After graduating from Troy-Buchanan High School, Kyle Ragsdale knew he wanted a higher degree but didn't know what to study or at what level.
So the Troy native ventured to St. Charles Community College.
"At the risk of missing two years of the 'college experience,' I realized that in the first two years of college you get the same things you do at a university that you do here," he said.
After receiving an associate's degree in art from SCC, he plans to head to Missouri State University in Springfield to pursue a bachelor's degree in mass media.
According to a recent study by the Student Clearinghouse, many students share Ragsdale's thinking. More than 50 percent of Missouri graduates from four-year universities started at a community college, the study found for the 2010-11 academic year. Missouri graduates were 11 percent ahead of the national average of 45 percent.
Local higher education institutions are telling a similar story. Nearly one-fourth of new students at Lindenwood Unviersity this fall are transfer students from a two-year institution, and 54 percent of fall 2012 applications at St. Charles Community College indicated those students' top reason for attending SCC is to eventually transfer to a four-year school.
"I think there's real awareness of the importance of going to college and getting a degree and that the two-year college is being valued as a great starting place to a four-year degree," SCC President Ron Chesbrough said.
Chesbrough said there are a few reasons he thinks students are opting for two-year schools before diving head first into pursuit of a bachelor's degree. The economy and changing perceptions of community college have gone hand in hand toward increasing the number of students who attend two-year schools, he said.
Existing and new state programs tailor community college to fit into more post-secondary education plans. Missouri high schoolers can earn tuition to attend in-state community colleges through the state's A+ Scholarship Program. Students who earned an overall grade point average of 2.5, achieved 95 percent attendance for all four years of high school, completed 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or community service and maintained good citizenship could have earned up to $155 per credit hour for the 2012-13 school year. St. Charles County students pay $90 per credit hour at SCC; in-state students from outside the county pay $135.
Besides making community college more affordable, the state in June enacted legislation that requires two- and four-year colleges to develop reverse transfer programs that increase the likelihood that students will come out of post-secondary education with at least a two-year degree.
SCC was ahead of that curve, developing a reverse transfer partnership with Lindenwood University last winter. SCC transfer students close to earning an associate's degree at Lindenwood will be alerted that they can return to SCC to complete their associate's. Chesbrough calls that "good business."
"Oftentimes students come to community college and want to spend a year getting requirements out of the way and move on and transfer without attaining a degree at the two-year level," Chesbrough said. "While that's fine, I would argue that's a missed opportunity. What if you have to jump back out into the job market?"
Joe Parisi, Lindenwood dean of day admissions, said Lindenwood has an office on SCC's campus in Cottleville to help students coordinate transfers and determine which credits can be put toward a bachelor's degree. The school allots a percentage of scholarships to award to community college transfers.
"We always embrace that we know not everybody is going to start at a four-year institution," Parisi said.
More than half of Missouri's college grads may have attended some community college, but Chesbrough said that doesn't necessarily mean community college enrollment is booming. While SCC saw fall enrollment numbers topping 8,200 in 2010 and 2011, fall 2012 enrollment dipped slightly to 7,724.
"Our enrollment, like most in Missouri, went up in the economic downturn, and as the recovery has set in it's returned to levels prior to that," Chesbrough said. "Many of those students who would have attended community college in tough economic times are returning to what would have been their first choice, a more costly choice, but first choice."
Despite the dip, Chesbrough said the recent economic slump changed perceptions of community colleges because affordability attracted students who otherwise might have skimmed over two-year schools.
"Students that went to community colleges saw it as a real college, just as rigorous and academically challenging as any school," he said.