It Isn't Gaming The Higher Ed System...It's Smart

Recently, I was keynoting at the Big 12 Teaching & Learning conference.  I’ve blogged about a few of the interactions already, but I want to share a much more personal conversation that I had during a meal.  From my writing, and without the nuance of paralanguage or other nonverbals, it may feel like I take a lot of shots at education, specifically higher education.  As such, it may also feel that I’m in the growing pool of people who is skeptical of the college experience.  I think my conversation will illustrate that not only am I committed to a college path, but may also help some of you with college aged kids consider some strategy.

To be sure, I have spent my adult life studying, reading about, practicing, auditing, and even debating how to best educate people.  I have sat in rooms with Secretaries of Education (both US and from other countries).  I have interviewed and been interviewed by Presidents of Accrediting bodies.  I have consulted with University Provosts, College Presidents, Deans of every variety.  I have taught (arguably) more classes (both online and on-ground) than any tenured faculty member I know.  I write about, speak about, and research education almost every day.  But the question I got from a conference goer may have been the most honoring question I have ever received.

How is it she'll grow up and go to college one day?  It's a CRIME!

How is it she'll grow up and go to college one day?  It's a CRIME!

It was from a mom.  Yes, she is also a college professor, but she was not asking the question as an instructor, but instead as a parent.  She simply asked me what our plan was for Addie (our only daughter) when it came to college.

Know that my wife and I have discussed this at great length.  I’ve blogged before that we are homeschooling Addie in large part, due to the failings of public and a lot of private education.  While I have blogged and will blog again about creating a student of life who is curious as well as able to problem solve and critical think, my wife and I both believe formal education is still in her future.  We just aren’t sure if that will happen in Jr High (probably not), high school (very possible), or college (as definite as one can be about the future). 

So, when it comes to that pathway for her, let me share with you our plan.  (Yes, I am familiar with the axiom that God’s greatest laugh comes when we make a plan…)  But essentially, if we could map her future, this is what it might look like.

Step 1 – Community College.  Yes, you read that correctly.  But not just any community college.  We would attempt to seek out exactly the kind of pathway she is interested in at the time, and ensure entrance to a community college nearby, or at least within the state.  Ideally that will be where we live at the time, but not necessarily. 

Good thing your college or university has the best professors in the land...

Good thing your college or university has the best professors in the land...

I say all of that for several reasons.  First, from an educational perspective, I have never, in all of my years consulting, auditing, teaching, nor even admonishing, seen a 4-year institution with “better” teaching than a community college.  In fact, many of the community college professors I know also teach at 4-year schools.  I harken back to a debate I was privy to when in Kansas almost a decade ago.  There was a 4-year President who was fighting with then CEO of EDUKAN (a consortia of community colleges in Kansas) about whether or not to accept English Composition I from community college graduates.  From an outsiders perspective, it was a ridiculous fight that only hurt students.  But essentially the 4-year leader was arguing that students received a far better experience within his school’s walls (and at 4X the price)  than any community college student could receive.  The CEO of EDUKAN then produced some interesting information.  Starting out, the overlap of textbooks was tremendous with almost all schools using the same materials, including the supplemental materials such as final exams.  Then, the CEO showed the overlap of professors, again many of which taught for both institutions.  (Some full-time professors made extra money at the community colleges, but remember that most full-time professors often try to work themselves OUT of teaching Freshman, leaving most Comp 101 courses to be taught by adjuncts…the same adjunct instructors the community colleges used.)  So teaching and learning, which ALWAYS comes down to the individual facilitator of the class, cannot be distinguished between a 4-year and a 2-year experience. Both contexts have excellent, mediocre, and poor instructors...

Second, I will note that most state colleges have articulation agreements with the community colleges of that state to accept at least some of the credits in transfer.  Very often, they will scrub all or most of the “general education” classes required if the student transferring in has a full Associate’s degree.  Also of note, at many community colleges the class schedule is far more conducive to student needs, often seeing classes early, mid-day, and potentially even at night, whereas a far greater issue for 4-year students is being forced to take a class at a specific time of day, even if that time frame is not favorable for work schedules or worse, brain-based learning propensity. 

Third, I continually argue that community colleges create as much, if not more innovation than any other sector of higher education.  With pockets of notable exception, these schools don’t have BILLION dollar endowments.  In fact, their funding seems to be cut on a continual basis, meaning they have to work very hard to find ways to keep the mission moving forward.  I have seen clever connections to the community (ironic, no?), to the business world, and to intern-like opportunities with regularity coming out of community colleges throughout my career. 


Finally, cost should be obvious.  As the cost of a Private University now averages around $34,000 per year and the cost of a State University averages around $9,000 per year, the savings should be easy to see.  The average community college price tag (which can easily include other kinds of classes - a good idea for any 18 year old trying to figure out what to do for the rest of their lives) is $500-2,000 per year. 

So, to sum up, starting this way could see that our daughter finds a legitimate 3-4 year, DOUBLE degree path, with an equal education, offering her more opportunities to “experiment” with possible majors, at a fraction of the cost. 

Step 2 - Following that, she will (hopefully) attend the school we originally identified, use the articulation transfer, and get her second degree as colleges are anxiously seeking incoming Juniors to replace to 35% of Freshman / Sophomores who have already dropped.  (Right now, she’s waffling between culinary school, veterinary medicine, and pet fashion…luckily we have almost a decade to contemplate a bit more…)

I was most honored when this professor emailed me a week after the conference thanking me for the advice.  She and her husband had discussed it with their 17 year old Junior and were starting to unpack it as a real strategy.  They had made an appointment with the Community College a few minutes from the State school their son was considering.  Yes, it takes some research around financial aid, credits, transfer-ability, and more.  But we think it’s the strongest path forward for our daughter and our family from most major angles. 

Maybe with a bit of exploration and research, you will feel that way too. 

Good luck and good learning.