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For Many Students, Community Colleges Offer Better Deal and Faster Career Track

A growing number of students are choosing 2-year programs like those at Northern Virginia Community College to find high-paying jobs in fields where businesses are actually hiring.

 The economy is driving students across Virginia to Northern Virginia Community College, according to Dr. George Gabriel, vice president of institutional research, planning and assessment with the college.

In 2006, 3,000 students graduated from NOVA with two-year degrees. In 2011, that number increased to 7,000.

“That’s a big jump. Our enrollment is increasing and we’re also increasing number of students graduating with two-year degrees,” said Gabriel.

The college offers more than 160 degrees at the associate’s level and in certificate programs and reaches more than 75,000 students per year across its campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas and Woodbridge. The college also has educational centers in Reston and Arlington.

Most of the NOVA students enroll at the college to pursue fields in science technology, engineering, nursing, health, information and technology, accounting and more. More than half of the students work full-time or part-time when they aren’t in class, and 20 to 30 percent continue their education at a university full-time after graduating from NOVA.

Gabriel also estimates that NOVA students’ annual salary at their jobs after graduating are $40,000-$50,000 per year.

Despite a recent leveling off of enrollments nationally, community colleges have enjoyed a massive expansion of student interest and attendance. Haynes and millions like him are seeing community college programs as a way to quickly land great-paying jobs in industries that are truly hiring—and for far less money than they’d pay for a typical bachelor’s degree.

And those who run community colleges are finding private companies all but begging them to train more students to fill in-demand jobs, especially in growing areas such as advanced manufacturing, emergency response and medical fields.

According to the National Association of Community Colleges:

  • About 8 million U.S. students attended community college in 2011—up from about 6 million in 2010.
  • Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States attend a community college.
  • Community colleges educate 59 percent of new nurses, and 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and EMTs.

“A lot of people thought manufacturing was gone. What we call the high-tech jobs are still here,” said Maria Coons, executive director of Workforce and Strategic Alliances at Harper College in the northwest Chicago suburbs. “A lot of them are made-to-order, and they are very specialized.”

Bachelors Degrees Still Favorable for Employment

The most recent federal unemployment numbers show the overall economy still favors those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. They have a 4.1 percent unemployment rate versus 7.1 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some community college.

But both of those numbers trump the experience of workers who choose not to pursue any education after high school. Their unemployment rate stood at 8.7 percent in July. (And 12.7 percent for those who don’t complete high school.)
About 57 percent of job openings between 2006 and 2016 will require some form of postsecondary-education, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coons said community colleges work best when they reach out to their communities and train for who is hiring.

Harper started a program to connect local high-tech manufacturers with its graduates, providing internships for students who complete a basic certification while they work on their degrees. 

They expected to get 30 jobs to offer students, but they got 87.

And even as the semester was about to start, Coons’ phone was still ringing with employers calling her to get in on the program.

“We still have manufacturers calling us left and right,” she said. “Their workforce is aging. They have orders they can’t fill. They don’t have a pipeline of workers.”

A community college certification not only opens doors, she said, but it ups the pay scale these students can expect. “One manufacturer said that, walking in off the street, they could pay you $10-12 an hour, but with a certification from Harper you double that. High-end operators can make double that,” she said.

Haynes said he looked into welding—an advanced manufacturing field—because he knows he'll find a job when he's done. “There are tons of job opportunities,” he said.

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