In an era of ever-rising college costs, long-term student debt, and an uncertain job market, students and parents are compelled to consider a college degree as a serious investment. Measures like price, debt, and post-graduation employability and pay outlook must all be weighed in deciding on the quality of a school.

How can you make a smart choice? Posing the following questions can help you chart your educational course.

What are the costs?

Cost is a — if not the — prime consideration for most students and their families.

Community colleges, which as the name implies serve local communities, are a fraction of the cost of public four-year universities, private schools, and for-profit colleges.

For 2016-17, the College Board reports average tuition and fees for public two-year community colleges across the country at $3,520. By comparison, the average cost of attending a for-profit school is more than quadruple the cost of a local community college.

What programs are offered?

Community colleges offer dozens of associate degree programs, including some that lead toward a bachelor’s degree or higher through a transfer track, as well as short-term certificates taking a matter of months to complete.

These range from industrial and technical, medical and STEM-focused, socially oriented criminal justice and education degree options, to traditional humanities and sciences programs.

What are the economic outcomes for graduates?

Most students are rightly concerned about landing a job after earning a degree. Are the skills you learned in college applicable in the workforce? Or to put it another way, does a college live up to its claims in terms of providing a better future for its students?

Oakton  ranks No. 33 among the best values for community colleges in the nation, according to ValueColleges.com. In compiling its “Top 50 Best Value Community Colleges of 2016,” the online site examined graduation and transfer rates, mid-level salaries for graduates and actual costs at more than 1,700 two-year institutions nationwide.

While community colleges are sensitive to local economic shifts and the needs of industry in their service areas and tailor their courses accordingly, most four-years and for-profits are less responsive. Oakton frequently forges partnerships with industry to help their students get cutting edge skills and get into the career pipeline.

How much debt will I incur?

Because of the low price of community college coupled with financial aid, many students graduate with little to no debt. For the 2016-17 school year, the maximum Federal Pell Grant is $5,815. This often leaves money for books and other needs. The College Board reports community college students in 2015-16 had an average $770 left over after financial aid.

Graduating debt free is perhaps the “best kept secret” of community colleges; students who attend for-profit colleges often end up with huge debts and damaged credit.

While for-profit schools account for about 8 percent of the total higher education student population, these students make up a whopping 44 percent of federal student loan defaults. Starting at a community college can mean avoiding a lifetime of financial headaches.

Will my credits transfer?

Oakton Community College has articulation agreements—including guaranteed admission programs—with two- and four-year schools, and advisors are here to help you plan your transfer in advance.

Articulation agreements — like a 2+2, taking two years at a community college and two years to finish at a public four-year school — ensure you don’t waste time or money earning your bachelor’s degree.

What resources does the school provide to help me succeed?

Oakton places a premium on helping students complete their goals, even when life is complicated by work and family obligations.  Two-year programs offer flexible and online class options that work around your schedule.

Student success often comes down to the resources a college can provide outside of the classroom. Financial advising, career placement, tutoring, and other student services are vital for navigating higher education. Oakton offers a unique support sytem to students.

Resources

Compare and rank schools: collegescorecard.ed.gov
Net price calculator: collegecost.ed.gov/netpricecenter.aspx
Apply for financial aid: fafsa.ed.gov
Contact Oakton Community College: enrollmentcenter@oakton.edu or 847-635-1835