LIHUE – It’s the million dollar question.
More students and their parents find themselves asking this question in light of rising tuition costs.
Is college worth it?
Literally. And if a degree is the goal, isn’t it more fiscally prudent to go the less expensive route, which would be through a community college rather than heading straight to a four-year university?
“We’re not there now,” Kauai Community College Chancellor Helen A. Cox said about the old stigma that community colleges used to be just for kids who couldn’t really make the college grade. “Our students are very, very bright but sometimes don’t have the financial resources or they’re not quite ready for a university or college.”
But the demand for higher education continues to go up — as do tuition costs — so the number of students heading to junior college will increase, too. Between 2011 and 2021, college enrollment is expected to increase 13 percent, according to the Institute of Education Sciences.
Around 1,500 students enrolled at KCC for the fall semester, about the same amount as last year.
This year, in-state residents will pay $114 per credit. If they attended the University of Manoa, the charge per credit would start at nearly four times that amount — $410 per credit. The cost of education, of course, can go much higher. An Ivy League college degree at Harvard University, for instance, costs $4,538 per credit.
Cox said KCC is 16th in a ranking of “student engagement” of more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide. She said community college makes sense for students who want to go where they can get their feet wet. Pupils include advanced placement high school students, senior citizens, recent high school graduates as well as those working toward earning a certificate.
Michael Estes is an adult KCC student. His GI bill ran out before he could further his education.
“I found myself homeless and sleeping in Ala Moana Park,” Estes said. “I had no degree and too much work experience.”
That was in 2008. Estes is only a semester and a half away from graduating from KCC’s pre-nursing liberal arts program. He is also a member of the Alpha Pi Xi Kauai chapter for honor students. He remembered his first semester.
“With two hours left for late enrollment in spring classes, my status was verified for the long-term unemployed veterans program, the counselor pushed buttons on classes for availability until I was registered for four classes,” Estes said. “I started classes the next day.”
But prior to enrollment, Estes said he had hit rock bottom.
“I’m fortunate and grateful to the VA and KCC,” Estes said. “Without them, I’d be a homeless person. The national and global economy put me in a position that I never thought I’d be in.”
Estes will be the first in his family to graduate with a degree and plans to move on to earn either a medical degree to become a public health policy physician or a Ph.D.
“Education is paramount,” Estes said. “KCC is a resource for the whole community, a place where they can learn and go beyond and better themselves.”
An associate degree at KCC without the cost of books, using full time, in-state status and taken during five consecutive semesters, will cost $7,110 if awarded in the 2014-15 school year. A bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa can cost a student much more.
Tuition at UH is $4,920 per semester for in state, full-time students seeking a four-year undergraduate degree, according to the univeristy’s website.
“The tuition is less and that is a substantial savings, and to be able to live on island with family and friends around is another benefit beyond the savings,” Cox said about the reasons more students are going the two-year route at first.
Still, the benefit of a degree is there.
According to Institute of Education Sciences data, workers in 2012 between 25 and 34 years of age who earned an Associate of Arts degree pulled in a median income of $35,700. A bachelor’s degree or higher amounted to $46,900. And a master’s degree or higher equaled $59,600. Those with a high school diploma earned around $30,000.
Gary Ellwood, marketing specialist for KCC, sees the value in staying close to home for higher education before investing in a four-year college degree.
“The best stats for students who do two years at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school is north of 70 percent,” said Ellwood. “They keep their feet in red dirt until they figure out who they are and where they want to go. A lot of people want to get off the rock and study on the Mainland but the cost is so prohibitive.”
There are students who flip-flop the two schools, too.
John Kalk, institutional researcher at KCC, sees a steady stream of students who earned credits at a four-year college before transferring to KCC. He estimated that around 100 students each school year enter KCC that way. While 30 percent of Kauai high school graduates on the island enroll at KCC each year, the college wants to increase that number.
“KCC will be attending advisory classes each month on high school campuses with counselors, teachers and KCC students,” Ellwood said. “They’ll be on hand to answer questions and mentor.”
Cox remembered the experience she had with a young Kauai student who planned to only take a few courses to earn her certificate at KCC, then begin work in the hospitality industry. The woman, after completing her Associate of Arts degree, transferred to UH Manoa to continue her studies.
“She didn’t have the confidence,” Cox recalls. “But then she started taking classes and got excited about electronics and engineering. She got turned on and realized her full potential.”
Lisa Ann Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org