Fountain of Youth

Community colleges are hot these days, and not just with photo-op seeking politicians. They’re an increasingly popular choice for 18-22 year-olds from the upper middle class, thanks to cheap tuition, a career focus, smoother transfer options and growing public respect for the sector’s academic chops.

Nationwide, 22 percent of college students with annual family incomes over $100,000 attended community colleges last year, up from 16 percent four years ago, according to a study by Sallie Mae.

“Community college gradually is gaining wider acceptance as the default option out of high school,” said Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Relatively affluent young students are typically better-prepared academically and have a good chance of earning a degree. They are also more likely to attend full-time, require less remediation than their peers and can be cheaper for community colleges to educate.

But this group is also demanding, as traditional-age students want a full campus experience with amenities like fitness centers and extracurricular activities, which can mean new buildings and strained student service budgets. They are also more likely to seek out counselors, experts said.

"You have more students coming to our campuses who see themselves transferring," said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, and who sometimes view community college as a "stepping stone."

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