The rising cost of college and the amount of debt students take on to finance higher education have recently been called matters of national importance by elected officials and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These leaders are holding summits and hearings to debate possible solutions to the problem.
While all colleges and universities should continue to address the perennial concerns regarding cost and student debt, the fact remains that community colleges represent the best value in higher education -- providing affordable educational programs leading to life-changing opportunities.
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According to the College Board, in 2011-2012, tuition and fees cost an average of $28,500 at private nonprofit four-year colleges, $8,244 at public four-year colleges, and $2,963 at public community colleges.
Not surprisingly, more students are choosing to begin their college journey at a community college, and these students are coming from all types of backgrounds with all types of educational goals.
For example, student loan provider Sallie Mae found that 22 percent of students coming from households with a combined income of $100,000 or more attended community colleges in 2010-2011. Starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year institution after earning an associate degree saves students and their families thousands of dollars and results in the same educational outcome -- a marketable degree. Also, many two-year associate degrees and one-year or less certificates lead directly to rewarding jobs and careers.
Depending on the level of education you seek, incurring some student loan debt may be unavoidable. However, numerous grants, scholarships and federal work-study positions are available to help cover the costs of college. This is the time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is the first step in determining an aid package from most schools. You can find out more at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The earlier you complete this step, the more likely you are to maximize your financial aid.
Waubonsee Community College is offering financial aid assistance, including FAFSA completion help, as part of College Goal Sunday, which takes place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 12, at the college's Sugar Grove Campus Academic and Professional Center, Route 47 at Waubonsee Drive.
Community colleges also offer significant scholarship opportunities. The Waubonsee Foundation offers more than 200 scholarships to new and returning students each year. These scholarships, generously supported by community donors, provide students with a range of financial support. The Feb. 2 deadline for these scholarships is fast approaching, so visit waubonsee.edu/scholarships soon to learn more.
Community colleges represent an incredible value for students without sinking below a mountain of debt. With small class sizes, convenient scheduling options and incredibly passionate faculty, community colleges are the smart choice for your higher education.
This spring, Waubonsee is holding several "Experience Waubonsee" campus visits to allow prospective students to see all that we have to offer. You can learn more and register at waubonsee.edu/visit.
As you evaluate different college options, I encourage you to consider your local community college and discover the unparalleled value you can find close to home.
• Dr. Christine Sobek is president of Waubonsee Community College.