The fall nip is in the air. This is the time of year that many high school seniors and their parents visit college campuses and prepare applications to colleges and universities throughout the United States.
These seniors have about 4,000 choices for degree-granting colleges and universities in our country, including three great choices right here in Frederick County – Frederick Community College, Hood College, and Mount St. Mary’s University.
Alongside these high school seniors are their parents, who are likely worried about how they will pay for college. They may be thinking: “Why didn’t we start saving 18 years ago? Are we the only family who does not have substantial savings for college?” It has been my experience that few parents do. When our children were young, we had other immediate financial priorities. Paying for college would be a bridge to cross when they got there. And now, quite suddenly it may seem, they are at the bridge.
We know that college degrees have never been more important in helping our children realize the American Dream. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, people with bachelor’s degrees earn about $26,000 more a year compared to those with only a high school diploma. Over a 40-year career, that’s more than $1 million more in lifetime earnings. Since only about one-third of Americans earn a bachelor’s degree, this group is not very large, yet demand remains high.
After 40 years in higher education mostly at four-year colleges and universities, I have become more and more impressed with both the immediate and long-term advantages for students who start their college degrees at community colleges rather than a four-year institution. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is cost, especially given that the average student loan debt is about $38,000.
In-county students at FCC pay $4,669 a year in tuition and fees. That’s less than half the cost of the average four-year public university/college in Maryland ($9,657), about one-sixth the cost of the average out-of-state public university/college ($27,020), and about one-eighth the cost of the average private nonprofit university/college ($37,650).
How much would students save if they started at FCC to earn their associate degree then transferred to a four-year university/college to finish their bachelor’s degree? They would save nearly $10,000 over the course of four years if they transferred from FCC to a public in-state institution, almost $45,000 if they transferred to a public out-of-state institution, and nearly $66,000 if they transferred to a private institution.
Some may wonder whether the educational experience at a community college is the same as a four-year institution. Obviously, there are differences. But in many of the areas that are critical to student success, FCC more than measures up.
At FCC, we have more than 450 highly qualified full and adjunct faculty offering a wide array of courses and student development experiences. Many of our full-time faculty have doctorate degrees, while our adjunct faculty bring a rich array of real-life experience to their classrooms.
Small class size is often a priority for students and families. The average class size at FCC is 15 students. That ratio of 1 instructor to 15 students rivals the best universities in America and provides increased opportunity for students to get individualized help from instructors. In fact, when asked what they enjoyed most about their time at FCC, many of our alumni specifically mention the small class sizes, saying the ability to get to know their professors on a personal level made it easier to ask for help and played a major role in their success as a student.
What about educational facilities? Our instructional spaces at FCC are among the best I have seen in higher education. Classrooms are spacious and equipped with the latest technology, state-of-the-art labs allow students to master hands-on skills, and our facilities for the arts are simply first-rate.
Traditional four-year colleges and universities provide rich student life experiences that augment classroom instruction. The same is true at FCC. Our Office of Student Engagement offers numerous student leadership, development, and social activities for students. FCC currently has seven athletic teams with plans to add lacrosse, tennis, and golf in the future. Our student-athletes are often recruited to continue their academic and athletic careers at four-year colleges.
Many four-year colleges and universities actively seek transfer students from community colleges. FCC has transfer agreements with 35 four-year colleges and universities, such as the University of Maryland, Towson, and UMBC. These maximize the number of credits students can transfer, and many also offer tuition discounts, transfer advising, guaranteed admission, early access to campus support services, and other benefits to enhance a student’s success.
Starting at Frederick Community College is not for everyone. Traditional four-year colleges like Hood and Mount St. Mary’s provide wonderful, unique educational experiences. However, for many students, starting at FCC not only makes financial sense, but provides a strong foundation for them to earn their bachelor’s degrees. It is a smart way to begin a lifelong path to academic and career success.
Thomas H. Powell is interim president at Frederick Community College. He is president emeritus of Mount St. Mary’s University and Saint John’s Catholic Prep. Dr. Powell is writing a series of columns about FCC during his one-year interim role.