Staying Home to Go to College

Community colleges make the grade for Valley students looking to save a little cash and prepare for their careers — without sacrificing the A-plus education



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Lots of parents and prospective college students are reeling these days from sticker-shock at soaring college tuition costs — especially since many college-savings accounts have been hammered by the economy’s recent nosedive.

But here in the Valley, as elsewhere in the nation, many families are taking a fresh look at what some call “the best-kept secret in education”: community colleges.

Reasons? For one, the price is right. Two-year schools can be a tremendous value; costs at many four-year private colleges now surpass $180,000 over four years. Even prices for state schools are moving ever-higher — tuition at New York’s four-year public colleges is currently about $4,350 annually and is set to rise again this spring by $310 per semester. By comparison, the nation’s 1,200 two-year schools — New York State’s SUNY system has 30 of them — charge an average annual tuition of just $2,300, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Traditionally, it’s been the case with community colleges that enrollment has gone up when the economy’s gone down,” says Mike Albright, director of communications at Orange County Community College (OCCC) in Middletown. “Community colleges offer degrees that prepare people for the workforce, often at a higher level of pay and management,” he adds. “They allow students to get a jump-start on college, and save on costs — they’re an excellent investment in education.”

“In today’s economy, students and families have to be realistic about their options,” says Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College (DCC). “To send your child to a $45,000-a-year school is very nice if you can afford it. But to have that child get out with a four-year degree and an accumulated student-loan debt of say, $100,000, that’s a problem. You need to take a realistic look at the cost of education.”

No More “13th Grade”

In addition to lower costs, another draw of community colleges is their ever-increasing quality. Today’s two-year schools offer top-notch educational options geared to modern lifestyles and schedules. Gone are the days when some community colleges were disparagingly dubbed “13th grade” because of the perception they attracted underachieving students and had less-than-stellar standards. “There’s definitely a shift in the mindset,” says Ron Marquette, coordinator of community relations and special events at Ulster County Community College (UCCC). “It used to be that students would think they’d have to go away to get a good education. But now more are saying, ‘Let me stay close to home.’ ” In fact, community colleges are currently so popular that the American Association of Community Colleges says that enrollment at two-year schools increased 10 percent between 2000-2006. These schools now enroll nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates.

Of course, the students who flock to community college have myriad goals. Some seek a two-year associate’s degree; others are en route to a four-year degree. Still others are nontraditional students — older adults; individuals requiring remedial assistance; workers seeking new skills because they’ve been laid off or want to stay on the cutting-edge in their field; or those who attend school part-time for financial or family reasons.

Many community colleges offer special services for those who attend school while holding down a job and/or juggling family duties. Weekend and evening classes, childcare centers (available at UCCC, DCC, OCCC, and Hudson Valley Community College, among others), and expanding on-line course options help make college easier for busy adults to manage.

But community colleges are definitely seeing an increase in younger students, due in part to changes on campus which make attending these institutions mirror the classic college experience. For instance, dormitories have been proposed at both DCC and UCCC. “The purpose is to offer a full college experience,” says Marquette about the UCCC projects, which would create housing for 250-300 students (although the plan is “very much in the early stages” and will not be completed for at least several years). At DCC, townhouse-style dormitories for 500 to 800 students are in the works, although last year the plan hit what administrators hope is a temporary snag when both the Town and City of Poughkeepsie opposed the proposal.

Growing study-abroad options are also attracting more students. Last summer, OCCC sent a small contingent of students to Italy, the first for-credit foreign study trip in their history. The school has also just completed construction of the Gilman Center for International Education — home to their newly created Global Studies department — and has made a globalized curriculum one of their development goals. Most of the Valley’s community colleges can tap into the vast SUNY network to offer a wide range of study-abroad programs to their students.

 

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