Are you interested in nursing?

Teaching?

Criminal justice?

Or how about getting ahead in your current job?

If so, you may not have to look too far to achieve your dreams.

Area community colleges, such as Lehigh Carbon Community College, are dreaming big and delivering even bigger through joint agreements with private and state colleges that allow students to start there and transfer into various programs or even get a four-year degree without traveling hundreds of miles away or paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for that same degree.

Jeanne Miller, director of Carbon and Schuylkill County Educational Services at LCCC, explained that the college is "going back to the basics," expanding current degree possibilities and looking to build future workforces through the innovative programs it offers.

"It's a great time to go back to community college 101 because 'baccalaureate attainment rates are higher for students who transferred with a two-year degree or certificate (72 percent) than for those who transferred without a credential (56 percent),'" Miller said as she read a fact from an article by National Student Clearinghouse. "The professors that teach at LCCC are also the professors that teach at four-year colleges. The only difference is the cost."

Many people end up with the equivalent of two mortgages, one for their home and the other a cumbersome college loan, Miller added. Attending a community college for one to two years and can make a difference in a families quality of life.

The cost per year for a full-time student taking 12-18 credits a semester at LCCC is approximately $3,450 for the 2013-2014 academic year while private colleges cost approximately $43,000 a year, and state schools cost nearly $17,700.

Miller, as well as Heather Mullen, assistant director of admissions and recruitment at LCCC, stressed that four-year institutions are now recruiting community college students because they are better prepared for academics, balancing schedules and working toward career goals.

"Completion attainment is so big at four-year schools," Mullen said. "Community college students are already doing well, they don't have to take developmental courses and they are more likely to graduate."

"The percentage of students who completed two years of community college and go on to a four-year college is much higher than someone who just starts as a freshman," Miller added. "Just because they are academically ready doesn't mean they are ready for everything else that goes with college."

Miller noted that some schools even have scholarships specifically for community college students because they know they are already invested in their education.

Building pathways and workforces

Miller explained that LCCC recognized the importance of building a connection between community college and four-year colleges and has been working hard at creating partnerships with institutions like Albright, Kutztown, Bloomsburg and Temple to help students get their bachelor's degree in careers of the future.

"Eighty percent of jobs in the future will be in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)," she said. "The community college gives you many pathways (into these careers)."

Some pathways that will now be offered at the new Carbon site, located in Jim Thorpe, as well as LCCC's other satellite sites and main campus in Schnecksville will include premedical health career courses; education; criminal justice; computer information systems and eventually, engineering. Students who are transferring or are undecided can take advantage of the liberal arts.

For example, a student who starts out at LCCC can take two years of classes, graduate with an associate degree, and either then transfer their credits to a four-year institution that has a partnership with the college; or in some cases, they can stay at LCCC and get a four-year degree from places like Albright College by using a partnership and taking the courses, taught by Albright professors right at the LCCC campus.

In the education field, students in Carbon and Schuylkill counties not only get the academic foundation needed for their job, but they get hands-on experience in the STEM fields through paid internships in the SHINE Afterschool program, a 30-week program that helps elementary students in their academics through projects and activities.

"It really exposes them to the most innovative programs in STEM," Miller said. "Many freshmen and sophomore teachers who work in SHINE would tell you that you usually don't get that experience that early in your college career."

In addition to college-to-college partnerships, LCCC has also formed a partnership with the area's technical institutes.

Students at Carbon Career & Technical Institute for example, can transfer courses they took in high school, such as computer aided drafting and design, into credits at LCCC in its mechanical and electrical engineering programs.

Mullen explained that those credits earned in high school and used toward an associate degree at LCCC can then again transfer into a four-year school to get a bachelor's degree.

Miller added that the college is also taking it one step further and began building a future workforce through the SHINE Career Academy, which is geared to teaching middle schoolers about STEM careers. Currently, the Career Academy is working on engineering a DUI trailer to help Carbon and Schuylkill police departments during DUI checkpoints.

"We're creating a workforce," Miller said. "Whether you are talking about students in the SHINE Career Academy, CCTI or LCCC, we're creating a workforce for the future.

"That will help employers, like St. Luke's, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Kovatch Mobile Equipment, Pencor or Blue Mountain Health System, because these students are learning the things that are really important for business and industry, as well as soft skills like communication, problem solving and interdisciplinary skills while not having to leave the area or pay thousands more on an education.

"Starting at a community college can help students because a lot of people don't know what they want to do but they can find out and build up their skill sets for employers," Miller added.

Looking statewide

Over the last few months the state Senate Democratic Policy Committee has been meeting with community colleges and area businesses throughout the state to see how Pennsylvania can better train employees for various careers.

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh/Monroe), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, said recently that the purpose of the workshops was to recognize that a four-year college education isn't the only path to a good job and family sustaining career and that the committee wanted to hear from workers and employers about the best ways to provide proper training to the state's workforce.

At a recent workshop, held in Harrisburg on Dec. 4, President of Harrisburg Area Community College Dr. John J. Sygielski said community colleges and career technical schools are excellent options for many students to get direct career training, but they are sometimes overlooked.

"We need to expose parents and students to career options a lot earlier than we currently do," said Sygielski. "We should make our curriculum one that addresses the needs of the community and of high-paying jobs with critical needs."

Boscola noted that the information the committee is gathering through these workshops throughout the state will be taken into consideration as the Senate moves forward in their discussions about the issues workforces faces today.