I was a senior in high school when I made the decision to attend a community college after graduation.
While many of my peers were applying to universities like Duke and Purdue, proudly wearing their college sweatshirts to school, I was interviewing for a second job and filling out scholarship applications.
I was among the top 10% of my graduating class, but I didn’t excel in any early-2000’s up-and-coming fields like computer science or medicine. I was a book nerd with zero athletic ability who participated in school plays and wrote newspaper articles.
My choice to attend a community college was purely financial. If I worked two jobs, I could pay the tuition and book fees without taking out any loans. I would continue to live at home with my parents and siblings and make the thirty-minute commute Monday through Friday.
According to a recent study, my decision was a wise one. Researchers found that students who transfer from community colleges to select universities are the most likely group to graduate.
I experienced many benefits from being a community college student. The classes were small and intimate. The building and equipment were modern. My teachers knew every student by name. If I missed a class, my instructors noticed and checked in with me.
During my second year at the school, I met a teacher who changed my life. She asked me to stay after class one day after reading my essay on spending a week on a Navajo reservation and asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming a teacher.
That conversation set my plans into motion. I had chosen to major in creative writing, but under the care of my new mentor, changed paths. I was going to teach.
I had clarity, I had purpose, and I didn’t have a single dollar of debt.
Now, I certainly wasn’t wealthy. I worked every single weekday and weekend for years on end, alternating shifts at a bookstore and a daycare. There were many months I had less than $30 in my bank account after paying my school bill and car insurance.
I graduated with my associate’s degree in English from the community college and moved to a university where I earned a bachelor’s in English with a minor in speech communication. From there, I eased into graduate school, teaching my first classes, and graduating with a master’s in Teaching of Writing.
The university is where my community college experience came full circle.
I spent nine years teaching composition to college freshman and sophomores. I had been taught the importance of the teacher-student relationship from my community college experiences, and I made sure to learn my students’ faces and names.
I also made it a priority to get to class early and stay late, making myself available to students. Every day, I’d have a line of students waiting afterward. Some just wanted to show me a paragraph they’d revised in their paper or ask a question about the syllabus.
But then there were the others.
Students confessed that their parents had chosen their school and major for them, either to follow in mom or dad’s footsteps or because their future career would hopefully be lucrative. They were resentful and downtrodden.
Other students were hemorrhaging dollars on classes they were failing. It wasn’t that they were lazy or unintelligent. Rather, they weren’t adequately prepared for the jump from high school to college. The demands were too great, and the expectations were too high.
They weren’t properly trained for the marathon.
I had students crumbling under the pressure. One of my students, whom I knew was struggling with anxiety while taking eighteen hours of classes, had a panic attack so severe that I had to call an ambulance for her.
We forget that many college students are eighteen-year-olds caught between childhood and adulthood. Heck, their brains aren’t fully developed until age twenty-five, yet they’re supposed to know what they want to be when they grow up, commit to that, and not screw up. Oh yes, and magically know how to be a perfect college student.
I had heart-to-hearts with my students. I could empathize with their struggles. There were moments I straddled my role as a teacher and my heart as a mom. I gently asked some of my struggling students, “Have you considered transferring to a community college?”
Some snarled, “Like a junior college?” Others looked defeated and shared that their parents, who were funding their education, would never allow that. One student told me, “My dad would kill me if he knew I was failing my accounting classes.” But his dad would not grant him permission, or the dollars, to attend a “junior” college.
I knew that some of my students would be so much better off at a community college, excelling because they would be in a smaller, personal environment that offers students baby steps to success. But how could students combat the “joke” of community college, popularly mocked by the sitcom Community and longstanding stereotypes, and convince their parents?
I wish I could have talked to the students’ parents and share my thoughts. There is nothing wrong with a two-year degree. A technical job can yield a large payoff. On the other hand, if the university grad can find a job in their field after graduation, they aren’t necessarily rolling in the dough.
In the United States, there are more than 44,000,000 borrowers who together have 1.5 trillion in education debt. The average student has $30,000 in debt. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that’s a big chunk of change.
Money isn’t everything, though. I would also tell parents, if a student gets discouraged at the very beginning of their university career, plummeting into a pit of failure, it’s really hard to get out. For some students, attending a community college prior to transferring to a university makes sense, easing them into deeper waters.
Not all that glitters is gold. It’s time to give community colleges the credit they deserve.