Washington Area Women's Foundation

Why We Need More Conversations About Higher Ed Options

Graduation caps and gowns Bien StephensonIn New York City this week, NBC’s third annual Education Nation summit was held, featuring three days of panel discussions with the nation’s leading experts on education, including former and current secretaries of education, educators, and policy makers. A lot of great resources, including case studies and videos are posted on the Education Nation website, and I’m still working my way through them. There’s one topic, however, that I’ve been searching for and haven’t been able to find yet – a discussion on the impact of community colleges on low-income students.

It’s a topic that’s been at the forefront of my mind in the past few weeks – ever since the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, when both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama talked about the costs of college. Romney spoke about how much more difficult it is in the current economic climate to save money for college. The First Lady recalled being “so young, so in love and so in debt” from student loans when she and President Obama were first married.

Given those facts, I think that it’s important to have more conversations about the far less terrifying alternatives out there than tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Community colleges often offer affordable options for students for whom massive loans may not be a possibility. In addition to being lower in cost, community colleges provide adult learners with the skills and credentials they need to improve their career and earnings prospects, or prepare them to spend a shorter time in traditional four-year schools.

Nationwide, the average annual tuition and fees at community colleges was just over $2,900; tuition and fees at four-year colleges averages about $8,200. Encouraging students, families and the government to invest resources into community college degree programs with career potential will open doors for students who may not have otherwise have pursued an education beyond high school.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, these schools “are the gateway to postsecondary education for many minority, low income, and first-generation postsecondary education students.” These institutions are particularly valuable for women, who make up the majority of community college students (57 percent) nationwide. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner, notes that for single mothers, “postsecondary degrees with high labor market value are especially valuable for ensuring family economic security and future opportunities for their children.”

And a local student summed it up best, telling The Women’s Foundation: “my daughter motivates me to finish college because if she sees what her mother has done then she will probably follow in my footsteps.”

Everyone seems to be in agreement that, these days, it’s important to have some sort of post-secondary education or additional training in order to sustain families in careers where there’s room for growth. However, there are multiple paths for getting there and not all of them lead to a mountain of student loan debt.