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Harvard University or Community College? Why the Choice Isn't As Crazy As It Sounds

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Across the country, high school seniors are compiling lists of pros and cons to resolve the first big decision of their lives: Where should I go to college in the fall? Few, if any, of these dilemmas will come down to a choice between Harvard and the local community college.

They should.

To students with ivy-lined dreams, the thought of attending a community college sounds more like a nightmare. Community colleges might not impress at cocktail parties, but they are the best value in higher education. This fall, Harvard will charge students $36,992 for tuition, compared to a bill 34 times less at most community colleges. Don't let the higher sticker price fool you. Community colleges offer teaching instruction comparable to their four-year counterparts but won't saddle graduates with long term debt in the process.

For 50 years, a four-year degree has been the first prerequisite to the American middle class. The debt that you acquired to attain the degree was more than offset by your increased lifetime earning potential. That rationale for a college education no longer holds true today. The greatest challenge facing my generation is a growing imbalance in our debt to income ratio. The nonprofit Project on Student Debt reports that two-thirds of graduates accumulate debt on their way to graduation.

Conventional wisdom considers this good debt, but it's hard to understand why. It is almost impossible to discharge student loan debts in bankruptcy. By 2012, the nation will hold more than $1 trillion of this inescapable debt, with the average graduate's burden at $24,000.

Meanwhile, graduates are struggling to find jobs that will pay off their student loans. Last July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than half of 16-to-24 year olds were out of work. It marked the highest youth unemployment rate in history and the first time that rate exceeded fifty percent. In this economy, just finding a job makes you better off than most, which is why more college graduates are taking entry-level positions. Thirty years ago, 5.1 million college graduates held jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers "non-college level jobs." By 2008, that number jumped to 17.4 million.

With the choice of no job or a bad job, many people might be tempted to start their own business. Yet, the debt from higher education is eviscerating my generation's entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship requires two things: tolerance of risk and the freedom to fail. Your early 20s, when you lack the obligations of family and mortgage payments, are the best time to take a chance on a big idea. However, you cannot take risks when you are buried in debt. Banks want to loan money to applicants with preexisting debt almost as much as young borrowers want to add to their financial burden.

Community colleges avoid this debt conundrum. A decade ago, for just $12 per unit, I completed my general education requirements at a Los Angeles-area community college. At Moorpark College, I learned public speaking from one of the nation's most accomplished speech programs, which has won nine national championships in 40 years. Had I taken the same class down the street at UCLA, I would have been taught by a second-year graduate assistant with no teaching experience.

Or worse, I might have been taught by a tenured university professor. Just as price doesn't correlate to value, academic publications are not the best bellwether of quality instruction. The most accomplished academics are often the worst teachers. Without the pressure to publish, community college professors have more time to invest in their students.

With significantly lower costs and comparable teaching, we are back to where we started: prestige. Going to a junior college is perceived as a failure.

Funny, that's not how Goldman Sachs sees it. The global investment firm is making a $500 million bet on the next big economic opportunity in higher education. They aren't working with the Ivy Leagues; they are working with the country's community colleges. Through their 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, the firm is using a network of community colleges to provide small businesses with business classes, mentors, networking opportunities, and capital. If it is good enough for Goldman Sachs, it should be good enough for any high school senior.

No community college will ever be as prestigious as Harvard. But, before students commit themselves to a big name school with big student loans to match; it is worth considering every option, even the neighborhood community college.

John Hrabe, a former community college student, is a graduate fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.