Heidi Johnston dreams of being a speech pathologist. But ironically the 25-year-old, who graduated with a degree in communication sciences and disorders, has become a Ph.D.-level savant at something else entirely: Figuring out the increasingly complex puzzle of community colleges.
She first started out at a little community college not far from her home in Spring Grove, Illinois, in 2004. Her goal: Pursue her studies there for a few years while working part-time, transfer to a four-year institution to complete her degree, and save a bundle in the process.
And she did. But all around her, she saw the collateral damage of the slashed funding and spiking enrollment that are plaguing community colleges around the nation. Required classes fill up, credits sometimes turn out not to be transferable, and student dreams get delayed. Johnston too ran into some roadblocks, with a cap on transferred credits that meant she spent money to take some courses for no reason.
"People who are just jumping into it, don't know how to maneuver the system to their advantage," she said. "You have to be very careful in how you plan your classes, and already have in mind the school you're going to transfer to, or you could potentially waste a whole lot of time."
One might say this is the heavy price of popularity. Community colleges are currently home to more than 13 million students across the country, with enrollment that skyrocketed 22 percent between 2007 and 2011.
It is no wonder why. The average annual bill for a local community college is a relatively affordable $2,963, according to the College Board. Compare that with other options like public four-year colleges, which average $8,244 a year for in-state students, and private universities, which now average a whopping $28,500. In an era when total student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, a cheaper educational option is a natural winner.
But a perfect storm of factors is making community colleges less than an automatic choice.