Move over Harvard and State U, the local community college is getting a long, second look from consumers. And they like what they see.
An overwhelming majority of people find two-year community colleges adequately prepare students for success (80%) and are worth the cost (82%). By contrast, only 62% think that public four-year universities are worth their price tag and only 43% find private, four-year institutions to be worth the tuition and fees. That’s according to a recent Ipsos study co-authored by New America, a think tank that looks for fresh opportunities to revisit traditional American topics such as the cost and value of higher education.
Community colleges have, for at least a decade now, been pushing the shorter, more affordable route to workforce development programs. The programs encourage transfers that allow students to move into a four-year university after having taken their first two, more affordable, years at a community college level. The American public apparently embraced that marketing memo.
“The skepticism about the value of a four year degree from a private institution is likely driven by two things,” says Timothy Knowles, founder of The Academy Group, a Chicago-based startup that invests in children from elementary school through college and provides them with what they need to “own, operate and incubate” their own companies. (Knowles in February stepped down from his dual gig as the Pritzker Director of Chicago Urban Labs and Chairman of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.) “First is the cost, which has skyrocketed, becoming unobtainable for the vast majority of American families. Second, and compounding the costs, is America’s growing underclass – college graduates who are underemployed or not employed at all.”
The future of the four-year
So what does this mean for the four-year university? Are they losing students or on the downfall? No. Not at this exact moment. Even as universities lose federal funding, their top tier, four-year programs remain competitive, largely because bachelor’s degrees are required for a number of jobs. In fact, a recent Pew study found that one third of Americans without a degree didn’t apply for a job because they felt they were unqualified. Meanwhile, the same Pew study found that some 78% of Americans agree that a certificate program intended to train a person for a vocational or technical field was even more useful for job prep in today’s economy.
That said, experts such as Knowles have long cautioned that automating basic jobs and competition introduced by vocational programs – some with guaranteed jobs – might eventually narrow the numbers of colleges who stay open in the long run. In this case, it’s all about the market and what it will bear.
“I anticipate in the next decade we will see a hollowing out of America’s higher education sector,” says Knowles. “Elite institutions will continue to thrive, as will community colleges and career training programs that prepare young people for jobs that actually exist. But in the middle, a vast number of non-selective and somewhat selective liberal arts schools that do not adapt will go bankrupt.”
Perception Versus Reality
One of the reasons why one out of three students head to community college prior to a four-year institution is for the cash savings. Much has been made of students who use Pell Grants or other government funding, but the fact is that 77% of students are working while in school, according to Sallie Mae. Most people believe that students of color receive the majority of financial aid for college. But the truth is different than the perception. According to New America Foundation figures, which quote statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, “Minority students receive 44.2 percent of all financial aid. White students receive the remaining 55.8 percent.” Meanwhile, of those surveyed, three quarters think success is easier with a college degree than without.
Along the same lines, 68 percent of Americans believe students pay the majority of costs incurred by higher education. But the truth depends on where a student goes to school. A dependent kid pays 32.8% of the costs of a two-year college, 51.1% at a public four-year university, and 74.5% at a private four-year college.
The Ipsos study also delved into questions of who benefits the most from the higher ed system in the United States. Most respondents said they disliked the system and they also added that the optics don’t look good. Overwhelmingly, four year institutions – public, private and for-profit – are seen as putting their own interests ahead of students. That sentiment only piles on to the growing amount of research questioning the value of investing in higher education.
Ultimately, with survey results finding that the majority of Americans agree that higher education is better for the public good, then the big question is this: Why aren’t we funding higher education at a higher level?
“We are not funding it like it’s a public good and we keep dis-investing,” says Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst with New America. “The regional four year schools, that’s where most students overwhelmingly attend, regardless of race. And they’re the most underfunded institutions…. We should be sending more to those students.”