Close to Home: A smart, cost-effective path to a degree

In the aftermath of the college admissions scandal, many aspiring college students are understandably left to wonder what options are left to them. How skewed is the admissions process, and is the bribery scandal simply a symptom of a larger, ongoing problem? At a time when university tuitions are at all-time highs, how does the average student go about getting a fair shot at higher education without breaking the bank?

The solution to many of these issues can be found within the nation's community college system. These two-year, publicly funded institutions offer students affordable, high quality education and increase their odds of being accepted to four-year universities through the transfer process.

Many students have achieved their educational goals simply by beginning the journey at a community college, thereby obtaining their degrees without incurring soul-crushing debt that can take decades to repay.

Consider the story of Ashley Love. Ten years ago, she decided to enroll at Laney Community College in Oakland, while her fellow high school graduates proudly shared their acceptance letters from elite universities. The small class sizes, approachable instructors and sense of community she experienced there enabled her to transfer to San Jose State University two years later, where she eventually completed both bachelor's and master's degrees before beginning her career as a software engineer at Microsoft. Love's decision also saved her a lot of money.

How much can students really save?

Compare tuition at the University of Southern California - one of the centers of the bribery scandal - to alternative degree paths. Four years at USC is 15 times more expensive than two years at community college followed by transfer to a California university. By attending community college first, students can save more than $190,000.

Of the 5.8 million students community colleges serve each year, more than a third are first-generation college students, half of whom are African American, Latino and Latina students, showing that community colleges provide the most affordable and feasible access point to a degree for underrepresented populations among U.S. college degree holders.

The University of California system accepts two-thirds of community college students applying to transfer after completing their sophomore year, a far higher admission rate than for freshmen. California State University currently guarantees transfer admission for students who have completed an “associate degree for transfer” at a California community college, resulting in the acceptance of about 50,000 transfer students each year. More than half of CSU and nearly a third of UC bachelor's degree earners started at California community colleges.

Yet community colleges are often still characterized as second best, even though data shows that anyone can be competitive when applying to transfer to the very best institutions in the nation by beginning within the community college system.

Salvador Rojas is a great example of a student who succeeded as a result of such transfer programs. “I felt ashamed to report that I was only going to a community college,” he said.

Yet after attending Cerritos Community College, Rojas transferred to Cal State Los Angeles, obtained bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, graduated without student debt and is pursuing his doctorate at Purdue University.

Stories such as these show the success possible for students at community colleges. So, for all the parentss who are sweating over the educational future of your children, consider community college as the first choice for a smart, achievable and affordable path to college completion. It is a proven path to graduation for those who take advantage of it. In Sonoma County, that path begins at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Chui L. Tsang is a retired president of Santa Monica College, Frank Chong is president of Santa Rosa Junior College, and Eva Schiorring has conducted research and evaluations in community and four-year colleges.

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