Affordability is the biggest concern I hear about college these days from high school seniors and their parents and even working professionals. With college costs rising faster than just about any other product on the market, cost has become the barrier to higher education that race and gender once were.
As president of Montgomery College, I have seen community colleges grow into bridges to opportunity for countless Americans who aspire to education but can’t afford the price of a traditional four-year college.
Consider this: When Solomon Adera chose Montgomery College to study his first two years of engineering, he saved himself at least $12,000 in tuition before transferring to the Georgia Institute of Technology for his last two years. Montgomery College’s full-time tuition for county residents ($1,891 per semester) is less than half the cost of tuition at University of Maryland at College Park ($4,998 per semester for Maryland residents, including fees), where the largest portion of Montgomery College students transfer. Because the average student in Maryland graduates with $27,457 in student debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, this is no small consideration. Adera also got financial aid at Montgomery College and worked part time while studying, which allowed him to save money for graduate school. He is now a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, poised to graduate in June.
Trinh Nguyen decided to start her engineering career at Montgomery College, primarily because of the cost. She is the first in her family to attend college in the United States, after emigrating from Vietnam. After her two years at Montgomery College with stellar grades, Nguyen was awarded a prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which, at that time, covered up to $30,000 per year. Nguyen used her scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is an undergraduate in biological/biomedical engineering with hopes of attending graduate school someday.
Montgomery College’s engineering transfer program helped Nguyen and Adera start strong — financially and academically.
Community colleges offer students faculty with expertise in their fields, and many of those faculty members hold doctoral degrees. In fact, because community colleges don’t have graduate students to draft into teaching positions, as many four-year institutions do, community college students are more likely to be taught by a professor than by a graduate student.
Community colleges enroll thousands of students who are mid-career and are looking to boost their expertise and earnings. Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing fields in Maryland, and advancing one’s professional certifications can increase responsibilities and earnings considerably. One mid-career student reported that her salary went up by 75 percent as she progressed through a cybersecurity program that included Web-security courses as a part of the short-term, intensive training program. Cybersecurity is just one field in which community colleges respond rapidly to market demand.
Community colleges enjoy partnerships with local industries, allowing the colleges to align curriculums with industry demands as they evolve. Choices include degree programs areas, certificate programs and noncredit career programs designed for students to obtain entry-level credentials. These programs allow students to step into middle-skills positions such as automotive technician, HVAC repair technician and diagnostic medical sonographer.
When Abdel Sow came to Montgomery College, he needed two things desperately: a job and English language training. He got both. After a seven-week training program, Abdel, an Ivory Coast native, passed an apartment maintenance technician course and now works full time as a service technician for an apartment complex.
Opportunity is at the essence of community colleges, which even the playing fields damaged by exclusion and poverty. Montgomery College takes pride in supporting students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college and has a number of programs specially designed to support students through academic planning, financial aid and transfers. None of these hurdles should stop someone from going to college.
The writer is president of Montgomery College.