Community college vs. university by the numbers

By: SCOTT MCMAHON

$130,000 is a lot of money.

With that sum, someone could buy a 2017 Jaguar F-type sports car, a Samsung 105-inch Ultra-HD home theater, a week’s worth of groceries at Whole Foods for 800 people or a down payment on a house.

Or that person could attend the average four-year university in the U.S. for four years, based on data from College Board.

We’ve all heard the debate: Is the benefit of attending a public or private institution truly worth the expenses that it necessitates? The prestigious, big-ticket route versus the comfortable, economic one—the fork in the road that the majority of high school seniors must confront before fleeing the nest.

At CHS, students typically take one of two paths: enroll at a four-year institution or attend a junior college, commonly Monterey Peninsula College, in hopes of transferring to a university after two years.

College counselor Darren Johnston estimates that 65 percent of CHS students take the four-year path, while around 35 percent choose MPC.

“I think it’s an unfortunately small number, and could definitely be higher,” Johnston says of the MPC route. “There is definitely a stigma convincing students that they have to go straight from high school to a university. If the student isn’t entirely sure of their intended course of study, if they aren’t compelled to leave home, if money’s an issue…all of these kids should consider community college.”

Both Johnston and fellow college counselor Jeff Rogers believe it is much easier for students to be competitive in a transfer program than in a pool of freshman applicants to a four-year university. The data confirms their belief: U.S. News reports that 24 percent of students at MPC transfer successfully to universities after two years of classes.

From CHS, as of 2014, almost half of students applying to four-year universities were denied by their first choice schools, and 42 percent were denied again by their second choices. Suffice to say, it is often easier to transfer and be accepted to a university than be admitted as a freshman.

Admissions data carries some weight, but financial savings are by far the most common incentive to attend a junior college. An MPC student pays an average of $2,963 per year in tuition, according to PayScale. If the student completes two years’ worth of required classes, the student could save anywhere from $12,000 to $66,000 by taking them at MPC instead of in the University of California system or at a California State University.

According to the website Top Universities, four years of education at a public university is commonly upwards of $32,000, and for a private, anywhere from that to around $75,000. So, by taking their general education classes at community college and transferring to a university for their Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree, a student can reduce that cost substantially.

Many graduates have gone on from CHS to a variety of successful futures, made possible through their experience at four-year colleges. Likewise, many students have chosen the less traditional route for a variety of reasons, and are very glad they did.

Justin Shaber graduated from Carmel High in 2010 with considerable merit and enrolled at San Diego State University, where he stayed for one year. He dropped out and attended Monterey Peninsula College for two years, and was then accepted to the University of California at Berkeley as a transfer, where he earned his Bachelor’s in Political Economics.

“I felt a lot of pressure to go to a four-year university,” Shaber says. “I quickly realized at SDSU that the four-year track wasn’t for me. I came home to MPC feeling a great weight off my shoulders. By the time I was accepted to Cal, I’d gained incredible knowledge and had saved money for the first time in my life.”

Shaber is now head of maintenance at Berkeley’s “Lair of the Golden Bear,” a campground run by the university.

2015 graduate Josh Dormody was a standout in Computer Science at CHS and also chose to enroll at MPC. After two years, Dormody applied and was accepted to Vanderbilt University, where he is currently studying Economics and Computer Science and working at a high-end landscaping agency. Comments from Dormody were unavailable, but both he and Shaber found the JC-to-university transfer route to be as valuable and fulfilling, if not more so, than the customary four-year path.

But whatever direction a student may choose, there is a basis that each graduate, counselor and admissions officer agrees on.

As Shaber proclaims, “It is OK to take another route: community college, gap year, traveling, work, etc. Just make sure you do something.”

Patricia Hunt, college and career center coordinator at CHS, agrees.

“It’s important to have a starting point, an idea of where you’d like to go and why you’d like to go there,” she says. “But after that, every path—community college, university, gap year, etc.—can be equally rewarding. It’s all in the hands of the student.”