Helping Students Avoid Pitfalls in a Crowded Marketplace
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Helping Students Avoid Pitfalls in a Crowded Marketplace

Higher education has become a crowded marketplace in recent years. How can you help prospective students make the right decision?

Each year, thousands of high school seniors face an important decision about their future. They must decide whether to pursue further education at a trade school, community college, or four-year university, or enter directly into the workforce. The choice they make will have profound consequences on their options in later life. It will affect their job qualifications, networking opportunities, and the financial burden they will carry with them into adulthood.

Faced with such a momentous decision, many prospective students are overwhelmed by marketing materials, many of which offer conflicting or even misleading advice about their educational options. As a result, students find themselves struggling to make the best decision for their circumstances and career goals.

Community colleges can help by focusing on the most critical information that prospective students need to know before making their college choice. Colleges hoping to reach these students must:

1. Provide information about employment prospects once they graduate.

For many students, going to community college is a purely financial decision. Their decision is going to rest primarily on their prospects for employment once they graduate. Because attending community college increases their financial burden, they are also anxious for reassurances that they will be able to make up for these costs through increased employment prospects further down the road.

It is essential that community colleges are realistic in the advice they provide students on this front. To serve their communities best, colleges must not offer overly optimistic outcomes to students. Instead, they should remain keenly aware of opportunities in their local economy, and offer the most realistic advice based on the data at hand.

2. Guide them to resources for financial aid, scholarships, and work-study programs.

Each year, it is estimated that thousands of students miss out on Pell Grant money because they fail to fill out their FAFSAs. This can amount to thousands of federal student aid money that would have supplemented the cost of attending community college. Without filling out the application, many of these students aren’t even aware of the aid they might have been eligible to receive.

Furthermore, many community colleges offer other programs that are designed to help students through college. These include scholarships that might cover the full cost of tuition and books to work-study programs that help students gain paid, on-the-job experience while completing their program. Many of these programs are unique to community colleges, which is yet another reason students should give them careful consideration.

3. Educate them about the differences between different higher-ed options.

Higher education options can range for prestigious ivy league universities to for-profit schools of dubious merit and legitimacy. Unfortunately, unless the college has a long-standing reputation as a source for high-quality education, many students may not be aware of the difference.

Community colleges can help students avoid the for-profit college trap by alerting them to red flags. The dangers of enrolling in an unreliable for-profit institution range from exorbitant tuition fees to the risk of a sudden closure. These can leave students trapped with college debt but no degree and little hope of transferring their credits.

4. Break down additional costs they may have forgotten to factor into their decision.

Students are sometimes surprised by additional fees beyond enrollment. These include the cost of textbooks and other materials, transportation, and potentially reduced income if their class schedule conflicts with their job. While these are relatively manageable for community college students, they can be much higher for students attending a university where they may also have to include dorm and cafeteria costs.

Community colleges can help students make better financial decisions by drawing their attention to these costs early on, so that they aren’t caught off guard. Students who can plan ahead are more likely to budget accordingly, and are less likely to become stressed by unexpected demands.

5. Give students realistic advice about how to graduate on time.

Failing to complete a degree is a huge risk for students, and even taking longer to complete a degree than planned comes with greater financial burdens. While some students may have no choice but to delay a semester or two, community colleges should do their best to guide students through the expectations they have for their degree. By helping students complete their course in a timely manner, community colleges ensure their success later in life.

Help prospective students make informed decisions about their college options.

Deciding if or where to go to college is a difficult choice. What students need most at this critical moment isn’t another slogan or glossy marketing brochure painting a rosy picture of future college life, but practical information about employment prospects, financial options, and the logistical challenges they will face when completing their degree.

Community colleges are the most appropriate resource to provide this information to students. School counselors trust them as a source for reliable information about educational options, and many colleges have built links with key players in the local economy that help them understand what jobs offer students the greatest prospects for employment. Community colleges also know what resources are available to struggling students, and can offer sound guidance to students trying to assess their options.

Because of their unique position, community colleges should embrace their roll as the first resource for prospective students, parents, and school counselors alike. It is only by providing high-quality resources that answer the most urgent questions that community colleges can cut through the chatter and deliver the messages that matter most.