Doreen Demars owned a men's professional golf mini-tour, managed restaurants, and waited tables before deciding she needed a college degree. "I was stuck at a certain level and couldn't rise above without a degree," says Demars. But at 34, she was looking for the most cost-effective and convenient way to get educated.
Her solution? Demars, of Gill, Mass., entered the business administration transfer program at Greenfield Community College. After completing Greenfield's two-year program, she transferred into Babson College and is on track to graduate in December, 2007. Now Demars dreams of opening her own business again, this time armed with a college degree.
Many others seem to be following the same path. Educators say that more business students today are pursuing higher education at junior and community colleges to save money while still starting their advanced education on the right foot. That's despite the fact that community colleges, which developed rapidly nationwide in the 1960s, have often struggled with the reputation of offering a second-class education compared to their four-year counterparts.
JUMPING OFF POINT. The number of business students earning associate degrees has been steadily rising since 2001. In the 2001-2002 academic year, 86,713 people earned associate degrees in business, and that number rose to 89,564 the next year, according to the 2005 Digest of Education Statistics compiled by the U.S. Education Dept. And more than 92,000 students graduated with an associate's degree in business in 2003-2004, the latest year for which statistics are available.
Often, schooling doesn't end there. About 50% to 60% of community college students transfer into four-year institutions, says James Vomhof, who retired in July as associate director of accreditation at the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs, a group that accredits business education.
Affordability is becoming increasingly important as tuition to four-year universities continues to climb. Prices range upwards of $40,000 per year at private schools and $20,000 for out-of-state students at public ones.
"ALMOST A SCAM". At Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., residents pay $63 per credit hour—$945 per semester or $1,890 per academic year for full-time students—which is typical. At four-year colleges, even public ones such as University of Texas, Austin, residents can pay more than $7,000 for a full academic year. Demars estimated that she saved about $20,000 by spending those two years at a community college.
"You're wasting your money by going anywhere but community college," says Douglas McDevitt, a 25-year-old Iraq War veteran, who is completing his second year at Metropolitan Community College in South Omaha, Neb. "It's almost a scam going to a four-year program for your first two years because you can pay three times less for the same classes at a community college." McDevitt, an accounting student, plans to transfer into a four-year program when he completes his associate's degree.
Cost alone isn't enough reason to attend a community or junior college. Today, education is also a draw. Students who weren't very successful in high school or are unsure of what they want to do can still use these programs to catch up. But once derided as the "thirteenth grade," many of these schools now offer innovative, interactive learning experiences with smaller class sizes than four-year institutions, says Anita Dickson, professor of business at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa.
VIRTUAL BUSINESS. Students who go to Northampton say the work is rigorous. "The courses were just as hard as anywhere else," says Raymond Slinski, a 45-year-old husband, father of two teens, and a recent graduate of Northampton. "A lot of our professors taught at [four-year colleges] Lehigh and Lafayette."
Indeed, students in Dickson's course are connected to 1,500 to 2,000 other schools around the world that create and sell virtual products to one another. While the product is virtual, the business is real. The classroom looks like an office with cubicles for students, who work in departments such as human resources, marketing, or purchasing and inventory.
Dickson says the course helps students see how different departments have to interact with one another to make a business successful. The students can also participate in job-shadowing programs with real employers in the community to find the industry and job that's right for them. Much of this is similar to what goes on at four-year programs.
IN THE COMMUNITY. "The backbone of any community in any region is the community college," says Janice Stoudemire, who teaches accounting at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, S.C., a junior college that offers two-year associate degrees.
Part of the reason community colleges are in the know with the business community is because they are largely responsible for training and retraining local executives with refresher courses and programs, proponents say. "We are ingrained in the community, so we have a real sense of the community's workplace needs, and we can respond quickly," says Jim Williams, dean of the business and technology division at Johnson Community College.
With less bureaucracy, community and junior colleges can often respond to marketplace changes and update the curriculum much more rapidly than four-year programs. In fact, at Johnson, administrators were able to quickly create an entrepreneurship certificate program after increasing demand by those in the area who wanted to launch their own enterprises. The two-year program allows students to study entrepreneurship and specialize in 15 different areas, including interior design and hospitality.
LOWER PAY? But two-year programs have their flaws. The professors are usually not in the habit of doing research and often have other jobs that take up their time. This can be seen both as a positive (professors having the ability to bring the real world into the classroom) and a negative (professors lacking academic rigor and know-how).
Some students head straight to work after earning an associate or sub-baccalaureate degree, and they often earn less money and settle for working in smaller businesses than those with a baccalaureate degree.
Still, experts estimate that about half of junior and community college students transfer to four-year institutions. At Dean College in Franklin, Mass., the school's tag line is "the way there," says Associate Professor of Business P. Gerard Shaw. About 98% of Dean students on the associate-degree track transfer to four-year institutions or the college's own four-year program. Most finish the undergraduate degree within two years of transferring, adds Shaw.
SMOOTH TRANSITION. Getting accepted to a four-year program isn't exactly a snap. It's just as hard as it would be for a student coming directly from high school, say admissions staffers at four-year colleges. But there are some differences. For example, if you've been out of school for a while, you don't always have to share your SAT scores. In those cases, transcripts from high school and a junior or community college will suffice.
Any student who has gone from one four-year university to another will tell you that transferring credits can be a nightmare. But community and junior colleges are in the business of preparing people for the undergraduate degree. Therefore, they know what kinds of courses will make the cut and which ones won't. As a result, administrators at both kinds of schools say that most credits, especially for basic courses, transfer easily from a community college to a four-year program.
The bottom line is that educators at top four-year universities have a growing respect for associate degree programs. "These [transfer] students are helping us look more broadly and think more about how curriculum transfers from one school to another," says Patricia Greene, provost at Babson. If Babson's acceptance is indicative of tolerance at other high-caliber programs, then higher education—even at the most prestigious institutions—might become more accessible to everyone.