COVID-19 and the Community College Option

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

As I mentioned in last month's blog post, the chances that most colleges will be back to normal this coming fall term is pretty unlikely. If the 1918 Influenza outbreak teaches us anything, it is that pandemics often present several waves of infection. In other words, after an initially high infection rate, measures are taken to slow down the spread of the disease. As the spread of the disease lessens, people return to more normal behavior and the disease spread goes up once again. There is no reason to suspect that COVID-19 is simply going to disappear this fall. Until we get a vaccine, we will be dealing with this disease and its subsequent waves. Because of these recurring spikes in infection, colleges will be under pressure to limit physical contact this fall.

This means there is a very good chance that most college courses will be delivered online once again this fall. As I discussed in my previous blog post, some college students may decide to opt out of attending school this fall because of COVID-19. While this may be a reasonable option for some students, most will probably want to make progress on their postsecondary education. If you are in this camp and want to attend school this fall, you should probably consider your options.

If you are entering your senior year of college, it's probably wise to simply sign up for the classes you need at the school you are at and do your best to adapt to the changes that come your way. In other words, stick with your plan and take the final courses you need. If these courses are only offered online, or if they start out in person but later switch to a distance delivery format, do your best and graduate. Your final year may get disrupted once again, but at the end of the year you'll be glad to be done.

If, however, you recently graduated from high school, or you are a college freshman or new sophomore, you may want to consider another option. Rather than waiting for your school to once again order students out of the dorms, close down its campus, and move all classes to online delivery, you could consider staying home and attending your local community college.

According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, approximately 38% of undergraduates attended public two-year colleges in 2017–18. This means that taking classes at a community college is becoming the norm. More than a third of college students have taken classes at a community college. Moreover, community colleges are much less expensive than other options. For example, in 2019–20, the average yearly published price of tuition and fees for a full-time student at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,730, compared with $10,440 at in-state public four-year colleges, and $36,880 at private nonprofit 4-year institutions. The price differences are significant here. And even if we look at real costs, instead of sticker prices, there is a sizable savings for community college students.

If COVID-19 closes campuses this fall and courses go online, what is a college student paying for? If you are not experiencing campus residence life, have no access to the recreation center that was so highly promoted in the school's recruitment materials, and if your contact with faculty consists mainly of weekly messages on a Learning Management System, you may want to question your return on investment. Indeed, in May 2020, students at more than 25 colleges in the US have filed lawsuits demanding reductions in tuition and/or fees. Getting surprised by the virus this spring is one thing, but going into fall term knowing that it's likely you will be paying almost three to ten times as much money to complete similar online classwork from your home is quite another. If you are going to have to stay home and take online classes for college credit this fall, maybe it would be just as easy and much less expensive to simply take those classes through a local community college?

In order to decide if the community college route would be best for you this coming year, I recommend that you meet with both an academic advisor at the four-year school you are interested in graduating from and an academic advisor from your local community college. Determine how easy it will be for you to transfer credits between these two institutions. Ask questions about each school's learning services for students, their electronic library resources, and their experience with online education. Don't assume that a large university will provide a better online experience than a small community college. Determine their track records in this area. Also, don't assume that the local community college will maintain in person classes, while the big university won't. Find out each school's official plan for the fall and then learn what each institution did in spring of this past academic year when worries about COVID-19 first started spreading in the US.

Clearly we are in a difficult period in higher education. Now more than ever, each student needs to do their own research to determine which postsecondary education option is best for them. While we will get through this, maybe the positive take away here is that this event will help each of us better consider what it is we really want from college.


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