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Four Year Colleges vs. Community Colleges Essay

Why does Breakthrough emphasize four year colleges and universities? Should Breakthrough programs steer students to use community colleges as “stepping stones” toward bachelor’s degrees?

Would community colleges be cheaper for students? Does it matter where students start their post‐secondary educations, as long as they end up with bachelor’s degrees?

It is true that once students have their bachelor’s degrees, it makes little difference, in terms of earnings potential and job prospects, what path they took to get there. However, the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree is significantly reduced if a student starts her post‐secondary education at a community college, and the amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree (and potentially, the amount of loans a student accrues) is greatly increased. Additionally, research shows that the kinds of students Breakthrough serves—low‐income, minority, first generation—are less likely to transfer from community colleges to four‐year colleges and earn bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, the research supports the fact that students are more likely to complete bachelor’s degrees if they start their post‐ secondary educations at four‐year colleges or universities.

Is community college more cost-effective?

Without factoring in financial aid, the average tuition and fees at community college is less than half of the average tuition and fees at a public four‐year institution and 1/10th of the tuition and fees at a private four year institution. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition and fees in 2006‐07 was:

• $2,017 ‐in‐state student attending a community college •
$5,685 ‐ full‐time, in‐state student at a public four year college or university • $20,492 ‐ full time student at a private four year college and university

However, while the tuition and fees at community colleges are significantly less, without knowing a student’s financial aid package at a four year institution, it is difficult to determine the relative cost‐ effectiveness. Additionally, considering the amount of time it takes students who begin in community college to complete their bachelor’s degrees, it is unclear how much cost savings there is in the end.

Does it take longer for students to complete bachelor’s degrees if they start at community colleges?

On average, it takes students 1½‐2 years longer to complete bachelor’s degrees if they begin at community colleges than if they begin at four‐year colleges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree is:

• 71 months for students who begin at 2‐year colleges
• 55 months for students who begin at four year public colleges • 50 months for students who begin at four year private colleges

Is there a difference in the earnings of community college graduates and graduates of four‐year institutions?

If community college students do manage to transfer quickly and graduate from four‐year colleges, there is little evidence to show that there are significant earning differentials between students who start at community colleges and students who start at four‐year colleges (Kane and Rouse, 1995; Hilmer, 2000). The problem is that many community college students do not quickly transfer into four‐ year colleges nor do they ultimately complete their bachelor’s degrees.

For those individuals who start at community colleges and don’t transfer to
four‐year institutions, there are repercussions in terms of their earnings potential. The average annual median income for adults who have associate’s degrees is approximately $13,000 less per year than adults who have bachelor’s degrees ($32,900 vs. $45,700), or $500,000 less in estimated lifetime earnings (U.S. Department of Labor, 2002).

If the intention is to change the economic trajectory of Breakthrough students (i.e., end the cycle of poverty), then having Breakthrough students begin their post‐secondary educations at four‐year colleges is the best way to ensure they complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Is there a difference in the attrition rates of students at community colleges vs. students at four‐year colleges?

The attrition rate for students at community colleges, even those students who have an explicit intent to pursue bachelor’s degrees, is far greater than the attrition rate of students at four year colleges. In 2006:

• 39% of students at community colleges who intended to pursue bachelor’s degrees left school without completing a degree or certificate program

• 17% of students at four year public colleges left school without completing a degree

• 16% of students at four year private colleges left school without completing a degree
(National Center for Education Statistics, 2008 Special Analysis of Community College data)


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