A Publication of WTVP

Debunking the Community College Myth

Community colleges are no longer “the backup plan,” but a smart investment in your educational goals.

by Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey, Illinois Central College |
Community colleges are no longer “the backup plan

Since their inception in 1901, community colleges have been battling misconceptions and the heavy stigma of being a “second-class institution.” In the 21st century, however, this stereotype is clearly unfounded. Illinois Central College is tackling these myths head-on, while creating new impressions across the region. According to U.S. News and World Report, students today choose community colleges because of their flexibility, affordable tuition and school-life balance. Let’s examine these topics—along with other key issues that help debunk the typical community college myth.

Greater Flexibility

Students need flexibility now more than ever. Community colleges today offer more options for varying schedules than four-year institutions—including online, hybrid and in-person classes, as well as programs that can be completed in the evenings and on weekends. About 80 percent of community college students work, according to the Community College Research Center, with 40 percent working full-time. Community colleges strive to meet students where they are, working around their schedules so they can earn a degree or certificate while they work. Many students also have children, so flexible options allow them to balance their family life, work and educational goals. “When I lost my job, I took the opportunity to come back to school and better myself,” explains Jacquelyn, a nursing assistant student from Peoria. “Earning my degree means a lot to me, and now I know I can do anything.”

More Support

We understand more support is needed in this post-COVID period than ever before. These supportive services are essential as they help remove multiple barriers to student success. ICC began offering student assistance virtually when the pandemic began; to best meet their needs today, it only makes sense to continue offering virtual services alongside in-person services. Our Academic Support Center provides free tutoring and study skills guidance, while Smarthinking is available to students around the clock, providing on-demand, individualized support from online tutors. ICC’s library offers expansive resources online as well as on campus, while the ICC Child Care Center and voucher support programs remove barriers for parents, allowing them to still attend class and build a better future while taking care of their families.

Lower Tuition Rates & Less Debt 

At a typical four-year university, cost per credit hour is around $594, meaning each class costs about $1,780. At the other end of the spectrum, community colleges typically charge between $45 and $250 per credit hour. ICC’s average tuition of $155 per credit hour, for example, means each class costs approximately $465. That’s a savings of up to $1,315 per class—not including financial aid or scholarships, which are readily available to increase the savings. The ICC Educational Foundation offers more than 600 scholarships, totaling $800,000 in annual assistance. Savings from low tuition rates effectively “transfer” with students to their four-year schools, as the amount of student loans they need is significantly reduced. This is critical because the average graduate ends up with over $32,000 in student loan debt, according to a Forbes report. As of early 2019, there were 5.2 million borrowers in default on their federal student loans, and they face a number of lingering effects and consequences as a result. 

Workforce Training & Economic Impact

One of the unique aspects of community colleges is their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. ICC has adjusted its programing to meet the needs of employers and provide training for high-demand jobs in the Peoria region. When adults earn credentials with labor market value, they not only change the trajectories of their lives, but the lives of their families as well. Workforce-relevant education builds a ready talent pool for businesses and sets the stage for a more vibrant economy. 

ICC is educating the regional workforce in its two biggest industries—healthcare and manufacturing. We provide a pipeline of healthcare workers, graduating over 600 highly skilled professionals each year. That’s three times more health program graduates than any other educational institution in the region. 

Likewise, ICC is undertaking a major effort to revitalize the manufacturing industry amid a regional workforce shortage. We are leading the movement to train workers for high-demand manufacturing jobs through initiatives like the Manufacturing Workforce Equity Initiative, GPEAK essential skills program, and a new Workforce Sustainability Center. 

Many of these programs include apprenticeships, where students are taught specific, advanced skills needed by regional employers. In addition to their coursework, students receive a guaranteed hourly payment, and the cost of tuition, fees and books is covered. ICC also offers Earn & Learn programs, helping students earn degrees or certificates with little to no college debt. In most cases, they are paid a stipend while attending classes.

Through the Greater Peoria Essential Abilities & Knowledge (GPEAK) program, ICC is preparing individuals with essential workforce skills to be successful in their careers. Partnering with over 70 companies and agencies, GPEAK certifies individuals in ten core competencies to help them obtain and keep meaningful employment. And finally, the Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) is developing our region’s workforce while providing individuals a credential and a living wage. It assists low-income individuals, those living in high crime and high poverty areas, unemployed individuals and African Americans. “I wanted to provide a decent life for my family by securing a job with a good wage,” says Paul from Peoria, who graduated the WEI LAN Technician program this spring. “Earning my certificate has been life-changing. The journey has been amazing and I’m very thankful for ICC.” 

Transfer Students

Yet community colleges are not simply glorified vocational schools, either. A report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found 46 percent of students who finished a four-year university had attended a two-year community college. “ICC prepared me well to transfer to a university,” explains James, a psychology major from Peoria. “I was able to afford my education while adjusting to college life. I am grateful ICC was the first step in my educational journey.”     

“Not only am I an alumnus of ICC, but our children also attended ICC,” adds Dr. Keith Knepp, CEO and president of UnityPoint Health – Peoria. “They went on to four-year institutions and now lead successful careers—all as proud products of a community college. Each one received the foundation of a quality education at an exceptional value.”  

At a time when many stereotypes in our culture are being re-examined, let’s not forget those in the educational sector. ICC is no longer “the backup plan” or “option B” for traditional students graduating high school, but a smart investment to reach your educational goals. And for adult learners, it is not “starting over,” but the opportunity to advance your skills and create a better future for you and your family. 

I hope you will join us as we counteract these stigmas that no longer hold true, while bringing success to more individuals and their families. Learn more about ICC at PM