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Is (Community) College Worth It?

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One can scarcely open a newspaper, surf the web, or watch a news program these days without encountering this question: Is college worth it? Naysayers point to the rising cost of tuition, the growing level of student debt and persistent, high unemployment rates to argue that a college education doesn't have the value it once did.

Instead of merely entering the debate, we need to reframe the question: Is a community college education worth it? The facts about the value of graduating from a community college like Gateway here in Northern Kentucky are too important for any parent of a college-age student or any student paying his or her own way through school to overlook. With 1,200 community and technical colleges across the nation, this is a question that resonates in many communities. Unfortunately, community colleges are painted with the broad brush stroke of the traditional 4-year colleges and often are compared to elite private institutions whose sticker price can approach $50,000 per year. So let's enter the debate.

There is no escaping this fact: on average, the more you learn, the more you earn. The data overwhelmingly show that there is a direct correlation between personal earnings and the level of educational attainment. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) consistently reveal that people with postsecondary education have a lower unemployment rate and higher median weekly earnings than people with a high school education. Earning a credential like a certificate, or a diploma (which can be earned in less than two years), makes a big difference. In addition, information from the Labor Department demonstrates that people with an associate degree or higher are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages than those who have some college but no degree. In fact, in some job clusters, associate degree graduates consistently outpace the earnings of those with bachelor's degrees.

This trend will continue for the foreseeable future. Today, even in the current economic climate, the DOL reports that unemployment rate for people with associate degrees is 6.2 percent, well under the average of 8.3 percent for high school graduates and 12.4 percent for high school dropouts. Looking ahead to 2020, job growth of 18 percent for associate degree graduates is expected to outpace the 12.2 percent growth in jobs for high school or GED graduates and even the 16.5 percent growth for jobs requiring bachelor's degrees.

An associate degree delivers significant value from an earnings perspective as well. DOL statistics show the median annual wage in 2010 for a person with an associate degree was $61,560. That is 80 percent more than the average earnings of a high school graduate and just $2,000 a year shy of the median annual wage for those with a bachelor's degree. But there is more to the value of a community college education than earnings.

Public community colleges like Gateway provide the best form of access to higher education and a high quality education at that. It's important to know that community colleges are accredited by the same regional accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education that evaluate academic programs at four-year institutions to ensure the quality and acceptability of each institution. Because community colleges and four-year institutions must meet the same accreditation standards for the first two years of a university education, community college students are able to transfer their course credits to four-year colleges or universities. In addition, our faculty consists of individuals whose primary job is teaching and student success, not research and publication. Our classes are often 30 students or less.

For many individuals, community colleges offer the only opportunity for a college education. Our tuition rates are significantly lower than public four-year colleges and universities and dramatically lower than for-profit colleges. For example, Gateway's tuition of $144 per credit hour is less than half the tuition cost of any public university in Kentucky, and a variety of scholarships and financial aid are available to help offset that cost further. In Kentucky, our credits transfer to public universities by law. Many independent institutions as well as public ones offer community college graduates significant scholarships to transfer and complete a degree. By going to Gateway for two years and completing an associate's degree, students can save 40 percent or more of the total cost of a four-year degree! So if you want a college degree administered by highly qualified faculty in small classes, without much debt enroll at a public, regionally accredited college like Gateway for the first two years, obtain an associate's degree and then transfer.

Is community college worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. At Gateway and at over 1,200 community colleges in America, we know that the kind of education we provide truly does pay. We would be delighted to show you how.