The Smart Higher Ed Choice
May 8, 2023
By Cesar Maldonado, Ph.D., P.E.
Chancellor, Houston Community College
Each spring high school seniors face tough choices about continuing their education at a community college, such as Houston Community College, or at a university. Typical concerns are quality, cost, student support, and social factors – or misconceptions in those areas. Let’s help clear the air for those facing this tough decision.
Perceived education quality and offerings: Some stigmatize community colleges as offering lower quality education compared to universities. This is largely due to the false perception that universities have more accomplished faculty and more rigorous programs. Yet community colleges employ faculty members who hold advanced degrees, and in some cases are the same faculty teaching at universities. Community college professors possess current industry experience, prioritize teaching over research, and have small class sizes allowing for personalized instruction. Community colleges offer a wide range of academic programs, some linked to rigorous industry standards, that prepare students for university transfer and workforce employment. For example, the Houston Community College program in Artificial Intelligence is grouped with university programs in the same rigorous AI competitions. Finally, community colleges must also meet the same strict accreditation standards as universities, ensuring comparable quality in curriculum, faculty, and institutional resources as universities.
Student services: Historically, community colleges have focused on providing broad support for students through integrated, wrap-around services like career advising, academic tutoring, help with food insecurity, and mental health support. Even though many universities have similar resources, community colleges have been at this for a longer time and provide personalized points of support at no extra charge.
Status and prestige: Attending a well-known university is often seen as a status symbol over attending a community college. Those differences in brand value are rapidly diminishing, however, as colleges such as HCC offer degrees that are highly respected by global companies. An increasing number of companies are prioritizing skills, experience, and attitude over institutional brand value.
Cost: Community colleges generally have lower structural costs resulting in more affordable tuition than universities for equivalent courses. With lower costs, financial aid packages at community colleges cover more of the total cost of attendance. Further, colleges are replacing expensive resources like textbooks with low-cost electronic alternatives. An example of the cost difference is HCC’s tuition for a four-year degree in Artificial Intelligence of $19k (https://www.hccs.edu/applying-and-paying/tuition-calculator/) compared to a $90k at the University of Texas (https://onestop.utexas.edu/managing-costs/cost-tuition-rates/).
The overwhelming benefits of community colleges over universities remain affordability, accessibility, flexibility, and personalized support. These factors make community colleges an attractive option for students seeking higher education. The introduction of four-year degrees to community colleges further extends their range of educational opportunities. To be clear, for some students starting at a four-year university is the right choice. And the choice isn’t mutually exclusive. Many successful professionals have a combination of community college and university credits on their transcript. According to the Texas Association of Community Colleges, 70% of Texas bachelor grads have community college credits. For many, a community college path is the smart choice. Please use the resources available at ccsmart.org or at your local community college to help you choose. Don’t give life to the perceived stigma—make the smart choice for you.