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2-year colleges looking pretty good right now

BY SAMUEL CLEARY | NOVEMBER 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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There seems to be an unsettling number of confounding truths at work when it comes to higher education in America.

It's a trying time to be a student. Amid the chaos of a depressed economy, certain factors make the once-nonissue of whether to attend a university a troubling matter.

Nonetheless, more students than ever are pursuing education after high-school graduation. And as a recent Daily Iowan story illustrated, an increasing number of young Americans — particularly the wealthy ones — are committing to two-year and community colleges.

These folks might have the right idea.

From a purely economic standpoint, it's easy to see that while education remains undeniably important on an intellectual level, attending a four-year college is no longer the most rational decision. With national debt increasing daily, the unemployment-rate breaking 9 percent, and Americans spending nearly 10 percent of the annual economy on higher education each year, certain questions need to be asked, for instance: Is pursuing higher education still the most intelligent choice?

The current number of Americans pursuing college degrees possesses just as much potential to hurt the economy as it does to help it.

Nearly 70 percent of high-school grads in 2010 are going to college. At the same time, outsourcing, temping, and part-time employment are becoming popular strategies in global business. This is the crux of the problem: more grads, fewer jobs, and even fewer full-time jobs that require a degree in the first place. Not only are degree-holders less likely to get jobs, they're also less likely to get good ones.

It's no mystery that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. While a college degree used to be the most secure route for average Americans to reach upper-class status, it might not be anymore.

An increased rate of students pursuing white-collar employment means an eventual drop in the number of people working blue-collar jobs. Since his election four years ago, President Obama has emphasized the importance of higher education. Yet at the same time, there is a shortage today more than ever of people needed to fill Obama's infrastructure-rebuilding jobs.

The benefits of alternative education at two-year institutions — which have seen an increase in enrollment this year — are convincing. For one, they're a bargain. As of October, the average annual tuition for a four-year state school is a whopping $17,000, and with state funding cuts looming, that number is bound to increase.

Two-year schools provide the opportunity to do more than pursue a trade, certificate, or associate's degree. They're also a fiscally intelligent means of completing transferable coursework. Without the stresses of full-time, four-year enrollment, this strategy yields a valuable luxury: Time to consider one's professional future more thoroughly before leaping eyes-closed, fingers-crossed into the chaotic pursuit of a bachelor's degree. For those uncertain as to which professional direction to seek, community colleges are a rational choice.

I'm not insinuating that the decision to pursue a college education is a poor one or that the advantages of higher learning are less weighty. I'm merely suggesting that perhaps the four-year degree has lost some of its luster.

Ironic, I know: I'm an out-of-state sophomore at a public university, writing for a newspaper in a college town, essentially posing the question, "Should I be here?"

"Clearly," they'll say, "Cleary's got some issues."

Yet, I'll gladly accept the label of "hypocrite" if only to say this: For generations, the general public seems to have placed an great degree of pressure on young Americans to attend four-year universities. Education might be our greatest hope. But today, more than ever, it isn't the only path to tread. In fact, it might no longer be the best one.


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