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When Jennifer Reinhart graduated high school in 2006, she thought she had her future all figured out. She would volunteer for one year in the AmeriCorps and then begin her four-year college education at the University of Cincinnati.
She had everything in the bag: her high school diploma, a spot at her first-choice school, a secure position in the volunteer program. But when she sat down and put her finances together one year later, things changed.
“I took a year off and did a volunteer program, which didn’t make any money,” Reinhart says. “I was originally supposed to go to main campus, but then I switched to community college last minute because it made more sense.”
For the history major, who is financing her own college education, saving approximately $2,000-$3,000 a year was worth the sacrifice of living at home and missing out on the traditional college scene.
So in August of that year, when others were packing their bags and loading up their cars for school, Reinhart relinquished her spot at UC, applied to Raymond Walters College and enrolled at the two-year institution.
“It’s so much cheaper, I get some of my core classes out of the way and then transfer to UC,” says Reinhart, who is heading to main campus in Clifton this fall.
Reinhart is not alone. In today’s barren economic climate, her decision represents a growing trend among students who spend their first two years of college at cheaper community institutions before transferring to four-year universities.
Local colleges and universities have noticed notable swells in community college transfer applications in the past year: UC has experienced a 7 percent increase in applications, while Miami University has seen a 5 percent increase.
At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, summer term enrollment was up a whopping 31 percent from last year.
“There’s been an increase in the number of students pursuing associate of arts and associate of science degrees, and those are the ones geared specifically to transfer,” says Michelle Imhoff, associate vice president of marketing and communications at Cincinnati State.
President Obama’s education initiative, unveiled in mid-July, is projected to provide an additional $12 billion to community colleges. The boost in federal funding could also contribute to an increase in community college enrollment in forthcoming years, not to mention help them accommodate the recent growth of students.
On average, community colleges save students $2,000-$4,000 per year (compared to four-year public colleges), and that’s just in tuition. Since many community college students choose to live at home, they also save thousands on room and board, which can cost upwards of $10,000 a year at residential colleges.
Faith Daigle, a second-year criminal justice major at Columbus State Community College, also cites finances as the main reason behind her decision to attend a two-year institution.
“It was so much cheaper, and I could stay with my family,” says Daigle, who hopes to attend UC or Ohio State University next year.
Thomas Canepa, associate vice president of admissions at UC, agrees that the economic situation is playing an important role in the upsurge in community college transfers. However, he warns not to overlook other factors.
“I think it would be a mistake to say [the economy] would be the principal reason,” Canepa says.
Indeed, students choose to begin at community colleges for a variety of reasons, including finances, other commitments such as jobs or families, academics and/or uncertainty about their majors/careers.
“It also gave me a few years to figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” Daigle says. “I think you get a better feel of what you want to do with your life, especially if you don’t know your career or where you want to go to college.”
To help create an affordable path from two to four-year institutions, many Ohio colleges and universities offer high-achieving transfer students special scholarships and financial assistance.
The surge of qualified students opting to attend two-year colleges has also had a positive influence on the reputation of community institutions. More and more four-year colleges are beginning to recognize the quality of community college students, strengthening their transfer programs and providing more scholarships to attract them.
Miami University, for example, has worked diligently over the past few years to bring in more transfer students, raising scholarship amounts and adding the new Pathways Scholarship this year.
“We’re always looking for more and better students to increase the quality of the student body,” says Chuck Knepfle, director of student financial assistance at Miami University. “Miami has really come to recognize the quality of students that come out of community colleges … so we have put some [more] scholarships out there to attract them.”
Most schools offer services and advisers to make the transfer process as seamless as possible. However, prospective community college transfers are strongly encouraged to pre-plan.
“You need to make sure you know where you want to go and what you want to major in at the four-year school so you can sit down with your adviser and put together a course sequence that’s guaranteed to transfer,” Imhoff says.
While starting one’s higher education at community college may seem like an increasingly attractive option for students whose families are feeling the pinch of the recession, it might not be for everyone.
“I think it can be a good option, but the thing to remember is that each student is unique and the type of college experience the student is wanting differs,” says Brian Jicinsky, interim assistant director and transfer coordinator at Miami University. “Some students can be very successful transferring into a four-year school and make the necessary adjustment. For others, it may be better to start off at the four-year school. Making the decision of the path to follow for higher education needs to fall on the individual and the family.”
Fortunately for both Reinhart and Daigle and for thousands of similar students nationwide, starting at community college has proven to be the right choice.
“I’m satisfied with my decision,” Reinhart says. “I think it’s a good route to follow because I really did save a lot of money. It just depends on what exactly you want from college. But I am very excited to move to Clifton and take my major classes with people who share that same passion for it.”
“I actually wish my [community] college was a four-year college because it’s really nice,” Daigle says. “I don’t feel like I missed out at all.”
[Photo: Jennifer Reinhart on the campus of the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College, where she began her college career. Reinhart transferred to UC's main campus for this coming fall quarter.]