QUINCY - For some, it is a matter of convenience.
For others, it is directly tied to cost.
For twin sisters Alyssa and Brandi Cothren of Pittsfield, it was a combination of both.
The Cothrens opted to attend two years at John Wood Community College prior to transferring to Auburn University in Alabama to continue their pursuit of degrees in business management.
"We wanted to stay close (to home because of some family issues), and when we left John Wood we basically didn't owe anything," said Alyssa Cothren on why she and her sister went the community college route to begin their post-secondary education.
The Cothrens are not alone.
Nationwide, there is a growing trend to attend community colleges before finishing up degrees at a traditional four-year university.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports nearly half of students -- 49 percent -- receiving bachelor's degrees in 2016 had previously attended a community or junior two-year college.
The center's report, "Snapshot 26: Two-Year Institutions' Contributions to Four-Year Degrees," indicates this is a growing trend. The 49 percent figure was three points higher than the last time the center compiled such numbers two years earlier.
In 20 states, including Illinois, more than half of the 2016 bachelor's degree earners had received part of their education at a junior or community college.
In Illinois, 61 percent of those eventually earning a bachelor's degree started out in a community college, which is often close to home and overall costs are a fraction of what they would be at a four-year college or university. In Missouri, the figure is 53 percent, and in Iowa it is 56 percent.
"This snapshot report shows that community colleges are greatly impacting educational attainment for hundreds of thousands of students," Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's executive director, told Community College Daily. "Even when not awarding their own degrees, these institutions are adding great value to their communities and states."
Where do they go?
Many of those who attend John Wood Community College tend, for the most start, to continue their education at a four-year school relatively close to Quincy.
Quincy University attracts the most JWCC graduates at 16.6 percent, followed closely by Western Illinois University (14.5) in Macomb. SIU-Edwardsville, Culver-Stockton College and Hannibal-LaGrange University are also popular choices. Almost 47 percent of JWCC grads attend those five schools.
Faith Mountain is one of those. She will be continuing pursuit of a communications degree at QU, with an eye on public relations.
"I wouldn't have changed anything," Mountain said of her choice to begin at JWCC.
Mountain said the two years she spent at a community college allowed her to better transition from a smalltown-type of background in Mount Sterling -- she attended Brown County High School -- to the atmosphere of a larger community and educational site such as Quincy and JWCC.
Mountain was also able to tweak her major while at JWCC and feels better equipped to begin at QU this fall. She found communications was a better fit for her than business.
"I was also worried about making new friends (after leaving Brown County and going to JWCC), but things worked better than I ever could have imagined," she said. "The two years I spent at JWCC helped me more than I ever thought it would."
Process starts early
Andrew Happekotte is the director of advising and retention at JWCC. He helps students in the process of transferring to four-year schools. Much of that process begins relatively early during their stay at JWCC.
"John Wood has a very good relationship with (four-year) schools in the region," he said. "By the time a student is finished at John Wood, we have already been working with that student for about a year."
Happekotte said he emphasizes to students to form a clear idea about their major early in their stay at JWCC.
"Most of the students have a good idea about what they want to do," he said
Hapekotte said that helps not only their course of study at JWCC, but in working with the school where they plan to extend their education.
Part of the strong relationship Hapekotte said JWCC has with many four-year schools involves personal representatives who deal with JWCC interests in a one-on-one fashion.
Hapekotte said those representatives may even be able to have certain fees tied to transferring waived.
Alyssa Cothren felt attending JWCC served as a stepping stone for her journey from Pittsfield to Quincy to Auburn.
"The town of Auburn is about the same size as Quincy," she said.
The atmosphere Cothren found at JWCC also helped prepare her for the move to Auburn, a Southeastern Conference university with a national reputation and enrollment of 22,000.
"John Wood provided more of a college experience I expected," she said. "I appreciate what (the staff and faculty) at John Wood did for us. We had no major problems transferring."
Cothren said she and her sister had always planned to go to Auburn, largely because other family members had preceded them there. Tradition and educational experience aside, Cothren said there was one distinct advantage over attending Auburn rather than a school in the Midwest.
"There's no snow in Auburn," she said.
No oceans in Illinois
Robert Bretzing-Tungate is another local student who is using John Wood as a launch pad to a major university outside the region.
The Quincy High product is leaving in June for Texas A&M University, where he will be continuing his education in marine biology.
"When I was small, my mom got me an encyclopedia dealing with the animal kingdom and I would read it daily," Bretzing-Tungate said. "It piqued my interest."
Bretzing-Tungate said the two years he spent at JWCC proved invaluable, particular in money saved. He was able to get many of his general courses out of the way before being required to continue his study in an area close to an ocean.
Bretzing-Tungate said the money he has saved the last two years will greatly help offset the cost of the coming two years in College Station, Texas. He would gladly stay closer to home, if he could.
"But there are no oceans near Illinois," he said.
Bretzing-Tungate said the past two years at JWCC allowed him to not only save money but to better ready himself for what the future holds.
He's gained a new degree of confidence as he heads toward the next chapter of his life.
"Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone," he said.
James Hinkamper now works as an electrical engineer in Springfield following a college education that included stops at JWCC and SIU-Edwardsville.
"I was impressed and influenced by the programs and cost with John Wood," he said. "I could still live at home and go to school."
Hinkamper received scholarship assistance from his participation in the JWCC jazz band.
The only drawback he found when moving to SIUE was a few of his classes did not transfer as expected.
"I ended up at SIUE one semester longer than I expected, but that was the only hindrance," he said of starting out at a community college.
JWCC has always maintained a strong agricultural bond with the nine rural counties it serves. Brent Mansfield mirrors that interest.
Mansfield graduated from JWCC in 2014 and went on to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., where he earned a degree in crop sciences, with a minor in food and agribusiness management.
Mansfield, a native of White Hall, Ill., is now pursuing a master's degree in weed science at Purdue's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.
Mansfield hopes to eventually impact the economy of regional agriculture.
"My long-term goal would be to utilize my experiences and knowledge ... to establish an independent research station on my family's farm conducting agronomic research to benefit the farmers in my area," he said.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report also examined how quickly the baccalaureate earners who started at a two-year college attained their bachelor's degrees.
About half -- 49 percent -- did so within three years of leaving the two-year college. Thirty-one percent completed their baccalaureate in four to five years.