they got 87.

And even with the semester about to start, Coons’ phone is still ringing with employers calling her to get in on the program.

“We still have manufacturers calling us left and right,” she said. “Their workforce is aging. They have orders they can’t fill. They don’t have a pipeline of workers.”

A community college certification not only opens doors, she said, but it ups the pay scale these students can expect. “One manufacturer said that, walking in off the street, they could pay you $10-12 an hour, but with a certification from Harper you double that. High-end operators can make double that,” she said.

Haynes said he looked into welding — an advanced manufacturing field — because he knows he'll find a job when he's done. “There are tons of job opportunities,” he said.

Job vs. career

But aren't advanced manufacturing programs training workers for dead-end jobs?

Coons said “no,” that the manufacturers offer opportunity for advancement. “These are careers; they’re not just jobs any more,” she said. “And there’s lateral movement—purchasing, supply chain, and sales. There’s also the engineering and design pieces.” 

Cartsonis said the two-year degree opens doors. About half of Oakland Community College’s students will go on to pursue a bachelor’s, he said, and many like the idea that they can start working with their two-year degree while they work on their next degree.

Haynes said many of the companies who hire welders will pay for their employees to get a bachelor’s degree—and that appeals to him. Cartsonis said the same is true of many hospitals who hire nurses from a community college program. The nursing program at OCC has a 100 percent rate of employment post graduation, he said.

At the end of the day, Coons said, many students are less concerned about where their degree is from than how quickly they can finish and how much debt they and their parents can avoid. “To me education now isn’t where you are going, but what you want to do,” she said.

Meier agreed. Once you get a degree and start your career, the institution on the certificate isn’t so important, she said, adding, “A degree is a degree.”

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