A college promise, in need of a plan

The Detroit News

President Barack Obama’s recent higher education initiative to help cut the cost of college is a good beginning, but does not go far enough to provide a winning strategy for those considering college.

The president’s objective is to reduce the costs of college by providing incentives for colleges that maintain low costs and creating a new, transparent comparison ranking system which clearly signals college affordability. These are all helpful changes, but providing that information is not enough to help low- and moderate-income families cope with college costs. One concrete way to do that would be to make it easier for community college students to transfer to four-year institutions.

The president’s ideas seem directed at four-year institutions. However, more students start their college careers at a community college and an increasing number attend more than one post-secondary institution.

Not only do students transfer from community colleges to four year schools — more than 60 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients have taken at least one community college course — but many attend community colleges while enrolled in a four-year school, taking online or in-classroom courses. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse indicates that 73 percent of community college students who obtain an associate degree also graduate from a public four-year university or college within six years.

Students use a mixture of institutions for a variety of reasons, but a powerful one is that it can reduce the overall cost of getting a four-year degree. Community college tuition typically is one-third the cost of a four-year institution.

As a college education becomes almost a mandate for economic and social success, and the average incomes of Michigan families remain stagnant, Michigan community colleges become ever-more attractive places to start a college education. The average age of students attending Michigan community colleges has dropped considerably in the past decade while the average number of credit hours taken by each student has increased. In addition, many community colleges now enroll significant numbers of high-school students — some of whom earn a high-school diploma and associate degree simultaneously.

Student demand has created a trend that requires the need for policy recommendations to facilitate the transition from community college to four-year institutions. For example, four-year institutions which accept transfers of associate degrees should be incentivized with federal funds. Those that cannot take this step should be rated in the scorecard on how well they develop simple and transparent ways for students to know in advance which community college courses will transfer.

In each state, there should be clear pathways between two- and four-year institutions. Ideally, that would mean that all applicable community college credits should transfer to four-year schools.

In 2012 the state Legislature passed the Michigan Transfer Agreement, encouraging students to complete 30 credits of core college courses at the community college, before transferring to a four-year university. National legislation along these lines has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Obama plan rightly recognizes the centrality of a four-year degree for the future success of students. But one way in which both money can be saved, and college completion can be intensified, is to recognize that our post-secondary institutions are not silos, but inter-locking networks.

Jim Jacobs is president of Macomb Community College.

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