Community Colleges: Worth a Second Look

August 14, 2014
BY Simone Ellin | Photos by David Stuck
Two-year colleges offer low tuition and a chance for students to find their path

As executive director of public relations and marketing for Howard County Community College, Elizabeth S. Homan is well aware that many parents and students view community college education as a last resort.

“We know parents tell their kids, ‘If you don’t get your grades up, you’ll end up at community college’” she says.

Sandra Kurtinitis, president of CCBC, says that teachers at the two-year college are there because they love teaching and believe in the mission of community colleges.

Sandra Kurtinitis, president of CCBC, says that teachers at the two-year college are there because they love teaching and believe in the mission of community colleges.

“There is a lingering belief that community colleges are where you go when you can’t get in anywhere else,” admits Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County which has campuses in Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex, and extension centers in Essex, Hunt Valley, Randallstown and Owings Mills. Arguably, Jewish parents, “the people of the book” may be even more likely than others to view community college education in a negative light.

Homan says she understands why two year colleges are sometimes seen as last resorts.

“The four year model is so predominant. That’s all [parents] know,” she explains. What they may not know, she adds, is that doing well at a community college before applying to a four-year college or university often makes it possible for students to gain admission to prestigious four-year institutions that would have rejected them had they applied directly from high school.

Another thing parents may overlook is the tremendous savings community colleges offer even in comparison to four-year state universities.

“The cost differential is extraordinary,” says Kurtinitis. “Students can attend community college for $3,000 a year.”

At Maryland’s four year state universities, annual tuition is more than $9,000 a year, plus room and board, while tuition, room and board at private four-year institutions can cost upwards of $60,000 annually.

Those who make assumptions about community college students may be surprised to find that there isn’t really a typical profile for students who attend two-year post-secondary institutions. As it turns out, community college students are a diverse group, with a variety of goals, motivations, ages, religions, ethnicities and socio-economic statuses.

That being said, the average CCBC freshman is 27 years old; only 11 percent of students come straight from high school. Forty-two percent are minorities, and Kurtinitis says there is a large community of Russian students at the college.

Many CCBC students are the first in their families to graduate from college, 60 percent are women and many of them are seeking careers in nursing or allied health professions. “If you want a healthcare career, CCBC is a good place to start,” says Kurtinitis.

Stepping-stone

 Aaron Brager is currently studying for a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Aaron Brager is currently studying for a master’s degree in mental health counseling.

After he graduated from Owings Mills High School in 2000, Aaron Brager wasn’t eager to go on to college.

“I really wanted to take time off from school,” Brager, 32, recalls. His parents, however, saw things differently. They insisted that he attend college.

“I did apply to some four-year colleges but I really didn’t feel ready to go. I didn’t feel I had the skills I needed and I was horribly undisciplined,” he says. “Being at Catonsville allowed me to transition from high school to college. I guess there’s a reason why they call community college the 13th grade.”

Talmudical Academy graduate Yosef Palanker of Pikesville spent two years in Israel before returning home to apply to college. Like Brager, Palanker felt unprepared to attend a four year institution.

“My high school focused more on Jewish studies, and I felt there were some gaps in my learning,” Palanker explains. “I thought community college would fill in those gaps.” Since arriving at CCBC, Palanker has taken remedial classes that he says have given him a great foundation for college-level study.

Like 65 percent of CCBC students, he has held part-time jobs while attending the school, so completing college is taking him longer than the two-year associate degree might have taken otherwise. But Palanker has taken full advantage of his time at the college.

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