Rising college costs push students to technical schools

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While most high school students still plan to go the traditional route of attending four-year colleges and universities when they consider educational options after graduation, a significant number say they are open to the idea of attending community colleges and technical schools.

The Washington, D.C.-based College Savings Foundation’s fifth annual “How Youth Plan to Fund College” survey of high school students across the country found many are broadening their perception of what higher education means. One-in-five, or 21 percent, said they think of vocational or career schools in the same way they think of public or private college.

Prior surveys did not ask that question so there is no way to compare past attitudes toward community college and vocational schools.

“What this says is that some form of higher education is more important than ever. It just may take different forms,” said Mary Morris, College Savings Foundation chairwoman. “I hope it means families are talking more, planning more, thinking about what their goals and resources are, and finding ways to make college education more affordable.”

Cost continues to be a hot topic for families and students — a reality reinforced earlier this week when President Barack Obama issued an executive order attempting to ease loan-related stresses many face following graduation from college or other post-high school educational programs.

Mr. Obama signed an executive order Tuesday that would allow millions of people to cap their monthly student loan payments at 10 percent of their income, as well as reducing payments for others.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has reported that student loan debt has reached a new milestone, crossing the $1.2 trillion mark — $1 trillion of that in federal student loan debt.

The College Savings Foundation’s survey showed 76 percent of high school students said the price tag associated with higher education will affect their college choice, and 71 percent plan to choose a more affordable option.

The College Savings Foundation’s survey showed 76 percent of high school students said the price tag associated with higher education will affect their college choice, and 71 percent plan to choose a more affordable option.

According to the 2014 World Almanac and Book of Facts, the average annual cost of tuition and fees at two-year institutions in the U.S. from 2011 to 2012 was $13,879 versus $23,479 for tuition and fees at four-year institutions.

A main focus of the College Savings Foundation is building public awareness and providing public policy support for 529 savings plans, which have grown in popularity as a way to save for college. The foundation’s members include investment managers, law firms, accounting firms and nonprofit agencies that sponsor or administer 529 plans.

College Savings Foundation members reported holding a record $143 billion in 529 plan assets, or about 68 percent of the total 529 marketplace assets of $210 billion, according to the foundation’s first quarter financial report.

While four-year institutions often focus on teaching students critical thinking skills such as how to analyze, solve problems and do research, vocational schools and community colleges tend to prepare graduates to jump right into a specific occupation. Community colleges also have a history of working closely with employers to offer job training programs focused on serving industries important to the local economy.

Part of the beauty of community colleges and vocational schools, Ms. Morris said, is that they can help students pursuing a bachelor’s degree to obtain one more inexpensively and they can even help people who already have a bachelor’s degree obtain a new set of job skills.

Community colleges offer certificate programs that only last three-to-six months, as well as two-year associate degree programs.

A growing number of students are taking advantage of Two-Plus-Two programs where they start their higher education studies at a two-year community college and finish the last two years at a four-year college. Some four-year institutions will guarantee admission to community college students as long as certain conditions are met, such as grade point average minimums.

“It’s a great path for students who graduate from high school and are not sure what they want to do or don’t have all the resources for a four-year school and might benefit from an additional two years of maturing,” Ms. Morris said. “If they do well, they could end up being accepted to a four-year college they might not have been admitted to straight out of high school.

“It’s a chance to prove yourself,” she said. “It’s a different path to a four-year school, but that is where your degree will be from. Tuition and fees are lower and you can live at home and reduce the cost of attendance, and reduce substantially the cost of a four-year degree.”


Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.

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