After graduating from Northview High School in 2010, Elle Stobinski was set to head off to a four-year university.
She had applied to several schools and decided on the University of Toledo, where she would major in early childhood education. While determining her expenses, reality set in for Ms. Stobinski: college is more expensive than ever.
Average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges is $7,605 per year for in-state students and $11,990 for full-time out-of-state students, according to a 2010 report from CollegeBoard, a nonprofit organization that researches higher education trends.
Time for plan B. Public two-year colleges charge an average of $2,713 per year in tuition and fees, so the choice for Ms. Stobinski was obvious.
"I decided to come to Owens [Community College] instead. You save a lot of money here and all my credits will transfer," she said. "I’m paying for college myself. The less loans I have to take out, the better."
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For decades, it has been an article of faith that the path to a better job and more rewarding career is a college degree. So deeply held is this belief that many students borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend universities and private colleges.
Student loan debt surpassed credit card debt for the first time in June, 2010, and was expected to have hit $1 trillion by the end of 2011. A combination of rising costs and a lack of jobs has many college students rearranging the steps to a bachelor’s degree as they brace for the backlash of cuts in education funding that will come in the form of increased tuition bills, higher fees, and the pressure of getting a four-year degree with a minimum of debt.
Since 1988 the cost of a college education has doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In addition to utilizing community colleges, other methods are being explored to keep costs down or provide alternatives to traditional four-year colleges:
• Ohio Gov. John Kasich has ordered state universities to investigate ways for students to get a bachelor’s degree in three years. The hope is that three-year degrees will save students money and get them into the job market more quickly. Such programs could be in place as early as October.
• Enrollment at online colleges has climbed in recent years. Tuition at online schools is comparable to that of traditional schools, about $7,500 per semester, but the classes offer students flexibility in their schedules.
• Vocational, technical, and trade schools, which offer a more career-minded approach to higher education, have seen enrollment grow by double digits in recent years, as students try to get into the work force sooner.
"Individuals and families are becoming more educated about their options," said Doug Bullimore, assistant director of transfer partnerships at Owens Community College. "Everybody from adults returning to school to the high school valedictorian — lots of people — are looking at different approaches to earning a bachelor’s degree."
For many students, that approach starts at community colleges. Ms. Stobinski is one of the growing number of "2 + 2" students who spend two years at a community college and two at a four-year school to earn their bachelor’s degree.
"I’m going to get the same degree at a cheaper price," Ms. Stobinski said.
More than 90 percent of community college presidents nationwide said enrollment was up from the previous year, and 86 percent reported an increase in full-time students, according to a 2008 survey by the Campus Computing Project.
At least four out of 10 graduating high school students start their college careers at community colleges, according to CollegeBoard.
Area college officials say they’ve seen the number of transfer students rise continuously over the last few years.
"For the 2010-11 school year, over 2,000 students transferred from Owens to public Ohio universities," Mr. Bullimore said. "I’ve been in this position seven years and I’ve seen the numbers grow year to year."
This year, more than 650 students transferred to Bowling Green State University.
"Some of our students do transfer from other universities," said Barbara Henry, assistant vice president of nontraditional and transfer student services at BGSU. "In general, we know that we get a lot of our transfer students from our area community colleges."
The bottom line
For the 2010-11 school year, full-time tuition at Owens averages about $1,636 per semester. At the University of Toledo, full-time tuition averages about $4,394 per semester. At BGSU, full-time undergraduate tuition on the school’s main campus averages $5,022 per semester.
The route to a degree boiled down to cost for Sara Parker, who is adamant about graduating from college with as little debt as possible. The 19-year-old chose a community college over a four-year institution in hopes of avoiding student loans for at least half of her college career.
"I don’t want to owe all that money later in life," said Ms. Parker, of Bowling Green, who is paying for her education without scholarships, grants, or loans. "I just wanted to be able to graduate from college and get some of the things I want, like a house, without having to worry about paying back student loans before I can grow up."
After she finishes her community college studies, Ms. Parker plans to transfer to BGSU, where tuition is more than double what she pays at Owens.
"I’m sure when I get to BG I’ll have to take out some loans," said Ms. Parker, a business major. "But I’ll only have to pay for the last two years of my education and [other people] will have to pay for four."
‘I’ll be fine’
In 2009 graduating seniors had an average of $24,000 in student loan debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research and advocacy initiative. In that same year, almost 9 percent of federal student loan borrowers defaulted on their loans, the U.S. Department of Education reported.
"All of our students and their families are taking a hard, deep look at what’s going to work for them," Ms. Henry said. "We know that there’s an increasing number of students looking at all of their options."
While the cost of a college education may be taxing, the alternative could be worse.
A college education doesn’t guarantee a good job at a good wage, but people with four-year college degrees make an average of 84 percent more than those with only a high-school diploma, according to a recent report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. That premium was 75 percent in 1999.
Delani Guardarrama, of Northwood, is certain she wouldn’t be at UT if she didn’t have a scholarship.
"I wouldn’t be here if I had to pay for it. That’s a lot of money." said Ms. Guardarrama, a freshman in pre-medicine. "I’d probably be at community college."
Fellow Rocket Tyler Somerfelt, of Stow, Ohio, didn’t feel he needed to consider his options. He knew exactly where he wanted to get his education, no matter what the cost.
"I’m not worried about paying back loans," said Mr. Somerfelt, a biomedical engineering student at UT. Mr. Somerfelt, a sophomore, is using grants and loans to pay for his education and already has more than $10,000 in student loan debt from his freshman year of college. "I’m supposed to get a job right out of school and it’s a higher paying job. I’m confident that I’ll be fine."
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