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Free Community College? Choose Wisely

This blog was originally posted on the GenDIY Blog on Huffington Post Education.

Community colleges are the hot topic of the moment. President Obama's recent pledge to make community college tuition free is generating most of the buzz, but there has also been a wave of articles about the impact and value of community colleges on people's lives, including one by Tom Hanks who declared that Chabot College, his community college alma mater, "Made me what I am today."

At Jobs for the Future, we work with community colleges and their state-level partners on improving student success. Community colleges can be a terrific source of opportunity for an affordable education that leads to careers offering family-supporting wages and career advancement.

But not all community colleges are the same. Through our research, evaluation and work with educational institutions, we have learned that colleges—the budget choices they make, the academic programs they design, the student supports they offer, and the cultures they nurture—can have a dramatic impact on whether students finish.

What is our advice for GenDIY?

Ask the Right Questions. Choose your college wisely—Choose your college wisely—whether you are considering a short-term credential, an Associate degree or a Bachelor's. Make sure that the college you choose is focused on your success as its student—not just getting you in the door, but making sure you leave having met your goals, with a degree or credential in hand.

Ask questions and do some digging:
  • Does the college talk about student success in its mission and on its web page? What is the student-advisor ratio? 
  • What is the college's graduation rate; what is the graduation rate of your preferred program/major? How many students transfer to a baccalaureate institution?
  • Does the college offer alternative pathways, leveraging options such as technology or work-based learning? Are there opportunities to brush up on your math or writing skills while you are already enrolled in your program of choice?
  • Has the college joined a student success initiative such as Achieving the Dream,Completion by Design or Getting Smart Advocacy Partner Next Generation Learning Challenges, or been recognized by awards such as the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence?

Set Goals and Go After Them. Next, think hard about what you want to do in life, and start college ready to pursue a concrete goal. Make use of tools designed to help you make informed decisions about your future. Meet with your advisor regularly and go armed with questions. Want to be a nurse? What is the required GPA and how long is the waitlist for the program? Want to be a computer programmer? What types of jobs and salaries do the program's graduates receive? Do local employers hire people with the credential and skills you will be receiving?

Enter a program early in your academic career, map out the path of courses you need, and finish as many courses as you can—don't swirl around and rack up debt and credits that won't help you finish. Make a point of getting to know faculty, and make use of support services such as online, self-paced instruction that supplements what you learn in the classroom.
 
Not all colleges have chosen to do the hard work of analyzing their students' outcomes, designing ways of ensuring success for all of their students, and fostering cultures that emphasize student achievement. Free or not, you still want college to be a great experience, so seek out the colleges that will help you reach your goals.