As more college graduates lament high student loan debt and parents look to lessen the cost of higher education, public perception is shifting in favor of community colleges.
New survey data released Thursday by a higher education think tank, New America, illustrates how young adults feel about community colleges regarding importance to the workforce, value and ability to prepare students for success.
Overall, Americans hold public two-year colleges in high regard, according to the survey data.
Hannah Ticherich, 19, just finished her first year at Lorain County Community College after graduating from Berea-Midpark High School.
“I struggled in high school and I needed an in-between step between a full-on college experience and high school,” she said when asked why she chose a community college. “And I just felt like it was more logical financially.”
Ticherich said some people thought she would shortchange her future with the pit stop. She said she didn’t.
“I think I made some pretty good friends here and I still experienced college — just not living in a dorm,” she said. “And I learned a lot in this last semester.”
While the data does not address LCCC specifically, President Marcia Ballinger said Friday that the figures resonate on the school’s Elyria campus. Speaking a day before her first commencement ceremony as president, Ballinger said more people are viewing two-year schools as the first option, not a last resort.
“From LCCC’s perspective, our philosophy and mine in particular is every student’s dream matters,” Ballinger said. “I was delighted to see such a strong showing in this poll nationally that 62 percent of those polled feel community colleges put students first. That is a hallmark of what it means to be a community college.”
On Thursday, Kelly Waddell, 24, was not thinking about survey data when he was asked for his thoughts on LCCC. He was walking through the school’s courtyard, leaving for the day after finishing up a few final details before graduation.
Saturday, the school conferred two degrees to Waddell — an associate degree in radiologic technology and a bachelor’s degree in allied health from Youngstown State University through the LCCC University Partnership program.
“I live here and know this place is pretty renowned for its radiology program,” he said. “I went to Toledo originally and I had to come back for financial reasons, but it’s a better experience, I think, than a university.”
New America surveyed 1,600 Americans older than 18 about their views on higher education and economic mobility. Ballinger said this is the first time the data included a breakdown specifically for two-year public institutions.
The results show 83 percent of survey participants said community colleges contribute to a strong U.S. workforce, 82 percent said the colleges are worth the cost and
80 percent stated that the colleges prepare people to be successful.
The rates in each of the categories surpassed those of private and public four-year universities and for-profit universities, according to the survey.
Ballinger said local polling around contributions to the workforce show that closer to 90 percent of respondents see LCCC as hitting that benchmark.
“When the college was created more than 50 years ago, it was to prepare a competitive workforce, and that holds true today and continues to be a huge part of our mission,” she said.
When asked if she thought the perception of community colleges shifted because LCCC shifted its focus to produce greater results or because the prospect of looming debt makes two-year colleges more appealing, Ballinger said it’s a combination of both and other factors.
“We have been very focused — laser-focused — over the past five years on our priority of student completion and success,” she said. “We have moved forward from what has been the concept of community colleges being open access, which was why we were created, to ensuring we are committed to our students receiving that credential or degree. It is critically important for students to earn that.”
Ohio’s funding change for higher education also played into this fundamental shift. Gone are the days of enrollment-based funding. Now, community colleges are pegged with the responsibility of student success as it pertains to state funding.
This shift started around the time Ballinger was the college’s provost and vice president for academic and learner services. It resulted in a complete redesign of curriculum, intervention strategies and support services that aimed to move more students to the finish line.
“We have made tremendous progress,” Ballinger said.
Data from the state Department of Higher Education backs up that claim. In a report that looks at three-year success measures for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students at Ohio’s two-year institutions, LCCC leads the state with a rate of 61 percent of first-time students from fall 2013 either earning degrees by the end of their third year, persisting at the same institution or successfully transferring to a four-year institution. The state average is 47 percent.
“We have much work still to do, but we have made very significant progress,” Ballinger said. “I am really proud of that for our students, and it was a heavy lift for many of them. It shows that from curriculum to education policy to support services, we are working to ensure they are earning a credential or a degree before transferring or entering the workplace. We are getting them to the finish line.”
Waddell said the race to a degree also is a cheaper one. He estimates he saved thousands by going to LCCC.
“I would tell anyone to start at a community college,” he said. “It’s cheaper. You get your first two years done for a lot cheaper, and then you can go get your big college experience. I think it’s more personable, too. They care if you graduate.”