A Frugal Resource: The Community College
One of my favorite frugal resources is the community college. Even though I’ve taken several classes at my local college, I’ve barely tapped into the depth of resources available not only to enrolled students but also to community members. Here are ideas on getting value from your tuition and tax money.
Select a course of study, degree program, or individual classes based on your goals. Occasionally, I talk to people who seem disappointed that a class or two didn’t jumpstart a stalled career. A computer class, for example, may help someone learn how to build a spreadsheet but, while such a skill is useful in the workplace, it may equip a job seeker with minimum qualifications rather than transforming capabilities. A career launch or change in direction generally requires a couple of years of study in an in-demand field such as nursing.
Consider how to use community college courses:
- Start (and/or complete) a college career. A couple of my family members have taken advantage of combo high school/college courses (such as an Early College program), getting college credits while in high school at no cost. Many Associate degree programs (such as nursing, graphic design, or architectural technology) may give a student all that is needed to land a great job and enjoy a fulfilling career.
- Augment a college career. Many community college classes are transferable to four-year universities. My husband took a hard-to-get course at his hometown college during the summer break from UNC so that he could meet graduation requirements.
- Broaden or update skills or certifications beneficial for the workplace. To keep up-to-date with my computer skills, I have taken a few classes over several years. Keeping up with technology can be especially difficult for the self-employed as software, training, and technical support are self-funded; the community college is a particularly valuable resource for businesses with minimal training budgets.
- Get skills that could be useful for a side business. Though I haven't started a business based on skills and knowledge gained from community college classes, I can envision providing services or creating products after taking courses such as medical interpreting or cake decorating.
- Acquire new skills that could be useful in saving money. I have taken cooking classes and learned some basics that cookbooks often neglect (such as how to select and cook certain cuts of meat).
- Launch a new career. Recent high school grads and those with years of experience and degrees may find a career through a program at the community college. A 30ish neighbor with three kids in school recently finished a dental hygiene program and is now working at a local dentist's office.
I am most familiar with expanding skills by taking classes in personal taxation, CPR, breadmaking, cooking, and desktop publishing. Most were offered through the continuing education area but one was part of a curriculum program, which required meeting with an admissions counselor and attending an orientation session to get a parking pass.
Here are a few things I have learned about getting the most out of the community college experience (also relevant to the university experience):
- Instructors are generally very knowledgeable in their respective fields. Some are great instructors but a few are not very experienced or particularly proficient in teaching. To get the best value, be motivated to learn not just by paying attention in class but by tapping into the instructor’s expertise during class sessions, when time allows. For example, one of my classes had a few (seemingly unnecessary) sessions dedicated to project work; though the instructor didn’t have much to teach on those days, she showed a deep knowledge of the subject matter and didn’t mind answering non-project-related questions.
- Scholarships are available, either through the college itself (see a scholarship listing of one community college) or through private, non-college-specific scholarships that can be applied to community college tuition, fees, and expenses.
- Discounts for books, software, and more may be available to students who are taking just one class. When I took a desktop publishing class in pre-Internet years, I was able to buy a student version of the software at a significant discount to an off-the-shelf purchase.
- Affordable, quality childcare may be available. One obstacle to getting an education and a job is lack of appropriate childcare so some colleges offer onsite childcare staffed in part by students who are earning early childhood education credentials.
In addition to classes, I have also attended dinner theatres (catered by the culinary school) and walked trails created by the horticulture school. Philip tells me that there are a wealth of resources at his local college, such as live theatre, a library, and a planetarium (you can even host a birthday party at the planetarium).
Other resources available for free or discounted prices may include
- Computer lab access with live, in-person assistance
- Foreign language lab
- Counseling and mentoring
- Job placement services
for community members:
- Business start-up and management counseling
- Fine dining (associated with culinary schools)
- Dental services
- Salon services
- Job search assistance such as resume writing and interviewing workshops
Have you gotten a fresh start at the community college or found its resources valuable? Share your experiences and tips for getting the most out of the community college.