4- year? Community College? MicroBachelor’s? Which to Choose?

*Disclaimer: This article provides general information regarding educational options.

When I was in high school and looking at colleges, the advice that was given to my generation was to simply get the college degree and then get the job. Because the thought was on learning first and work later, students were not encouraged to acquire needed skills for the workforce while obtaining their degrees.

Another focus for college was student loans. Again, this was a different generation. While there were many families looking for ways to pay for their child’s post-secondary education, there were also multiple scholarships and grants available for students. If a student could not score a scholarship or grant, then the next advice easily rolled off of people’s tongues: apply for financial aid or a loan to pay for college. Can you see why we’re in the mess we’re in now?

As jobs required employees to have bachelor degrees and advanced degrees, it became harder to turn down the idea of a loan to pay for school. After all, a loan could help a student get said degree quicker, which would help the student secure a job faster instead of waiting while taking low-paying jobs. Not a great solution, but a solution. As a result of those choices, society is going in a new direction because: 1) many students cannot pay for an education without going into massive debt; 2) degrees of various sorts are required for the desired jobs. Even some jobs that previously required a high school degree now require a bachelor’s degree; 3) employers are noticing that many of their employees have degrees, but lack the skills needed to complete and sustain the job; and 4) students, especially non-traditional students, simply cannot afford the cost of a full degree, plus the time it traditionally takes to complete one. So what’s the answer?

Well, there appears to be MANY

Institutions of higher education have wrestled with the changing demographics and demands of potential and current students, plus the needs of employers. As a result, there are articulation agreements between community colleges and universities; online institutions offering degrees in a short amount of time (for a price); brick and mortar universities with online components; the reimagining of apprenticeships while obtaining a degree; and lo and behold – MicroBachelors offered by online educational companies. So how is a potential student to know which one to delve into?  Hopefully, breaking down these educational solutions should help.

4-year colleges and universities

Who knew that four-year institutions would one day be seen as “traditional” (i.e. old school)? Your typical four-year institution offers a host of degrees: Bachelors, Masters (some), and some Doctoral degrees. While a few traditional/brick and mortar colleges and universities offer online courses and even programs, most value the face-to-face model of educating. A person who chooses this institution would do so because their goals are as such where a bachelor’s degree is needed. Depending on whether one chooses a public or private institution, costs may vary, so it’s important to look at cost per class, grants, and scholarships.  What’s more important is finding out whether the four-year institution that you’ve chosen has the degree for the field in which you want to enter and invests in it. For example, there are many schools offering Biology degrees, but some schools invest heavily in their science department, while others provide the minimum resources to teach students. Be sure that you get a degree in a field that will serve you in the future, and at a college that provided good resources to help you learn.

Community College

Many believe that community college is where one goes to get their General Education courses out of the way before transferring to the four-year school. Well, yes and no. Community colleges have a lot to offer in terms of curriculum based courses, Associate degrees, and Economic and Workforce Development training (for those who need certain skills to enter the workforce-with or without a Bachelor’s degree). If you are looking to eventually move to a four-year institution, then (in my opinion) get your Gen. Eds. out of the way for as little money as possible by taking them at a community college. Save the dollars for the courses that belong to a specific major.

While you’re at the community college, take a look at the Economic and Workforce Development programs. Learn a trade while you’re at it. Students are being urged now to learn a trade AND get a college degree. You know why? Skills are important and having both features (don’t forget work experience via an apprenticeship, internship, or prior work experience) creates a more well-rounded individual who can enter a career and thrive without being taught everything by a boss. If the career you want does not require a Bachelor’s degree, but an Associates or Certificate instead, or if you simply want to get your general requirements out of the way for a fraction of the cost, look to your local community college.

Online, Accredited, Private

For this one, I am not talking about the brick and mortar schools that offer online programs. I’m talking about the 100% online schools. While some may smirk at me for even referencing these schools, I want to be fair to those who really need an online option (plus I received a certificate from one). These online institutions are accredited (check to make sure), offer a range of programs, and often get you the degree in less time than a traditional institution. They normally do cost more money than a traditional four-year or community college, so it’s important to do your research. Here are some things to consider when it comes to “attending” an online college or university:

  • Discipline:  You, as a student, have to be disciplined enough to complete the work and ask for help. Online work does not equate to “easier work.” Sometimes, it’s harder because there’s more to read, more to watch, more to write, and no one’s around you telling when you have to study and complete the work. Therefore, if you fail, there’s little to no wiggle room for extensions. You simply fail and retake the course. There’s a reason why retention of online students is low compared to face-to-face or hybrid classrooms.
  • Equipment:  While you can always go to a library or use your phone to complete work (don’t do this if you don’t have to), your life will be less chaotic if you have a computer with updated software and reliable internet at home. Online college is online because the creators understand that you may only be able to log in and chat with instructors or students, or access assignments at 10pm or 3am; therefore, you need ways to do that, regardless of where you are. Having a good connection and equipment that updated will help you, greatly.
  • You know your reasons: I received a certificate from an online college. It was a great experience!  The advisers were friendly and staff responded to me within 24 hours whenever I needed them. However, I chose the college over a brick and mortar one for a few reasons: 1) I just needed some additional courses for my job and did not have time (literally) to sit in a class; 2) I had just had a baby, so my time away from home was extremely limited (plus, I had a spouse with irregular work hours); 3) I could risk spending the amount of money that it cost; and 4) I already had advanced degrees, so I was well aware of my study habits and learning style. Online education was a fit for me.

If your only reason to attend an online institution is because it is online, take some more time to assess your situation. Be sure that you do your research of online universities, their degrees, their accreditation (which differs depending on state), and their costs before jumping in. *You should really do this for any institution, not just online.

MicroBachelors anyone?

Now for the newest degrees to enter- the microbachelors. In the era of MOOCs, transparency, and open access, companies such as EdX have teamed with universities to offer courses that can be counted toward a full degree if a student transfers to selected colleges and universities. By providing stackable credentials based on workforce training, students can enter a flexible pathway towards earning a degree in a shorter amount of time, and hopefully secure a job in a particular field. Similar to community colleges, EdX has recognized that stackable credentials and academic and career pathways help students reach their goals sooner than later, costs less money overall, and still provides a quality education. What’s more is that partnering with the corporate world to create these programs is a great way to get corporate buy-in (i.e. hire the students who complete the program companies invested in).  At the moment, this seems to be a great option, but time will tell as this is relatively new. Community colleges have already entered the path of stackable credentials, open access, and academic and career pathways, but they are brick and mortar, not online.

As you continue your search to find the best educational solution, keep in mind your long-term goals, current needs, and financial reality.

Keep moving forward!

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