Finding a Great School Close to Home
I agree with your recommendation that kids consider going to a community college and then transferring to a four-year state school. That's the track I'm encouraging for my three children. In Virginia, where we live, the "inferior" state schools include the University of Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison and Virginia Tech. Most other states have similarly good choices.
Your letter coincides perfectly with the publication of Kiplinger's annual listing of the best values in public colleges and universities. Our rankings list the top 100 schools that deliver a first-rate education at an affordable price.
All four of the Virginia schools you cite make our list. And about three-fourths of the states claim at least one top performer, so most students can find a great public program close to home.
The company students keep
In recommending that students go to a community college, you are forgetting about the social and motivational traps young people fall into when they are surrounded by the less ambitious and less self-sufficient community-college atmosphere. I think students would be better off in the long run at a four-year university, both financially (even with large student loans) and from the standpoint of quality of life, which is too often undervalued by financial journalists.
I take issue with your generalization that community-college students are less ambitious or less self-sufficient. On the contrary, many of those students are hustling to attend school while they hold a job. Many are immigrants striving to get ahead, or students who just weren't ready to head off to a four-year school at the age of 17 or 18 (like the daughter of a friend of mine, who is thriving after transferring to a school on Kiplinger's best-value list).
Education is what you make it. If you think community college is some kind of punishment, you won't make much of it. If you look at it as a springboard to a better life and less debt, you'll make the most of it.
Call me a wet-blanket financial journalist, but I can't tell you how many e-mails I get that read like this one: "I owe $129,000 in student loans. What's the fastest way to pay off my debt?" I'm happy to offer advice. But there's no quick and easy solution.
The best way to get the debt monkey off your back is to keep it from climbing up there in the first place. Community college may not be for every student. But before heading off to any school, every student (and his or her parents) should at least consider how they're going to pay for it.