11/07/2012 09:44 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Community College Success Stories

College graduation ceremonies were once a time for celebration. Today, many students receive their four year degree with more than $80,000 in debt and no prospects of a good job, For the first time, the middle class in this country is faced with the reality that a college education may no longer be an viable financial option.

One group of students who are graduating debt free and finding well paying jobs are those who attend community colleges. I spoke to dozens of these students as part of research for my book The Community College Careers Track: How to Achieve the American Dream Without a Mountain of Debt, which was published in September by Wiley.

What I learned is that whether it is a traditional student or a displaced worker, community colleges offer an opportunity to pursue a higher education degree or a certification program that leads directly to employment. Community colleges work directly with local businesses. They find out what training an employee should have and create a curriculum that meets that demand. Many of the professors actually work in these industries and bring a wealth of knowledge that they pass on to their students.

Many graduates of four year institution would envy Tricia Jenkins, who graduated from Alvin Community College in Alvin, Texas, with a certificate in court reporting and now earns $78,000 a year working for a legal firm in Houston. The 23-year-old received guidance from her professors not only with her coursework, but also in preparing for the state professional exam. She paid back her student loan after three months on the job.

Increasingly, businesses are recognizing how valuable their employees are and sending them to a community college for additional training. That was the case for Heather Nauglar of Davison, MI whose employer sent her to Mott Community College in Flint to study electronics. Upon completion of her degree, she will earn upwards of $50,000 as an Electronics Technician.

Pat Cumber, a machinist, was laid off from her job at Mercury Marine in Fond Du Lac, WI and decided to pursue her real love -- food. The married mother of five enrolled at Fox Valley Tech in Appleton, WI and earned an Associate's degree in Marketing and a certificate in Entrepreneurship. This helped her launch her business Food Tailor, a food truck that serves international cuisine with a home-style flair. Today, while working 30 to 40 hours a week on her food truck, she is pursuing an Associate's degree in culinary arts so that she can expand her menu. Her husband works with her and they earn enough to support their family.

Community colleges also provide invaluable guidance to military personnel returning from duty overseas. Jessie Wilson left the Army after tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea and took advantage of the GI Bill to get an Associate's degree in Environmental Studies from Tompkins Courtland Community College in Dryden, NY. Today, he is one of the founders of iTextUSA Mobile Marketing, which specializes in helping companies set up text messages that are delivered to mobile devices He makes as much as $3,000 bi-weekly and employs ten contractors in New York State.

Often high school graduates aren't sure what course of study they want to pursue. Tyler Martin of Otisville, MI came to Mott College in Flint right out of high school. He entered the Graphic Design program and after getting his Associate's degree in graphic design was hired full time as a Creative Director by a medical solutions company. Entry level graphic design jobs pay about $36,000 advancing to $45,000 with experience.

What all these community college students have in common is that their educations cost less than $10,000 and lead to well paying jobs that offer an opportunity for advancement. And they were able to pay off their loans. Nursing, culinary arts, technology, law enforcement, and graphic design are all areas of study offered by community colleges and these industries, among others, are projected to grow substantially in the next decade according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

There is no need to graduate with a mountain of debt and no prospect of a job. Community colleges are now the middle class's last hope for a higher education degree. Federal, state and local governments should support them and businesses need to work with them more closely in the years ahead.

It is time to face the fact that a four-year liberal arts degree may now be a luxury. Community colleges offer their students a more attractive ROI.

Tom Snyder is the CEO and President of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system. He is the author of "The Community College Career Track: How to Achieve the American Dream without a Mountain of Debt (September, 2012, Wiley)