A college degree has come to represent many things in America.
In past generations, it was considered a golden ticket to a better life, a prerequisite to virtually any career you could name.
More recently, the cost-benefit of a degree has been debated at length by critics, largely due to escalating costs, staggering levels of student loan debt and several high-profile entrepreneurs (like Mark Zuckerberg) who succeeded wildly without the value of a college degree.
Statistics still support the underpinning premise of a college degree creating substantially more earning potential. A recent study by Pew Research Center put the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates at around $17,500, and Georgetown University estimates college grads earned $1 million more than those with no degree over a person’s lifetime.
That aside, there is a revolution brewing in the world of post-secondary education, one that calls into question the long-held presumption of the superiority of one type of degree over another. For years, a four-year college or university was considered the gold standard for quality of instruction and corresponding level of opportunity following graduation.
That presumption is being widely challenged by today’s two-year institutions, which are steadily gaining ground in popularity due to lower cost, lower time to complete and surprising starting salaries for graduates.
“I think traditionally there’s been an attitude that four-year universities are the right way to go and if you can’t leave home or you can’t afford it, go to community college,” says Andrea Henderson, executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges. “The reality is, it’s the best first choice for many students.
“There are smaller class sizes; it is more affordable and for many students, a four-year degree is just not the right option. We have so many career technical-education programs that in two years students can be ready for a really good paying job.”
Two-year schools are enjoying a wave of popularity today based on these factors, to a degree that suggests long-held attitudes about community colleges are changing. The National Center for Education Statistics reported last year enrollment in four-year institutions between 2000 and 2010 nationwide grew 44 percent while enrollment in two-year schools grew 29 percent. But the report goes on to predict between 2017 and 2028 the growth rate of undergraduate enrollment in four-year and two-year institutions will pull nearly even.
Experts say it’s not just the lower cost and time required to earn a two-year degree that’s driving enrollment. It’s also the applicability of those degrees, many of which are tailored to the needs of local industry with input from prospective employers themselves.
Margaret Ellibee, chancellor of University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, uses her school as an example.
“Our technical programs all have advisory committees and those advisory committees are made up of business and industry representatives who help our faculty shape that curriculum for relevancy and the most updated skills,” she says.
This makes two-year college grads – some of whom have the ability to earn technical certificates in a semester or two – highly employable at a much faster rate than their peers at four-year institutions.
“When students come to a two-year institution, they have many different goals and needs,” Ellibee says. “We have students who want to come here regardless of age and get in and get out within a year. They have a career goal in mind and that career goal will be achieved with a certificate.
“In the meantime, as they’re going to school, they can still work. They go, they get their certificate, they graduate, they go to work and they have that ability to have a boost in economic return immediately.”
Ellibee also says two-year degrees offer students much more flexibility to pursue the degree that fits in the most cost-efficient manner possible.
“Our mission here is to provide both academic and technical education and prepare students to go directly into the workplace with a certificate and/or they can go on for their four-year degree,” she says. “It’s those options that community colleges present to families and individuals, and people are taking notice of that.
“Students can take their general education core at a two-year college at a lower tuition rate, and then transfer to a four-year institution to finish their bachelor’s degree. Here in the metro, our relationship with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is great, and we transfer many students there. They’re saving time and money, which in this day and age is a very positive consideration many families are looking at.”
Community colleges also provide a way for students who may lack study or time management skills to ease into college life, further enhancing their chance for overall success.
“If, by chance, someone is deficient in some area, we are uniquely designed to give people that individualized attention,” says Evelyn Jorgenson, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. “Maybe it’s been a number of years since they’ve been to school, or they didn’t do well in algebra in high school, and they’re afraid to take college algebra.
“We have a very low student/teacher ratio, we have tutors, we have counseling centers, we have more wrap-around services to give them what they need. Some people don’t need any of that, but if some people need a tutor to help them or some extra help on the side, it’s available.”
Community colleges are even beginning to address one long-held strike against them, that being the lack of the collegiate experience. Some two-year schools now offer intramurals or are reintroducing varsity athletics, and several are weighing other amenities to help close the gap between themselves and residential campuses.
“There are some people who do not go to a community college because they want that full collegiate experience including living in a dorm or residence hall,” Jorgenson says. “Although in community colleges across the country, residence halls are not that uncommon, but it is uncommon in the state of Arkansas.
“In 2017, there was legislation passed that allowed community colleges in Arkansas to build residence halls. I think you will begin to see more and more community colleges building residence halls for those students who want that collegiate experience away from mom and dad, living in a residence hall with a little bit more oversight than you would living in an apartment.
“In fact, we are having a feasibility study being done on that subject as we speak, and we have distributed a student survey on the matter, although don’t have the results yet. We’re looking at that and residence halls are a possibility, certainly.”
Henderson says the future of two-year schools in Arkansas looks beyond disc golf courses and dorms, to reaching the populations still falling through the cracks of higher education and whose career potential is limited as a result.
“First of all, community colleges have the most difficult population to serve and the least amount of money. That’s true across the country,” she says. “We have switched the conversation from how do we get more students in the door to how do we get more students out the door with a meaningful credential or degree and what are the strategies that we have in place to help our students succeed.
“That said, I think we could do more. As you look at the low unemployment versus job demand, we’re going to have to bring in people who are currently not in the labor force. Look at youth ages 18 to 24. There’s a number of them who aren’t in higher education and don’t currently have a good job, and we have to find a way to bring that group into the community college to get them educated for a job.
“We need to think more about those who aren’t participating in the labor market. To the extent that we can market to them, I think it will be beneficial.”