Weighing the pros and cons of community college

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Students graduating from community colleges like College of DuPage (above) and Harry S. Truman College save money, and many transfer to larger universities. Many DePaul transfer students count themselves as alumni of the College of DuPage, located in Chicago’s western suburbs, and Harry S. Truman College in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Graduates from Chicago Public Schools who maintained a B average in high school get free tuition at Truman. (Photo courtesy of COD Newsroom)

Students graduating from community colleges like College of DuPage (above) and Harry S. Truman College save money, and many transfer to larger universities. Many DePaul transfer students count themselves as alumni of the College of DuPage, located in Chicago’s western suburbs, and Harry S. Truman College in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Graduates from Chicago Public Schools who maintained a B average in high school get free tuition at Truman. (Photo courtesy of COD Newsroom)

In the summer of 2005, Susan Motley, 56, began her journey towards a bachelor’s degree after witnessing her son, who decided he didn’t want to go to college, graduate high school. 

“I had talked so much about the importance of a college education, but the words meant nothing (to him) because I couldn’t back them up with my own degree,” Motley said.

That summer, after spending years working as an executive secretary, Motley pushed herself to enroll into Triton College. She was determined to get her first degree not just for herself, but to encourage her son to attend college also.

Now, Motley is preparing for graduation in June from DePaul’s School of New Learning with her hard-earned bachelor’s degree in applied behavioral science.

In the five years she attended Triton, there were many other life factors that made it easier for her to be a part-time student. “With my son’s eye on me, I couldn’t turn back,” Motley said.

Motley received her associate’s degree in 2010 and enrolled in DePaul’s School for New Learning accelerated degree completion program in September 2013.

Motley’s reason for finishing school is one of the many reasons returning students choose to continue school with the goal of receiving their bachelor’s degree.

A study from the Brooking’s Institute in April showed that on average, students who graduate with two-year degrees make significantly less earnings than students who graduate with four-year degrees. At mid-career, two-year graduates make an average of $52,252 while four-year graduates make $75,916 per year.

In light of this study, it’s worth considering whether two-year colleges are still valuable.

According to DePaul’s enrollment summary, the first-year full-time freshman retention rate was 87.2 percent in the fall of 2014, the highest percentage in DePaul’s history.

Lois Bishop, director of Community College Partnerships in the Office of Admission, said that 60 percent of DePaul’s transfer students come from community colleges. In fact, in 2013, DePaul had more transfer students than freshmen.

Bishop said that with a bachelor’s degree there is more value to a student’s education.

“In a four-year program you’re going to have more time to spend on refining your writing, your math, your critical thinking skills. More time is spent on looking at history and its impact on your major and humanities and its impact in the world around you,” Bishop said.

Statistics show a growing trend that more students are enrolling in school and earning their bachelor’s within the last seven years. These statistics are reflected in DePaul’s freshman retention and graduation rates. In  2013-14, DePaul awarded 3,748 bachelor’s degrees, a 13 percent increase from 2009-10.

Rebecca Popelka, associate director for Transfer Admission and the Adult Enrollment Center, confirmed the study’s findings and said it reflects the increasing number of new transfer students and adults who come to DePaul to earn their degrees.  “Many adult students who look to come back say they cannot move up in their chosen field without the bachelor’s degree,” Popelka said.

DePaul student, Jamie Anguiano, 36, said earning a bachelor degree is important for students.

“When you have a higher level of degree, employers take you more seriously as you have taken the time to educate yourself,” Anguiano said. “Jobs require those degrees because work experience only goes so far.”

Anguiano is a transfer student from Moraine Valley Community College and is also a student in the SNL program for Leadership Studies. After working for many years, she decided to go back for her bachelor’s to obtain a better paying job and/or a higher position at her current employer.

Although there is a significant difference in earning power, there is other research that shows that some associate degree graduates out-earn bachelor’s degree recipients in certain fields.

A study conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education in 2011 found that about 28.2 percent of associate degree graduates earn more than their bachelor’s degree counterparts.

Motley said she believes the Brookings report inaccurately represents the future of two-year graduates.

“Today there are so many medical and technical 2-year programs that project job growth over the next 10 years.  Even manufacturing vocations have job growth potential and these jobs are usually union positions with good pay and benefits,” Motley said.

A sample of associate degree occupational salaries revealed that a two-year engineering technician graduate makes $59,300 while a four-year engineering graduate make $50,000 per year, or about the same, depending on the type of engineer.

Popelka said it ultimately has to do with what students wish to study and what institution or program matches their desired outcome.

“I don’t believe there’s one school or approach to education that is going to meet every student’s need because every student is approaching college with different needs and perspectives,” Popelka said.

As for Anguiano, her transfer experience from her community college to DePaul provided her with insight on the level of higher expectation in a university setting versus a community level.

“The farther you continue education, the farther you are pushed to adhere to a certain level of intelligence and commitment,” Anguiano said.

Another similar debate to the value of community colleges is the idea that transfer students from community colleges are less likely to succeed than those students who start and finish at a university.

“There are many reasons why people choose to attend community college, but regardless of the reason, community colleges provide opportunities where they might not always be available,” Popelka said.

Bishop said it’s a general misconception and despite the backlash, being a college transfer student doesn’t mean they’re less likely to succeed.

Even so, Popelka said that college transfers also have a high retention rate and the majority of DePaul’s transfers do get their bachelor’s. Their retention and graduate rate is about as equal to DePaul freshmen rates. Additionally, community college transfers retention and graduation rate is slightly higher than transfers from other four-year universities.

“Transfer students are being successful in coming back, they’re doing comparably well,” Bishop said.

In fact, Bishop said that they might even be at a greater advantage in flexibility and finding jobs easier due to the changes within the transition process from a college to a university.

“People who only worked or stayed in one place and have gone to one school may not be aware that they can look at things or do things differently,” Bishop said. “You develop more flexibility in your thinking and your way of acting, making you more versatile than someone who has only gone to one school.”

Motley said she gained valuable learning experiences at Triton College, which prepared her for changes in classroom settings from a college to a university.

“My college experience helped me to achieve my goal at DePaul,” Motley said. “Without both experiences I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

Regardless of the ongoing debates involving colleges and universities and measuring success, Bishop said transfer and four-year students are going to come out at the end with a bachelor’s degree. They will be on equal footing in terms of success or mid-career earnings, but Bishop said that transfer students are more likely to come out with additional learned skills.

As for Motley, she said that it’s entirely up to students to carry on and make the most of their education whether at a community college, at a university or both. “If the person ends up not doing well, it has everything to do with self,” Motley said.