ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, we're introducing you to some college students whose experiences illustrate important questions about the cost and value of a college education. They all went to high school just outside Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County, Md. It's considerably more diverse than the rest of the nation. Nearly one-third of its residents are foreign-born. It's also more highly educated, with more than double the national average for bachelor's degrees. The students we met made different choices about what kind of college to attend.
Today, three students who chose the most popular option, one that's risen steadily since the great recession hit - community college. In their case, it's Montgomery College. We went to the Rockville campus on a day before classes started to meet up with a community college success story.
CARLOS MEJIA: Hello.
SIEGEL: Hi. It's Carlos?
MEJIA: Yes. Sorry.
SIEGEL: Robert Siegel. How do you do?
MEJIA: Good. How are you, Robert?
SIEGEL: Nice to meet you.
MEJIA: Same. Sorry I kept you guys waiting.
SIEGEL: Not at all. We've been enjoying a beautiful day.
MEJIA: It is.
SIEGEL: Carlos Mejia led us to the campus center. He took three-and-a-half years to finish an associate degree studying political science. Carlos met local politicians and was even chosen to be a student trustee of the college by the governor.
You were a big man on campus here. You got involved.
MEJIA: I did get involved, yes.
SIEGEL: Carlos is originally from Honduras. He graduated from a small Christian high school in Montgomery County. Back then, where to go to college was a big topic of conversation.
MEJIA: Just different questions that my mom asked - you know, do you want to be close to home? Do you want to take loans out? Do you want to - and all of these other questions.
SIEGEL: And what were your answers?
MEJIA: No, I don't want to take loans out. I don't want to be in debt. And I wanted to stay close to home.
SIEGEL: If you had told your parents, you know, I could see going a little bit farther away from home because I want to go to this famous private university; the only problem is it costs $50,000 a year to go there. Would it have been possible?
MEJIA: I don't know. I never asked (laughter). I guess it could've been through loans, the money set aside. And I probably would've applied for scholarships and financial aid, but...
SIEGEL: You didn't want to do that.
MEJIA: I didn't want to do that. I don't think education should be $50,000 a year - no.
SIEGEL: Last fall, Carlos started an overlapping program with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County which let him pursue a bachelor's degree while finishing his A.A. And how much does all this cost? Well, for an associate degree in two years, about $8,000. And with that, you're halfway to your B.A. in the state of Maryland. Of course, that is without a traditional campus life. But does that bother Carlos Mejia?
SIEGEL: You're a happy guy.
MEJIA: I am. I am. I'm glad I made the decision.
SIEGEL: And you're debt-free.
MEJIA: And debt-free, yeah, absolutely.
SIEGEL: Another happy guy is Jacob Meile. Montgomery College is where he was able to spend hours and hours on stage, studying theater.
JACOB MEILE: How could he receive such a blow as I gave him, a mortal wound, and still not be dead? All right. Surely this can be explained. Life is simply an extension of the soul and is submerged in the blood, so if not enough blood was spilled, his soul, his spirit stayed inside the body. That was a little monologue there.
SIEGEL: Bravo, bravo.
That's from the 18th century Italian comedy "Servant Of Two Masters." I met Jacob Meile at the theater arts building. When he was a high school senior and he decided to attend community college, cost was a factor.
MEILE: My parents obviously wanted me to try going the cheaper route, especially if I didn't - if I wasn't sure exactly where I wanted to go. So - and Montgomery College seemed like the best opportunity because I can go here for cheap and continue pursuing what I wanted to do, which was theater.
SIEGEL: Jacob has not finished his associate degree, but he did win admission to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where he's starting this month, an opportunity he wasn't ready for right out of high school. And Jacob Meile and his father were able to cover the cost of community college without taking out loans. At the conservatory, it's going to be a different story.
MEILE: It's more like a four-year university, so it's - I think it's 29,000-something for each year. And then they have an estimated, like, room and board kind of situation price. So it's very hard to be able to go to this school.
SIEGEL: Is there still a conversation with your folks about, are you confident it's worth that much money?
MEILE: Yeah. I think that discussion has been had, and we've come to the agreement that it is worth it. It's worth it. And my parents have seen me do shows, and they think that I have the versatility and the experience, you know? Every parent probably thinks that their child has the - you know? But a lot of parents don't want their child to go into acting school, and I'm very blessed to have parents that want to support that.
SIEGEL: It's interesting, this relationship between money and learning, that...
MEILE: (Laughter). Yes.
SIEGEL: It's real.
MEILE: Yeah, oh yeah, absolutely. You learn a lot about life when you start having to pay for things yourself and deal with payment for everything.
SIEGEL: The economic facts of life in college are nothing new to Nancy Chen. She went from high school to a four-year State University on Maryland's Eastern Shore at Salisbury. She says there was none of the diversity she knew from the Washington suburbs there. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she felt out of place. Well, now she's in community college, pursuing a nursing degree. She is debt-free but not free of some familiar friction at home with her parents.
NANCY CHEN: They always wanted when me to go to a four-year college and get a bachelor's degree. And they didn't like me going into nursing. They wanted me to do some kind of desk job like accounting or finance or something like that.
SIEGEL: Your mom works at the convention center.
CHEN: Correct. And my dad owns his own wholesale business, so they're both kind of, I guess, living the American dream (laughter).
SIEGEL: But not rich people.
CHEN: No. But I would consider us middle-class.
SIEGEL: How would you describe your career goals?
CHEN: My career goals are to be a registered nurse, come out with at least a bachelor's of science and nursing degree and then work at one of the hospitals in the metropolitan area, get enough experience in an intensive care unit and then go back to school for my master's.
SIEGEL: Nancy Chen has turned an internship into a job. She works with medical records at the Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health. That's where we met on an outdoor deck. She says her parents think her position at NIH is an excellent, secure government job. But nursing...
CHEN: (Laughter). They have put - wrapped their mind around that I want to be a nurse and that nothing is going to change. So my career path right now - they just hope that I don't work too hard and push myself too hard, where I'm - I'll be exhausted.
SIEGEL: She does have a backup plan, but it's not the secure desk job her parents would wish for her. At least one day a week, Nancy is a volunteer firefighter.
CHEN: I might think about applying to become a career firefighter and become a paramedic.
SIEGEL: It's hands-on care, and Nancy Chen is determined to make a career of helping people. Three different students on three very different paths through community college in Montgomery County, Md.
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