Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

The way of learning transformed into an at-home experience through Zoom lectures and class slides, due to COVID-19 restrictions that canceled in-person classes last spring. According to some students at UO, the content may remain the same, but the lack of human interaction and hands-on learning diminished the value of some students’ quality of education. While some students enter college knowing the purpose of their degree, others explore their options in lower-division courses at a high price. 

As students and families face financial difficulties and education transitions to remote, some students are using this time as an opportunity to invest in community college credits for lower-division courses until education returns to in-person instruction. 

Community colleges do not offer higher division courses for juniors and seniors pursuing a bachelor's degree. Therefore, enrolling in community college credits applies to students who seek lower-division general education courses and prerequisites.

For students facing financial difficulties due to COVID-19, Ben Cannon, the executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said in an email he believes enrolling in general education courses at a community college would be a “great option.”  

Enrolling in community college credits and transferring to a university is available to most students who are planning to enter a public university after their first or second year at a two-year institution. Cannon said students should make sure their community college credits are transferable and will satisfy degree requirements at the university they plan to attend.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that  “about 1 in 10 students have changed majors more than once: 10% of associate’s degree students and 9% of bachelor’s degree students,” according to a study collected from 2012 to 2014. This study shows how students pursuing an associate’s or bachelor's degree changed their majors or declared a major, three years into college.

“If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, it’s a very expensive way to figure out,” Michelle Wood, a biology professor at the University of Oregon, said, “An expensive way to kill time.” 

Similar to Wood, Stephen Clarke, a professor at Lane Community College in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, said the value of a post-secondary education depends on why a student is pursuing a degree and the purpose behind it. 

“I try to set up any course I’m involved in with a very clear, ‘why am I doing it,’” Clarke said. 

Wood and Clarke believe the investment in a four-year degree or any education is worth it when students know what they want to do. However, this isn’t the case for all students. 

At LCC, non-resident online tuition is $121 per credit hour without additional fees, according to the LCC Enrollment Services Credit Tuition website. If a student enrolled in 16 online credits, the cost of attendance a term is about $1,936. 

In comparison, undergraduate non-resident tuition is $785 per credit hour at UO, according to the UO Office of the Registrar website.  If a student enrolled in 16 credits at a public university, the cost of tuition per term is over $12,000 without dormitory or other expenses and fees. 

While some students face financial difficulties, Jillian Nguyen, a first-generation and first-year student at UO, has felt that UO has financially supported her because she received the PathwayOregon scholarship. The PathwayOregon award pays for her tuition, making it possible for Nguyen to be the first person in her family to experience a post-secondary education at a four-year university. 

“I probably would have gone to community college if Oregon didn’t offer me the Pathway scholarship,” she said. 

Nguyen is pursuing human physiology and finds great value in it because she wants to feel prepared when she enters the medical field, she said. 

“Both of my parents are immigrants,” she said. “Them coming to the U.S. is a big impact for me, because they’ve given us this life and all they ever asked was for me to get a degree and I feel like that’s the least I can do for them.”

Nguyen said she questions the value of a degree when she sees people on TikTok make over a million dollars by posting videos online. As social media continues to evolve, students like Nguyen feel like a degree isn’t the only option to be financially successful. 

Many careers still require at least a bachelor’s degree. “BLS designates 174 occupations typically requiring a bachelor’s degree for entry. Employment in these bachelor’s-level occupations is projected to grow by 10% from 2016 to 2026,” according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics article from 2018. 

Nguyen, being an in-state-student, was eligible to apply for the PathwayOregon program, but not all students are. One requirement to be eligible is in-state residency, according to the PathwayOregon selection criteria page. Not all UO students are residents, and some students said they don’t feel they are offered the same financial stability to continue as a full-time student. 

Mariah Scott, a third-year student, was in a Dual Enrollment program between LCC and UO during fall 2020. Because she is an out-of-state student, Scott withdrew from UO and enrolled as a part-time student at LCC last spring because she and her family did not agree with UO’s tuition rates for what she was getting. 

“Financially, they didn’t think it was fair to pay for four classes when you’re not going to be in person at all and paying out-of-state tuition,” she said. 

During the transfer process, she said applying to LCC was easy.

“The only hard thing was to get my transcript transferred over from Oregon,” she said. After her acceptance, she was assigned an LCC counselor and registered for transferable LCC courses.

Scott heard about UO’s dual enrollment program from a friend and said she was surprised it existed. In the fall, she enrolled in two lower-division courses at LCC to fulfill prerequisites for a family and human services program, while taking three upper-division courses at UO. 

A total of 96 students, new and continuing, applied for the Dual Enrollment program, which represented about 0.5% of UO’s total undergraduate population, according to UO Student Services and Enrollment Management. 

Although some students apply for the Dual Enrollment program, not all students enroll in classes, according to the UO Student Services and Enrollment Management.

To be considered for UO’s Dual Enrollment program, students must apply two weeks before the first day of winter and spring term classes and three weeks before the first day of fall classes, according to the UO Admissions website

“The university could be doing a better job at advertising that, especially given the time that we are all in,” she said. “None of us can afford this right now.”  

Unlike Nguyen, Scott is not a PathwayOregon student. She applied for the UO Emergency CARES Act Grant and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid but said she felt like it wasn’t worth the battle to keep up with the costs of remote education at UO. That’s why she transferred to LCC last spring and registered for dual enrollment in the fall. 

“As an out-of-state student, I feel neglected and the fact that tuition was raised for this term makes me feel unappreciated when I’m receiving the same education as an in-state student who is paying less,” she said. “It’s been disappointing.” 

This year, UO implemented the Oregon Guarantee model to set tuition rates at a consistent level, but Scott said her costs were too high for what she was getting in her education. That’s why she and her family considered other options in a time where most education is delivered virtually. 

When Scott enrolled in three lower-division courses at LCC last spring, she said she saved her family approximately $11,611. This academic year, while being dual enrolled, she saved about $3,300 from what she would have originally paid being a full-time student at UO, she said. 

Although the content materials may be different from a community college versus a university, all institutions are in a mode of transition from in-person instruction to online learning. Scott, who has experienced both synchronous and asynchronous styles of learning, said her instructors at both institutions have been supportive during this time.

“Students, in particular, have seen their pursuit of a degree changed dramatically since March when universities had to pivot primarily to remote and online instruction,” UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard said in an email. “At UO, we have worked together with faculty, staff, advisors, and others to ensure that our students are supported in these difficult times.”

Some examples of UO’s support noted in the statement include UO’s counseling services, the UO Student in Crisis Fund, free COVID-19 testing, UO’s Emergency CARES Act funding, the Student Resource Kit and changing grading structures of all classes to Pass/No pass.  

Scott said there are equal advantages and disadvantages from being dual enrolled in courses at LCC and UO. Although Scott was enrolled in higher-level courses at UO, she said she could successfully learn and gain an equal amount of knowledge from both institutions through Zoom and class lectures. 

Scott has had a good experience thus far at both colleges, but said it’s vital to consider that each student’s needs and post-secondary education plans are different. 

Wood said UO has a “phenomenal” chemistry department and she thinks what they’re doing is “terrific.”

Being a professor familiar with teaching lower and higher division levels of biology, she believes there are some majors where the first few years of work are “very prescribed,” she said. She understands why some students may seek a more affordable route and said general education courses like general biology, general chemistry and basic maths entail similar content at other institutions. 

“The textbooks across the country are the same,” she said.  

On the other hand, in terms of the biology and chemistry courses at UO, Wood believes students are getting their money's worth. She said she uses an evidence-based model of teaching, which is called scientific teaching, and has been shown by academic researchers to improve student performance. Not all institutions use this approach, so she said there is quality in obtaining courses at a four-year institution, despite the virtual delivery.

Both Wood and Clarke engage with students through feedback and comments on assignments, but Wood said she wishes there was more back and forth interaction with her students. 

Although LCC may not use an evidence-based model of teaching, Clarke believes teaching at a community college allows him to engage and build relationships with students while tracking their progress because of smaller class sizes. Because COVID-19 took away in-person experiences from students and professors, engagement is crucial in keeping students motivated to succeed, he said.

Similar to Scott, Clarke said there are advantages and disadvantages in taking lower-division courses at a community college.

“Two years at a community college than at a university and taking as many lower-cost options that your four-year institution will accept, you're definitely going to pay less,” he said. 

Clarke believes that a four-year institution tracks a student’s success, which can also be seen as a university’s success. On the other hand, he said although that may be true for a two-year institution, there is a different end goal. 

“You’re expected to take on and go further,” he said. 

As newer students explore their options at a university, Scott recommends students take advantage of community college courses that don’t relate to their major as a way to explore options at a cost-efficient price, based on her experience. She said her LCC instructors and counselors have been welcoming and accommodating to her. LCC offers a wide range of resources as well. 

“There is a professor I really like,” she said. “She would leave video feedback for each of our assignments, which felt so personal.” Scott said that at UO she’s been in big lectures with 150 students on Zoom. While at LCC she has classes with under 25. “It definitely feels more intimate and I get to participate more,” she said.

According to the UO Admissions website, 140 classes have more than 100 students and the median class size is 20 students. Therefore, it varies from each student and which lower-division classes they enroll in.

Scott said she’s upheld all requirements to be a dual-enrolled student and her degree holds value, despite her part-time enrollment at a community college.

“This taught me that a degree is a degree, and when you know what you want to do, it helps,” she said. “Nothing can take away the value of my degree. I’ve worked hard for it.”