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Sun., Jan. 12, 2014

Editorial: Community college plan has students dodging debt

For many high school students, it’s college application season, with how to pay adding to the suspense of admission. The rapid rise in tuition at four-year schools has presented a conundrum: Rack up enormous debt or head off to community college for a year or two.

But highly motivated students in the Inland Northwest have another option: American Honors at Community Colleges of Spokane, where a transfer to a four-year university is guaranteed if they stay on course.

Two years ago, CCS signed on to a pilot program for American Honors, a Denver-based organization that offers advanced curriculums for serious students seeking lower-cost alternatives. The courses are a mixture of online and classroom learning, with the online platform exceeding the experience of typical Web- and email-based learning. Students can speak to the professor and to each other in real time, which eliminates the feeling of isolation. And while that may sound odd to some adults, students raised in this social media era have shown they can quickly adapt.

When American Honors first launched, it went in search for four-year institutions that would agree to accept its students as transfers as long as they were in good academic standing. So far, 27 private and public institutions, including Whitworth and Gonzaga universities, have become partners. So have other universities like UCLA, Arizona, Puget Sound, Ohio State, Purdue and George Washington.

Those institutions signed up to help them achieve more ethnically and economically diverse student populations. As others do the same, American Honors hopes to expand its partnerships. Even if universities aren’t partners, they’re finding American Honors applicants appealing. One former CCS student was accepted at Stanford, another at Georgetown.

American Honors students pay more per credit than other community college students, but 15 percent less than freshmen and sophomores at regional colleges, such as Eastern Washington University, and 45 percent less than Cougars and Huskies. One of the key features of American Honors is the extra counseling students receive in preparing their transfer applications and in securing financial aid.

The whopping growth in student debt underscores the potential appeal of this alternative way of achieving a four-year degree. The Washington Post reports that the average debt for college graduates in 2012 was $29,400, up from $23,450 in 2008.

Local students who qualify for American Honors have a rare opportunity, because two of the nine community college campuses that host American Honors nationwide are in Spokane. They can live at home for two years and still get rigorous college instruction. The program is taking on an additional 100 students in the fall.

It’s not for everyone, but it does give students another strategy for getting a four-year degree without incurring decades of debt.

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