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January 08, 2010 3:02 PM The Community College Solution

By Daniel Luzer

The editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance writes in the latest issue that:

For years, Kiplinger’s has been advising families that one way to keep higher-education costs under control is to have their kids attend community college for a year or two and then switch to a four-year school. This year, they finally listened to us — with a vengeance.

The article goes on to explain that:

I’d add that parents aren’t obliged to pay for four years of football weekends, frat parties and beer. I’m a great believer in a liberal-arts education, but I predict that the traditional scenario of moving away from home to soak up the campus experience for four years (or more) will become less common as schools search for ways to cut costs and deliver services.

Community colleges are hot now, so it seems. In November College Guide ran a piece about popular honors programs in community colleges. Apparently community colleges are now full, almost to the breaking point.

Kiplinger’s seems to think this is great. The title of the article is “Do the (College) Math: Families Getting More Value for Their Education Dollars.” The trouble with this is that community colleges are good choices for students largely because they’re so cheap. That’s pretty much the only reason. Even if community colleges are a good financial choice for families, it’s not clear that community college is a good educational choice. Most community colleges don’t do a very good job at all educating students or preparing them to transfer to a 4-year school.

A recent study about community colleges found that only 37 percent of students who began higher education at a community college eventually transferred to a four-year school. What’s more, among students with similar grades and test scores, those who chose two-year colleges were 14.5 percent less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than those who began education at a traditional four-year school.

It’s right to point to community colleges as a way to save money in tough times and it also makes sense to consider these schools given the rising cost of college. But community colleges are often overburdened and underfunded and forced to try to meet the needs of a wide variety of students. It’s time to stop pretending such schools exist merely to give people a discount on their freshman and sophomore years.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer