The College Conversation: Analyze costs, benefits of junior-college path

There are 25,000 Orange Coast College students poised to start courses on August 30th, and I feel for them. What a summer it's been for transfer students registering for classes at the local community colleges. And, what a week it's been for our clients who feel desperate about the frustrating consequences of the state's horrendous budget situation.

New this year, Orange Coast College is implementing a waitlist system with the goal of easing the time-consuming process of online class registration for fall semester courses. Just as in the past, students are assigned a registration appointment time based on…wait, let me call OCC to double check on this.

I'm now on hold going on 10 minutes after hearing the initial greeting "You've reached the Orange Coast College answer center. Due to extreme state budget cuts, you may experience a longer than expected wait time." Once the gentleman comes on the line, I will ask how the registration times (or what others colleges call "ticket numbers") are selected. If the student is eligible for Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, they get the golden ticket.

Disabled individuals are next in line, followed by students with the most units completed and highest grade-point average. Final seniority is determined by the time a student applies and completes the matriculation process. Obviously, the later the registration time, the more depressing it is when a student attempts to register.

I can only assume that Orange Coast College's desire to maintain this seniority along with the subsequent attempt to track the number of students who want a specific course also compelled the creation of the waitlist system. Ideally, this system could save student's time by automatically taking students off the waitlist as seats open up.

Instead, a student is required to check their OCC Gmail account every day. When a seat opens up, the student is alerted and they have 24 hours to register for the open seat. If not, students are dropped from the waitlist.

As in years past, all local community colleges are continuing their practice of allowing students to petition for courses throughout the weeks following the initial start of class. Students must show up on day one of the class they are trying to get into. From that point, the process is arbitrary, as it's been for the past 10 years I've been working with transfers.

Some professors choose students who petition at random — literally drawing names out of a hat. Others give preference to students who take the time to e-mail them prior to the first day of the course — the more compelling the reasons for needing the course, the more empathetic the professor. Others will take students directly from the wait list. Individual policies are created by each professor.

The state of the community college system is appalling. It is frustrating. And it is depressing. The community colleges have long been coined and touted as an affordable avenue for students to take as the first affordable step toward a bachelor's degree.

It surely won't be seen this way when required transfer courses are full and/or canceled due to state budget cuts. Furthermore, students are urged and sometimes required to take specific courses in order to be admitted directly into a university's major upon transferring.

If these courses are impossible to gain a seat in at the community college, students will spend an additional semester or two at the university where they eventually transfer, completing the required pre-requisite major courses required before a student declares a major.

Already, research suggests that only 14% of community college students ever earn a bachelor's degree. I feel for students who have chosen this path believing it would ease their transition into a university, and for the parents who've been duped into the notion that this path is the more affordable one.

I urge parents to do their research on the actual costs of their children's college education if the student spends 2.5 years at a community college, enrolled full time, and three years at the university where the student hopes to garner a degree.

It's been a frustrating week dealing with each and every community college system, and I hope this crisis ends before our community college-bound students lose their way and their dreams of a university degree are shattered.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to Lisa@EDvantageConsulting.com.

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