Dustin SigginsDustin Siggins

On the surface, The Great Recession and Operation Varsity Blues have little in common. However, both offer community colleges the same crisis-borne opportunity to show how they provide high value, low cost, successful futures for middle-class Americans.

Community college attendance peaked in 2010, according to a study from The American Association of Community Colleges, which examined attendance from 2000-2017. That drop was caused by the worst recession in 80 years and the loss of $16 trillion in assets. Educational opportunities today exist for the lawbreaking super wealthy, corruption at “elite” schools and dozens of court cases which made it clear that middle-class Americans simply can’t afford to bribe or borrow their way into “elite” schools.

Americans owe $1.56 trillion in college debt, $500 billion more than our sum total credit card debt. This is a crisis for families which fear that massive debt, the lawbreaking super-wealthy and corrupt officials at “elite” schools, and a possible recession will keep them down forever.

But every crisis has its opportunities. As families seek to better the next generation, alternative professional and educational options have an opening to brand themselves as viable options.

Going to college? Start in your community

“Community colleges are flexible and relevant to today’s economy” because they “design programs to match local labor market conditions,” said John Rainone, Ed.D., President of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in southwest Virginia. According to Rainone, his school and others in Virginia “are adding programs that take only weeks or months to complete, not semesters or years,” to accommodate the “fewer individuals [who] are pursuing a typical college degree.”

Community colleges are a fantastic start to a financially successful future. In the 2017-2018 school year, community colleges tuition and fees were 36 percent the price of in-state tuition and fees, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. In Maryland and Virginia, community college costs are about one-fifth of the costs of in-state four-year schools.

Second, most community colleges have easy in-and-out policies. Open enrollment policies on the front end mean almost any high school senior will be accepted at a community college. Because of this, “we do not encounter such ‘scandals’ when it comes to enrollment,” said Northern Virginia Community College Annandale Campus Government Affairs Director Dana Kauffman.

Most Americans view community colleges as “settling” for a junior-level education. But are you settling, as NVCC’s commercial series points out, for getting a cyber-security or nursing degree for a fraction of the price of other schools? And are you “settling” by taking advantage of near-automatic acceptance at a four-year school if you’re a community college graduate with a qualifying GPA? Nope. All you’re doing is getting an affordable education with the socially required “stamp of approval.”

According to my calculations, the community college savings under this strategy in Maryland and Virginia amount to more than $32,000. That’s before counting interest on college loans.

There’s no relationship between school attended and success

In most fields, there’s no relationship between school attended and high levels of success. The University of Wisconsin beat out Harvard and Cornell to produce the most Fortune 500 CEOs of any college or university last year.

The student and the quality of education lead to success, not the name on the degree. My alma mater—Plymouth State University in New Hampshire—has taken big steps to negate the Yale and Harvard alumni network advantages. Plymouth State recently launched the PSUnite alumni/student networking platform. It’s the first online networking program which directly connects current students to established alumni in their fields anywhere in the world. The 43 percent of Plymouth State students who are the first person in their family to attend college now have the same opportunities as people at Yale and Harvard who have family and other connections.

PSU also has an integrated cluster model of learning which Vice President of Communications Marlin Collingwood said gets students “real-world experience” in providing “hands-on opportunities to use what they learned in the classroom.”

You don’t have to go to college

One of the most insulting memories I have of high school involves a piece of paper on the guidance counselors’ door. Each student who was accepted at a college or university was named on that piece of paper.

Not a single person who chose to open a business, become a blue-collar apprentice or enter the military was on that piece of paper. My high school considered only college attendance as worthy of acclaim to the rest of the student body.

That’s an insult to my classmates who served our country as active duty service members. It’s an insult to people like Jennifer Lannon, a master plumber in Massachusetts who partnered with her father to build a company. Jennifer isn’t a quarter-century old, but she’s a master of her craft and a successful business owner.

Service members, entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers all make “outside-the-box” choices that provide them with financial and professional opportunities.

Thinking inside the box is financially insecure

Problem-solving and critical thinking have been traditionally learned in the college environment. Some still do that, putting education over the college “experience.” But for many middle-class and poor parents, college is simply out of reach, even more so in light of huge debt, Operation Varsity Blues and a possible recession.

Non-traditional professional and educational choices should show parents that instead of putting themselves and their children into debt, most parents can easily invest in their children’s future, radically changing their future and the future of their children.

Here’s how to turn today’s high-school senior into a multi-millionaire. Properly investing $5,000 in retirement funds during each of a student’s four years in school costs $20,000, a lot less than most students’ debt. Properly invested, this money will turn into over $2.6 million by the time today’s high school senior turns 67 and over $5.5 million when the teen turns 74.

That’s just the start. If a 23-year-old invests just $100 per month in their retirement account at the average annual rate of return of 11 percent until they’re 65 years old, they’ll earn another $959,000.

Former Chicago Mayor and Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said to “never let a crisis go to waste.” With the college admissions scandal rocking so-called “elite” schools, the time couldn’t be better for community colleges to use this crisis to make their case to middle-class Americans.

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Dustin Siggins is CEO of Proven Media Solutions and a business columnist. He was previously Director of Communications for a national trade association.