The cost of higher education is always on the rise. The main concern for many students looking into college is the rate of tuition. When considering their academic future, students’ considerations no longer focus mainly on educational offerings, but also on the need for scholarships and student loans. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average cost of public community colleges is less then half that of public four-year colleges and approximately one-tenth the cost of private four-year colleges. If money is such a concern, why aren’t more students looking into community colleges?

In addition to the almost guaranteed savings, many people find community college a viable option because they are not yet sure what academic path they wish to take. Not all high school graduates know what subjects they would like to study or employment fields to enter, whether the time to make the decision falls at the expected time upon graduation, or in the years that follow. Those who know their desired major or focus can seek specialty schools or programs at traditional four-year colleges, but for those who are having difficulty finding a focus, taking core classes at a community college can give them the necessary time to find themselves and their passion. New research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that an estimated 27.3 percent of undergraduate students will work in a field that pertains to their major. This low percent represents not only the students who are unable to find work after graduating, but also those who might have gone to school for a field in which they did not want to spend their lives working.

When considering the opportunities community colleges provide rather than prohibit, the benefits seem to outweigh any shortcomings. Indeed, the biggest drawback that most people find about community college is simply the lack of campus life. There are clubs that students may join, though many work and do not have the time to participate. If a very tight-knit community is a requirement, community college is not the place to look. Community colleges also have a smaller selection of courses and subjects than traditional colleges.

For those purely seeking an education, a social life might not even be a factor in the decision-making process. In these cases, campus life is considered far less important than availability and schedule flexibility. These instances are often the cases of people seeking community colleges who are not fresh high school graduates. Between 2007 and 2011, the average age of a community college student was twenty-eight, 60 percent worked 20 or more hours a week and 41 percent transferred to four-year public institutions. Many junior colleges are able to offer a variety of class times for students who have busy schedules. At its Charleston, Massachusetts campus, Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), for instance, has been offering midnight classes since 2009. While a midnight class might not work for some, may students who work odd jobs or are accustomed to overnight shifts find the midnight classes perfect for their schedule. Many community colleges follow this concept—to create opportunities for people with a variety of schedules.

Ultimately, college is what students make of it. Whether they attend community college, a four-year college or some combination thereof, it is up to the students to know what they are looking to get out of their education and to effectively obtain the knowledge they seek.

Did You Know?
In evaluating two- and four-year institutions, the numbers make for an interesting comparison. The College Board has several helpful charts and tables that not only make cost breakdowns more accessible, but simplified as well. One such chart shows the fees for tuition and room and board for both two- and four-year colleges. These fees have more than doubled in the last decade despite the type of school being analyzed, and the difference in fees for a public in-state institution versus a two-year in-state school is almost $6,000. However, the average family income is dropping rather than rising. Over the past three decades, up to 2011, the average family income has dropped more than 5 percent each year—at least for the already low-income families that make up 20 percent of the population. The average family income for those already in the top 5 percent of families, however, has only risen over this time period. These facts may make the loan averages for students less surprising: In October of 2012, the average debt for college students had reached an average of $27,000—up 5 percent since 2010—while the unemployment rate remained at nearly 9 percent. One bit of information that may be encouraging for college grads, however, is that this 9 percent is still much lower than the 19 percent unemployment rates that high school graduates faced in 2011. (DYK by Emeli Warren)