Cost and value at the two-year college

By Joseph Collins
Guest columnist
Posted9/21/2015 1:00 AM

Last week, the White House announced the rollout of the College Scorecard, which is intended to provide potential students with data on college cost, graduation, debt and post-college earnings. While this overly simplified approach will rightly have its critics, the drive to hold our colleges and universities more accountable for their outcomes is a trend that is not going away. With the rising cost of college, students and families are becoming more discerning about choosing the best path to the baccalaureate degree.

In the last three decades, the cost of a four-year degree has increased more than tenfold at our flagship university, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). In 1983, the base tuition was $1,104 and by 2013 it had risen to $11,834. The median family income for Illinois increased from $23,752 to $57,196 over that same period. With tuition growing more than four times faster than family income, it isn't surprising that people are paying more attention to college costs.


College tuition rates are increasing rapidly in large part because state governments have shifted more of the burden to the student. In 1987, 20 percent of the cost of college came from the students' tuition dollars. Now that number is well over 40 percent. I think of my own situation as a good example of this phenomenon. My first salary as a newly minted engineer in 1981 was about seven times the total cost of my last year in school. Now an engineer's starting salary is only two or three times the cost of a year in college.

By taking the first two years at your local community college you can typically save on the order of $20,000. This is an important consideration when you realize the average amount of debt a student has upon graduating from a four-year school is close to $30,000. But beyond saving money, what are some other reasons for choosing a community college for the first two years?

The four-year college or university typically offers a residential campus experience in which students live together in a structured environment and socialize outside of class. Much of this "college experience" is available at the community college level as well, too, with most two-year schools offering a wide range of campus groups and activities that broaden students' lives and enhance their education.

Community colleges typically offer smaller class sizes where students work directly with full professors. In addition, community colleges often offer a wide variety of academic support services to ensure student success, including tutoring, test preparation and other confidence-building workshops. Last year alone, the College of DuPage Learning Commons assisted more than 5,400 students.

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The quality and rigor of academics at community colleges and four-year institutions is similar, as is evidenced by the number of transfer agreements between four-year colleges and Illinois community colleges. For example, the College of DuPage Engineering Pathways program allows participating students to transfer seamlessly after two years to one of the country's highest ranked engineering programs at UIUC.

Recent COD student Omar Escamilla is one of my favorite examples to show the many opportunities community colleges can provide. Omar was involved with the Student Leadership Council, Campus Crusade for Christ, Latino Ethnic Awareness Association and the Philosophy Club. He was the Vice President of Phi Theta Kappa and served as the student trustee on the COD Board of Trustees.

In 2015, Escamilla was one of just 85 students nationally to receive the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which consists of $40,000 annually to cover educational expenses when the recipient completes a bachelor's degree. Omar also was named a Fulbright Summer Institute participant and attended the Scotland Summer Institute. After graduating with high honors, Omar transferred to DePaul University to study organizational communication.

Omar is just one example among the 330,000 students who enroll in the 48 community colleges in Illinois each fall. His experience demonstrates how community colleges can provide an affordable, quality option for many students.

Dr. Joseph Collins is acting interim president of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

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