Close-Up: Community College

Physician's Money DigestMay 31 2004
Volume 11
Issue 10

Presented by McNeil, Makers of Tylenol


Community College: An institution offering courses on a college level, with or without academic credits, to the residents of a local community.

In the early 20th century, the United States was faced with many challenges, in particular, increasing global economic competition. Both national and local leaders recognized that the key to the country's continued economic leadership was a more skilled workforce. An increase in the number of individuals attending college was vital. But according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), more than 75% of high school graduates were choosing not to continue their education, partly due to a reluctance to leave home for a distant college.

Taming the Tuition Tiger

That changed with the founding of Joliet Junior College in Illinois in 1901, which remains the oldest existing public 2-year college. Today, the AACC notes that there are more than 1100 US public and private community colleges, with a combined enrollment exceeding 10 million students. In fact, (Bloomberg Press; 2003) notes that at any given point in time, roughly 40% of this country's college students are attending community colleges.

Community College Boom

Community colleges became a national network in the 1960s. During that period, the AACC reports that 457 public community colleges opened, more than the total in existence at the start of the decade. Enrollment growth was fueled in large part by baby boomers coming of age. While each community college is a unique educational institution, they are linked by their shared goals of access and service. Open admissions and low tuition rates are a common practice among community colleges.

The location of community colleges, often centered in or near residential areas, is part of their appeal. The AACC reports that a full 63% of the students enrolled in community colleges are part-time, many choosing to attend classes at night while working full-time during the day. In particular, women with young children put a premium on convenience, often scheduling classes around their spouses' work schedule and babysitters' availability.

Community colleges also report that a growing number of students who have already attained 4-year degrees are returning to the community college to supplement their education. For example, certification programs or workforce training classes enable individuals to develop new skills that can further their work careers.

By the Numbers

One of the more appealing aspects of community colleges is the average cost of tuition. According to the College Board, tuition and fees for the 2002 to 2003 academic year at a 2-year community college was $1735. That's about half the cost of a public university and a fraction of the average cost of $18,273 at a 4-year private college. And because community colleges are located close to home, the savings on room and board can also be substantial.

Most community colleges have transfer agreements with 4-year institutions. Students can complete their freshman and sophomore coursework at the community college and then transfer to the 4-year school, thereby significantly reducing the cost of a 4-year degree. However, it's advisable that students talk with community college advisors to ensure that the courses they plan to take are transferable.

The popularity of community colleges continues to grow. The AACC reports that more than 450,000 associate degrees and in excess of 200,000 2-year certificates are awarded at community colleges each year. Distance learning technologies are increasing community colleges' ability to meet a growing number of students' educational needs without incurring the cost of adding on new buildings. As such, the AACC projects that by 2008, community colleges in total will award more than 575,000 associate degrees annually.

Community colleges' history of ingenuity and resiliency continues to make them viable education options into the 21st century.

Pop Quiz

1) What percentage of college students attend community colleges?

  • 40%
  • 60%

2) Common features of community colleges are

  • Open admission
  • All of the above

3) How does tuition at a community college compare to that of a public 4-year school?

  • One third as much
  • About the same

4) How many associate degrees do community colleges award annually?

  • 450,000
  • 550,000

5) What percentage of community college students receives some type of financial aid?

  • About 25%
  • About 50%

Answers: 1) b; 2) d; 3) c; 4) b; 5) c.

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