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The Community College Advantage

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Once sneered at as “just community college,” local, two-year programs have earned their place among any other respected educational institution.

Whether students attend for an associate degree alone or as a steppingstone to a bachelor’s degree, attending community college can make a lot of sense for students.

“Our alumni report no problem in transferring and they’ve had success in finding jobs,” said Casey Crabill, president of Onondaga Community College.

The derogatory view of community colleges “is an old view held by people less informed than they might be. For now, many employers are more interested in skills than degrees. We’re hearing a lot of interest from employers about what’s in your degree.”

Casey Crabill, Ph.D., president of Onondaga Community College.

Community colleges tend to offer a lower teacher to student ratio at 1:40 or fewer rather than 1:250 or 1:300 as with many four-year schools. This allows greater student-teacher interaction and attention. Struggling students will get more help and talented students more opportunity to excel.

Crabill said that the OCC instructors are well-qualified, fully credentialed professors, not graduate students.

Most community college students live locally, so they save money on room and board. The tuition is lower as well, which enables more students access to a college education.

“We have a program that allows students to access books at about half the cost,” Crabill said. “We want to help students afford the program they want to get the career they imagined.”

Generating greater access to a college education creates a student body comprised of students who really want to be there and will work to improve their situation.

“We have alumni who started here and are now cardiac surgeons,” Crabill said. “It’s a pathway designed to help you get started at a reasonable price.”

Students uncertain of what they want to study can try out a degree at lower cost and risk at community college. Most of the first four semesters are comprised of general education core or basic electives that would transfer to other majors anyway.

Community colleges tend to be more vested in their communities with high school early entry programs, continuing education classes and enrichment opportunities for all ages. Partnering with local employers helps community colleges craft programs that teach the skills they want for specific positions. That builds employability into the education.

“We can prepare students for great jobs at home,” Crabill said. “They start in ninth grade and when they graduate, they have an associate degree and get snapped up by those local employers.”

Cayuga Community College also works with area employers who provide employment services.

“There’s an increased understanding that community colleges offer career-based learning avenues, and that our students are ready to join the workforce,” said Brian Durant, president. “These career paths may lead to a degree, a credential or a micro-credential, but our focus is to ensure students have the training and confidence they need to succeed after they leave Cayuga.

Brian Durant, president of Cayuga Community College.

“Businesses are key sources of information to make sure these programs are emphasizing cutting-edge techniques and trainings to provide students what they need to know when they join the workforce.”

One example is the Advanced
Manufacturing Institute that Cayuga opened on the Fulton Campus in spring 2022. Novelis, Huhtamaki and the Oswego County Manufacturers’ Consortium offered input and support that helped design the curriculum. This collaboration helped develop workers ready to assume roles at these organizations upon graduation.

Like community colleges, online education has also improved in its public perception. In early 2020, colleges shifted to online courses. Many schools, including Cayuga, ramped up the format and improved the student experience so that students accustomed to an in-person class would feel they could access online classes just as easily.

“Students adapted to these changes and succeeded with greater and greater frequency,” Durant said, “and as more people took online courses, there was a greater realization that while the courses are presented differently, the content and opportunities were largely the same.”

In general, most people turned to online resources for many aspects of life over the past two years, from shopping to entertainment to socializing. Education represents one more example.

“In our experience, businesses have appreciated this fact and recognized that students who took classes during the pandemic have demonstrated an undeniable ability to adjust to new and unexpected challenges,” Durant said. “That’s an indispensable trait that appeals to employers and should serve our students well in the years ahead.”