Dustin Siggins
Dustin Siggins

On the surface, The Great Recession and Operation Varsity Blues have little in common. As millions of students return to college for the fall, however, we recognize both offer community colleges the same crisis-borne opportunity to show how they provide high value, low cost and successful futures for middle-class Americans.

Community college attendance peaked in 2010, according to a new study from The American Association of Community Colleges, which examined attendance from 2000-2017. This was caused by the worst recession in 80 years and the loss of $16 trillion in assets. Today’s opportunity comes from the lawbreaking super wealthy, corruption at “elite” schools and dozens of court cases which made it clear that middle-class Americans simply can’t afford to bribe or borrow their way into “elite” schools.

Community colleges are a great educational, professional and financial option for average Americans. The challenge is to overcome the misconception that to attend a community college is to “settle” for one’s future.

First, there’s no relationship between school attended and high levels of success. The University of Wisconsin beat out Harvard and Cornell to produce the most Fortune 500 CEOs of any college or university in the nation, as of November 2018. Likewise, community colleges provide many of the same educational and other opportunities as four-year schools.

“Community colleges are flexible and relevant to today’s economy” because they “design programs to match local labor market conditions,” said John Rainone, Ed.D., President of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in southwest Virginia. According to Rainone, his school and others in Virginia “are adding programs that take only weeks or months to complete, not semesters or years,” to accommodate the “fewer individuals [who] are pursuing a typical college degree.”

Second, most community colleges have easy in-and-out policies. Open enrollment policies on the front end mean that almost any high school senior will be accepted at a community college. Because of this, “we do not encounter such ‘scandals’ when it comes to enrollment,” said Hilbert’s colleague and Director of College Government Affairs Dana Kauffman.

Third, community colleges are far more affordable than four-year institutions. In the 2017-2018 school year, community colleges tuition and fees were 36 percent the price of in-state tuition and fees, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. In Maryland and Virginia, community college tuition and fee costs are barely more than one-fifth of the costs of in-state four-year schools, and that cost is even lower in Northern Virginia. The region’s community colleges provide high-level degrees in fields such as nursing and cyber-security while costing “$180.40 per credit hour for Fall 2019,” a total of “under $2,200 plus cost of books, supplies and transportation,” said Northern Virginia Community College Annandale Campus Provost Pam Hilbert, Ed. D.

And, remember, private schools are even more expensive.

It’s the financial component which is the most compelling reason to attend a community college. Two years after entering a community college, many four-year state universities offer near-automatic acceptance of community college graduates with qualifying GPAs. This means students can enter an affordable school, succeed with many of the same opportunities as students at four-year schools and then get the four-year “stamp of approval” at a far cheaper price than students who only attend four-year schools.

The community college savings under this strategy in Maryland and Virginia are more than $32,000, according to my calculations published in The Baltimore Sun, and that’s before counting interest on college loans!

Today’s community college savings can turn a high school senior into a multi-millionaire. As noted in the Sun, properly investing $5,000 in retirement funds during each of a student’s four years in school will turn into over $2.6 million by the time today’s high school senior turns 67 and over $5.5 million when the teen turns 74.

Former Chicago Mayor and Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said to “never let a crisis go to waste.” With the college admissions scandal rocking so-called “elite” schools, the time couldn’t be better for community colleges to use this crisis to make their case to middle-class Americans.


Dustin Siggins is CEO of the publicity firm Proven Media Solutions and a business columnist. He was previously Director of Communications for a national trade association.