Monday, March 23, 2009

Don't Stay Home After High School Graduation--Go to a Community College

Scott Card wrote recently that young students should consider taking a year off before going to college. I have another suggestion: go to your local community college, part time or even full time, even if you want to work.

Yes, I know that some Mormon parents have a challenge with the idea that a “community college” may not be up to snuff with one of the BYUs. Since both of my daughters graduated from community colleges—Miles Community College in Miles City, Montana, and Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming—I have some perspective from which to speak.

First of all, I realize that young people want to “get out of the house” after they graduate from high school. In fact, many of them live for the day when they can possibly move out. But what we discovered is that our daughters matured greatly living at home their first year out of high school and learned some great lessons.

They both had to get a job after high school. The summer was filled with work, work, work; but they saved up enough to help with college expenses. In fact, with what they saved, the scholarships they earned, and the savings from merely staying at home, they both finished a two-year, fully transferable degree with no debt.

To help high school students prepare for graduation and whether they want to go to college, one of the keys to this decision is this: “Try out college” by taking full advantage of dual enrollment or dual credit courses offered by a local community college or four-year institution.

Both of our daughters graduated from high school with one year of college under their belts and needed only one year at the local community college to graduate and transfer on.

And, yes, when they received their associate degrees, they both were accepted by BYU in Provo. Anna Rose graduated last April, and Hailey is scheduled to graduate in December.

Now, what about being connected to LDS youth while attending a community college and not a Church school? In most community colleges, they can be just as attached to LDS youth as in most four-year colleges and universities. Perhaps, some LDS high school graduates—and their parents—still wonder about “How can we have similar experiences like our friends at BYU if we do attend our local community college or four-year institution?”

Lo and behold, let me count the ways.

Institute—At many community colleges, institute classes abound, ones that students and other young single adults who are not attending college can attend. The institute teachers I have known in a couple of states are good ones. They know the gospel, they know how to teach, and they connect with the youth. Usually, young adults meet once a week. Even after institute, many of them go out after institute for ice cream or just to chat.

Family Home Evening (FHE)—Most Institute-age youth are adamant about having Family Home Evening every Monday night. They play games, they have poetry sessions, they go to concerts at the community college, they play sports, and they do a lot of other things. The bottom line is that they are together, enjoying each other’s company.

Latter-day Saints Student Association (LDSSA)—On many community college campuses, students have formed an LDSSA club. Each chapter is full of college-age students and not necessarily college-going students, although the majority of the members are students at the community college. I know many community colleges that have LDSSA chapters and chapters of other religions.

Young Single Adult Branches (YSA)—Young adult branches, and in some cases, young single adult wards, thrive. The purpose of the branches in communities where the Church does not dominate is to provide similar opportunities to serve in many church capacities just like they would at one of the Church schools and to help young people increase their knowledge of the gospel. What I have experienced first-hand is the growth of many of the young single adults while attending these branches

Other activities—Whether it is Institute, FHE, LDSSA, Church, or even Friday night soccer, college-age students have a lot of fun together. Plus, many other college-sponsored activities abound on all campuses. There should not be a dull moment for any student.

Yes, the majority of the community college students still work in the ever-changing workplace, many of them still live at home, and others live together in apartments. But I have watched many of them grow and develop into wonderful mature human beings. Many of the young men and young women go on missions because of their close associations with the return missionaries in the branch. Many parents have thanked us for helping their son or daughter see the bigger picture.

I think the bottom line is this: College is not necessarily a good option for some young people immediately after high school. They need to work and mature. On the hand, there are those who should go to college immediately after high school because they are ready. I believe community colleges help ready young people for the real world. For one thing, the average age of community college students hovers around 27 or 28 years old, which allows for a nice mix of younger and older people.

In the health sciences programs, the average age is 33-34-years old. And most of them work and/or have families. The classes are very diverse. Often, these classes are full of people who have had real-life experiences, and hopefully our youth can learn from them.

Probably one of the most important things that Mormon parents ought to know about community colleges is the cost. Often, the counties where the community colleges are located offer “tuition waivers” for their residents. Coupled with financial aid and other scholarships, students can attend free or close to free, depending on where you live, for two years. With the cost of education rising faster than inflation, then why not take advantage of the scholarship opportunities and the low cost of attending a community college?

Finally, I know parents wonder about the “quality” of community college classes. From a parent’s perspective, my two received great educations at their community colleges. In fact, my youngest daughter’s portfolio from her mass media program was touted as “one of the best” a faculty member had ever seen.
Another important point that needs to be addressed is how difficult it can sometimes be for young adults to go to college once they have sat out for a while. Unfortunately, it is too easy for life to get in the way of the return to college.

One of the challenges I have seen students encounter is what I have labeled “Pickup U.” Once some young people get out into the job market, they tend to buy the biggest, brightest pickup, sound/TV system, a phone contract , and/or a host of other things and ultimately get hooked into a large payment that may necessitate them having to continue to work instead of going to school as they originally planned. In essence, people sometimes allow bills and life to just get in the way of going to school. Then, unfortunately, some believe “it is too late” to return.

But with community colleges, it is never too late to start your future.
Because community colleges are such a great bargain—for the most part—potential students who have gotten into a payment situation or two can still go to college. Flexibility is a virtue at community colleges, offering courses at various times of the day and night and even on weekends. Thus, those who have climbed into a financial abyss can generally keep their job and can keep up with their payments while enrolled in a community college, full or part time.

And, of course, most of those who do not go straight to college have a very difficult time with their fundamental skills like math or English, which means it costs them another semester or two of math classes to get up to speed. Thus, in the end, it ultimately costs more time and money (tuition, books, and fees).

Whether Mormon students attend a community college or a Church-sponsored university right after high school, it all boils down to choices—whether they choose to go to class, whether they choose to follow the rules, whether they choose to study—no matter which college/university they attend.

President Hinckley used to say, “Do the best you can, the very best.” I think that’s a good motto to follow, whether you take a year off before going to college or enter college immediately upon graduation.

So, when you think of just hanging out for a year before attending college, look favorably on attending a community college, full time or part time, while you are working and trying to figure out the world.

But just remember whose you are.