Low involvement obscures hidden benefits of the two-year college in career development

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Cody Wiesner, Fox Journal copy editor. · The Fox Journal file photo

There’s no question that there are profound benefits to pursuing a college education, whether it be to gain work experience, cultivate student and professional relationships through classes and clubs or to grow as an intellectual. While this remains the case in colleges everywhere, another fundamental question has come into prominence. Academia: can its inherent intellectual merit exist in the face of rising tuition? Or, rather, is it now a decision of necessity to ensure wealth and stability? That’s a conflict UW-Fox students and other scholars across the country inevitably face during their education.

Last spring, I wrote an editorial about the dwindling educational, vocational and extracurricular opportunities at UW-Fox Valley, wherein I pointed to a lack of student involvement on campus as one possible explanation for this. Using, for example, that fewer than 10 percent of business students were regularly involved in Business Club, I argued that the lack of involvement on campus contributed to a troubling “get your associate degree and leave as quickly as you came” mentality on campus. However, while this may certainly be the case, I didn’t account for the specific reasons that could necessitate this. At UW-Fox, and other two-year colleges, students are more likely to value working full time and avoiding debt over developing work experience directly in one’s field and acquiring the knowledge curricula have to offer.

That noted, is the newfound practicality of the college experience such a bad thing? Because it’s certainly understandable. Spending four years at a university, in the minds of many students, has become increasingly illusive. According to Martha J. Kanter’s foreword in William Elliot II and Melinda K. Lewis’s book The Real College Debt Crisis: How Student Borrowing Threatens Financial Well-Being and Erodes the American Dream, students have become more reliant on financial aid, as opposed to the 1950s through ‘80s.

“[Then], Pell grants covered two-thirds of a college education in the 1970s. Today, those same grants cover less than a third of costs, and, at too many colleges and universities, less than 15 percent,” Kanter wrote in book’s foreword.

With that in mind, it would make sense that many students at UW-Fox would choose to forego the higher tuition of four-year universities in favor of the low-cost tuition of the two-year education model, working full-time to exit college with no debt. For these students, the risk of exiting college, not finding work and still having to pay off large amounts of interest-applied financial aid is simply too great. In a manner of speaking, the accessible benefits of the college experience are prohibitive in cost to these students.

In recurring UW-Fox student spotlight articles, a vast majority of students cited the practicality of UW-Fox when asked why they chose the campus. They referred to its competitive tuition as a definite draw to the college, and a multitude of students used the exact words “close to home.” It’s definitely a shared philosophy at UW-Fox Valley and of many other two-year colleges, and, to their credit, two-year colleges attract some of the most realistic, practically minded scholars to their campuses.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most involved students on campus can be seen in leadership positions and Work Study jobs, gaining valuable work experience and networking from their freshman and sophomore years. Unlike four-year colleges, where leadership positions are typically occupied by upperclassmen, two-year college students have the opportunity to acquire more experience than their peers at four-year colleges, making them the prime candidates for leadership and internship once they transfer. Despite this lucrative opportunity, many two-year students choose not to go this route.

Not only this, but studies researched on college students indicate the importance of being involved on campus as early as possible.

Take, for example, the Journal of College Student Development’s study “Inclusion of College Community in the Self: A Longitudinal Study of the Role of Self-Expansion in Students’ Satisfaction,” which studied a series of college students across four years. Participants were asked to indicate what student organizations were involved in and indicate their level of “connection to the college community” and “satisfaction with their college experience.” The results indicated that, according to the journal, “sophomore-year participation in college groups is significantly and positively associated with junior-year connectedness to the college community, [which] is associated with senior-year satisfaction with the college experience.” In other words, students who involved themselves with campus organizations earlier found a greater level of success and were more involved later in their college education than those who did not.

While this study was performed at a private, four-year campus (composed of students who are often more involved from the outset), it still indicates that, in general, students who start involved on campus stay involved on campus. Conversely, therefore, students who choose to wait to get involved in campus either don’t, or find less satisfaction in it. As this applies to transfer students who weren’t involved on campus, they might find that the leadership opportunities at their organization of choice were earmarked for other students who, while ostensibly having similar levels of experience to the transfer student, were simply members since their freshman year. This can be discouraging, and shows that, if possible, students at two-year colleges should get involved at their campuses to better ensure that resume-building material.

Another study released by Community College Review, titled “Transfer Student Engagement: Blurring of Social and Academic Engagement,” indicated the current climate among transfer students at four-year colleges. It focused on the engagement of transfer students at four-year colleges. During the study, transfer students, most of whom “lived at home or maintained full- or part-time jobs,” were asked a series of questions including, notably, their “perceptions of academic and social engagement.” The results showed that while transfer students were more involved in community activities, they were, on the whole, less involved in campus organizations than nontransfer students.

The study included quoted student testimonies backing this fact.

“I don’t really participate in any of the organized stuff outside of the classroom,” “Bob,” a student quoted in the study, said.

Another student was in a similar situation.

“I’ve just been busy with work, so … I can’t really find any other clubs to join,” “Paul,” another student quoted in the study, said.

Although many of the students not involved in campus organizations were older, nontraditional students, and involvement rates were higher among younger students, the ratio of nontraditional and traditional transfers reflects that of two-year campuses such as UW-Fox. Additionally, involvement was low for transfers across the board.

For the involved students, according to the study, “There was some formal involvement in a student group. This participation helped make a social connection and feel a sense of engagement; however, these students were exceptions in the sample, and they were often younger.”

These findings illustrate the conflict current college students face when pursuing their education. While college should be about gaining knowledge, work experience, and positions through curricular and extracurricular involvement alike, many two-year and transfer students find themselves simply too busy making ends meet to feel able to be involved on campus.

Yet, other students might be more willing to take financial aid, be proactive about applying for grants and scholarships and be able to make ends meet through those means. These students are able to completely immerse themselves in their studies and career development in their desired field. In this route, students may graduate with more work experience than in the aforementioned alternative and therefore, may have a better chance at being hired for a position in their field.

That would be ideal in a perfect world, but considering financial aid for two-year colleges doesn’t necessarily account for housing, students living away from their parents require a constant stream of overflow financial aid, grants and scholarships, and, while this is theoretically possible, it isn’t realistic.

In that case, what should students do to balance the college experience and making ends meet? First, they can start by filling out the UW-Fox Valley scholarship application. According to UW-Fox Valley Foundation Executive Director Diane Abraham, only 366 students at UW-Fox applied for a scholarship last academic year, making scholarships a very underutilized resource. Students who did not apply may have to fall back on work during the semester to make ends meet. Any additional monies are helpful, and not applying is a major sacrifice.

Second, while the two extremes of students maintaining full-time jobs and uninvolved in the college experience and students involved in the student experience, but not working outside of their desired field exist, the middle ground may be more ideal. While the notion of not accruing debt is ideal, a more pragmatic option is to limit debt for balance with college opportunities and side jobs.

If the yearly UW-Fox tuition for a full-time student is $5,034.32, students living at home would most likely be able to pay tuition entirely with financial aid. Students working full time during summers at $7.25 per hour will be able to pay off approximately $3,480 of their student debt, while working part time 16 hours per week during the nine-month academic year would bring in $4,176 more—more than enough to pay tuition.

Approximate Cost of Attendance for Students Living at Home

Tuition Financial Aid Summer Income Academic Year Income Remaining Balance
-$5,034.32 $3,400 subsidized (fall/spring)

$2,000 unsubsidized (fall/spring)

($7.25 per hour; 40 hours per week)

$3,480

($7.25 per hour; 16 hours per week; 9-month academic year)

$4,176

$8,021.68

$6,021.68 (without unsubsidized loans)

Problems begin to arise if the student does not live at home. If the student lives at an average-priced apartment in the Fox Valley area, such as The Fox Village student apartments, which is $495 per month, suddenly, the cost of attendance for UW-Fox Valley jumps to approximately $10,974.32, compared to the $7,656 they’d theoretically have available without loans. This is where it becomes important to apply for scholarships and, especially, apply for financial aid. If the student is awarded enough financial aid for tuition, which is most likely the case, he or she would have enough to cover the cost of attendance.

Approximate Cost of Attendance for Students Living Away from Home

Tuition Rent Financial Aid Summer Income Academic Year Income Remaining Balance
-$5,034.32 -$5,940 $3,400 subsidized (fall/spring)

$2,000 unsubsidized (fall/spring)

($7.25 per hour; 40 hours per week)

$3,480

($7.25 per hour; 16 hours per week; 9-month academic year)

$4,176

$2081.68

$81.68 (without unsubsidized loans)

This alternative is a definite possibility. Full-time hours may not always be available, but it’s possible. Additional variables arise if the worker is paid over minimum wage. In this case, though, it’s possible to pay for college, an apartment, be actively involved on campus and in one’s field and do it while taking less financial aid than that of a four-year college student.

Ultimately, it’s important to take one’s life circumstances into consideration. Sometimes, it is possible to live on financial aid and scholarships and focus on one’s field of interest. Other times, students can focus both on a career and take a side job while taking some financial aid. And finally, some students must forego career and extracurricular development in favor of making ends meet. While taking advantage of a campus’ resources is desired, it’s unfortunately not possible for many students. There’s not necessarily any wrong option, as long as students realize all of their options and avoid passing up valuable opportunities that come their way, like scholarships, which are helpful for anyone. In the end, there’s no one way to continue education, it’s based on what the individual wants out of it.

Students can visit the campus website for information on how to apply for scholarships and which scholarships are typically offered. They can also visit the student organizations page to find out which clubs are available to join on campus.

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