Monday, November 3, 2008

Madd Money: Sending Your Kids to a Community College First?

I started off my college years at a Community College in Pleasant Hill called Diablo Valley College. For the record, I hated my first years there, but that's because I approached it all from the wrong attitude. I always thought that good, smart and rich kids went to four years schools. Stupid, lazy and poor kids went to community colleges. Looking back, I now realize that I was really stupid for thinking that way. Since my first years at Diablo Valley College, I've had the opportunities to attend two additional community colleges, one University of California extension and the competion of a bachelors degree program through University of Phoenix.

Much of our educational programming has been to look to the four year Universities first and foremost. This blog post intends to shake up that thinking and I'll present my reasons why I think we should.
Having now attended three different community colleges for various reasons (most of them having to do with proximity to work), I found that you can take some very good courses up front for very little money. The added bonus is that, in most cases, these classes are close to home, i.e. the family home. Why pay room and board, plus an inflated tuition fee, to take classes like Probability and Statistics, American History or Calculus? Why go away so that you can take Intro to C Programming, Macrobiology, Chemistry or any number of other early exploratory general education related courses? If one were to do a purely economic breakdown, four semesters at a well rated community college would perhaps cost about $2K when all is said and done, including tuition, books and miscellaneous expenses, compared with, potentially, $20K to $30K at a private institution (not counting room and board) or $10K to $15K at a state school (not counting room and board).
Community colleges allow the youth in question to still live at home and have a bit of a "maturation accounting" take place. In short, you can see if your kid is truly ready to handle being off on their own for an extended period. I came to the conclusion that the stupidest thing my parents could have done with me when I was seventeen was to send me off someplace all by myself without any controls or supervision. Of course, I might have made radically different choices, but I have a feeling my head wasn't in the game at that point anyway, so why send me halfway across the country to figure that out?
Since I am hoping that my son will be turning in mission papers after just one year in school, it seems to make sense to help him prepare at home, knock out the first year close to home, focus on his mission, have him come back from that experience, knock out any remaining GE requirements, and then transfer to the school of his choice at that point, where the full value of the school dollars will be going to the maximum of his determined educational goals. My daughters will not be considering missions until they are 21, which would be well into their Junior or Senior year of college, so this line of reasoning isn't as warranted.
Now, with all of this, there are other areas where I would absolutely suggest it is totally worth starting out at a four year institution, especially if the goal is to get a student into a Church School (yes, for me the draw of my children attending any of the Brigham Young University campuses or Southern Virginia University is entirely because they are schools run by and populated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). A large percentage of a BYU or SVU education is the various Religion courses, which, while offered in Instutute in many other campuses and through CES to students all over the country and the world, are not at the same level as what is offered at a true church school. Likewise, after a lifetime of living in an "outpost" related to the church, there's a genuine benefit to surrounding ones self with other members of the church (of course, this is a double edged sword. I used to believe that there were problems being near too few active Latter-day Saints. I've since learned there are plenty of challenges related to having too many LDS members surrounding you, too. I guess mileage varies on that particular issue :) ). There is also a tremendous value to networking with other people, and getting to know them and their life experiences, and on the whole, it may be best to have those life experiences be with members of the same faith, who share similar values, in communities that are, shall we say, less "tempting" than others (Provo, Rexburg, Laie, and Buena Vista are not exactly hotbeds of ribaldry :) ). 
Ultimately, as I've explained to my kids, it all depends on what you ultimately want to do, where you ultimately want to work, and what you really care about when all is said and done. A college education and degree is not necessarily a fast path to a job. You *can* work just fine without one (I did for close to twenty years, though the first six were quite lean ones because I didn't know what I wanted to do. Once I got into tech and doing QA, then I was able to grab tight and develop like a maniac). There's no question that getting a degree helps give the person a well rounded education, and can help fill the gaps a practical, seat of your pants approach like I took produces. 

In most careers, it doesn't matter where you start college, just where you finish. Nobody looks at your transcripts or resume and says "oh, look, you attended Diablo Valley College for your first two years of school. That's gonna' cost you, son!" No, they see "ah, Bachelors of Science from Brigham Young University" or "hey, you got your degree in Finance at U.C. Irvine", or in my case "cool, you got you BS In Information Technology through the University of Phoenix in 2005, good work going back and finishing that!" Interestingly enough, the president of my company found a lot of value in my story of how I learned and the schools I went to previously. He asked me what I did before 2003 through 2005, since the only education on my resume was my actual Bachelors degree. I told him the convoluted path, and the various community colleges I attended and what I studied at each. His answer was "you should include that! It shows that you've had a broad exposure to a lot of different educational experiences, and that's definitely worth commenting on.” 
Unless you plan on going into medicine, law or some other very specialized career, where you graduate from is almost not relevant, provided it is from a properly accredited school. What is is the fact that you did graduate, and that you have a work ethic that can get you noticed. As to my son and daughters, I've already made it very clear what will influence the decisions as to where they go and when they go (an acceptance letter from a school of choice will not be the end of the discussion, not by a long shot). The first is their overall grades and the courses that they take along the way. The second will be their own personal financial and personal management acumen. Proof of sound personal management over an extended period of time will be a prerequisite to going away to school. Third will be the full time job they will take on starting the end of their sophomore year, which will be applying for scholarships by the truckload. I have my friend Scott to thank for this suggestion... he made it his full time job from the end of his sophomore year through the end of his senior year and beyond to apply for every conceivable scholarship he had the potential to apply for, somewhere in the thousands. The net result over the course of several years was the fact that he paid for both his bachelors and his masters degrees with scholarship money, as well as room and board for that entire time, and he never had to ask his parents for any money related to his schooling.

I have committed to paying for college to as much of the level as I can (and I think we can probably cover it for all of the kids when their times come) but I've decided that I'm not going to just foot the bill for them. I learned through my own father making it very easy for me to skate through school with no effort or stake required on my part that I didn't really appreciate it, and subsequently I didn't put much effort into it. When I went back to school in 2003, it was mostly on my dime; my Dad did give me some financial help, as he said that he helped all of his other kids through school and graduation, and he'd feel like a complete heel if he didn't at least give me the same level of help he gave them. While I took him up on that, the lion's share of expenses (including living off of my savings while I was in school) was handled by me, and boy was that motivating! I smiled from ear to ear when I gave a copy of my diploma to my parents that said "Graduated with Honors", partly because I achieved something I thought I couldn't, but more to the point, I put a lot of my own money and living into getting that degree. I've decided that the value of that is truly immeasurable, and I will require my kids to do something similar. So even though I could pay for their full school, I'm not going to.

If they perform like rock stars in all three of these categories, and they get into a church school and make that their #1 choice as to where they want to go, then we'll do that. Even then, however, I may well suggest a local approach first. Not because they are slackers or losers, but because it could be a tremendously frugal and practical way to achieve their goals with very little in the way of future debt, lost time and a firm knowledge in what they want to achieve.


Beefche said...

Hmm,I usually tell the youth to go away for college.

I see your point, and I especially agree that kids should work and pay for at least part of their college.

I suppose it depends on the kid. But, one of the very best things for me was to be 1500 miles away from my family and friends while attending college. I felt that the local community college was too much like high school and I would treat it as such.

Melinda said...

My opinion of starting at a community college was affected by a friend who got the runaround and ended up taking 7 years to get a bachelors because the university wouldn't accept classes from the community colleges she'd attended. I don't know. Maybe they had a communications failure. You don't sound like your experience doubled the time it took you to get a bachelors.

I also loved going away for school immediately. I left home the day after high school graduation. I financed school myself, with scholarships and jobs, so I guess I meet your criteria for leaving home anyway.

We've got a community college close to us, and I've looked at it for taking some interesting classes just for fun. Sure can't beat the prices!

Michael Larsen said...

Yes Elinda, based on your description and your approach, you would totally qualify in my book :). This conversation was originally started because of a conversation about attending the local community college as a sort of punishment for not getting good enough grades to get into the four year school of their chice. I just wanted to point out some of the potential benefits. It's absolutely a "per person" thing, and as i mentined, if my kids were to show that they coulkd cover all of the areas I suggested, I'd have no hesitation to send them to a four year school right off the bat. We'll see how well my philosophy holds up in six years, when my oldest will be entering his Freshman college year. I may be crowing or eating crow at that point (LOL!).