This piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at The Baltimore Sun on August 23, 2023.
Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of District, Maryland and Virginia high school students will return to classrooms ready to take over the world. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they work and how many tests they pass, some may feel blocked from the job of their dreams by the news that the University of Chicago paid $13.5 million to settle allegations that it conspired with other universities to limit the amount of financial aid it offered.
But this feeling should pass quickly, because area students are practically next door to a quality, affordable education that can help them chart their own path.
In 2004, when I was a high school senior living in the sticks of New Hampshire, I thought employment paradise would be achieved by attending Plymouth State University. It became a university only the prior year and was known as a school for small-town kids in the middle and northern part of the state. But I risked it because I could get away from home, return easily and afford its in-state price tag.
When I entered the Washington, D.C. political scene four years later, I was surrounded by people with graduate degrees from big-name schools. Most of my professors didn’t have Nobel Prizes or Ph.D.’s; their dissertations came from running inns, directing marketing for a ski resort or helping businesses with their taxes. And yet, other than occasional confusion that PSU stood for Penn State University, nobody seemed to care.
My professors’ practical, real-world lessons became the foundation for a career as a policy journalist — and, in my thirties, the foundation for starting my own business.
Breaking through the paper ceiling
Today’s students have the same opportunities to break through what Northern Virginia Community College president Anne M. Kress calls “the paper ceiling.” The college serves 75,000 students, and while its partnerships with Google and Amazon have drawn students to its IT programs, it also has programs ranging from health sciences to ESL. A recent Georgetown University study ranked it as having a high return on investment, and it is University of Maryland Global Campus’ largest out-of-state transfer partner.
But don’t take NVCC’s word for it. Just like PSU’s value was proven by my career, the proof is in the pudding for what the region offers employers.
Take Peraton, a Virginia defense contractor doing $7 billion in annual revenue. Spokesman Greg Caufman told me that it has “built a pipeline of some of our best talent through valuable partnerships with schools like George Mason University, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, and the community college system. We’ve hired more than 250 graduates and interns in the last year alone, proving that this region is a top pipeline for much needed national security talent,” he said.
Another government contractor with an area pipeline is Federal Resources Corporation in Virginia. CEO Jeremy Young attributes the company making the Inc. 5000 to “a talent pool of graduates who have the grit, determination, and eagerness for a career in the IT modernization and professional services industry – not pieces of paper.”
Employers care about value, not paper
So if the career potential is there, and the cost savings are there, the smaller named school route seems like a no-brainer. And there are considerable financial savings, since community colleges, in general, cost less that state schools let alone so-called prestigious private schools.
Most employers care about what you bring to the table — and that doesn’t mean plopping down a framed piece of paper with the right letters on it. This includes everything from the now-popular IT degrees to the traditional degrees like business and the fine arts. You don’t have to jump through hoops, or break the bank, to attend a gold-plated school. You might even find your career path easier if you don’t – especially with that fat cushion of cash in your bank account.