There is a widely held myth about the college experience. It goes something like this: Eighteen-year-olds leave their parents' homes in order to live in dormitories with other 18-year-olds. Over the course of four years, they engage in various hijinks, find themselves, pull a few all-nighters cramming for tests, and eventually emerge with a degree of some kind.
There are two problems with this myth. First, it's bankrupting middle-class families. Second, it's undermining our educational system, which, after all, ostensibly exists for the purpose of advancing education, not providing students with an experience.
Most middle-class parents aspire to send their children to a prestigious university to fulfill this myth. Not me, though. I got my start in a community college, and I'm proud that my daughter is following in my footsteps by staying at home, working, and going to community college. I believe this is the best way for her to prepare for success in her career and in her life.
Here are five reasons the reality of the community college experience beats the myth of the four-year college experience.
- Affordability: Tuition at our local community college is just over $100 per credit hour. That's an 80 percent savings compared to in-state tuition at the nearest state university. Since the classes are transferrable, why pay an extra 80 percent? The school allows us to pay the tuition bill in three monthly payments over the course of the semester with no interest. We are not incurring a penny of debt.
- Learning environment: Instructors at community colleges are there to teach, not to do research or to write books. Students are there to learn, not for the extracurricular activities. Class sizes tend to be reasonable. Introductory classes at four-year colleges are often taught by research professors who have little interest in teaching undergraduates, or by their beleaguered teaching assistants, in stadium-sized classes with hundreds of students. Is that really worth paying extra for?
- Work-study balance: Community colleges tend to offer many evening and weekend classes, which allow students to work while attending school. Working gives students a solid grounding in the real world, not to mention the financial independence of a regular paycheck. Furthermore, the need to balance work and study forces students to learn to become organized.
- Opportunities for practical learning: How many four-year colleges offer classes in welding, CNC machining, or the latest CAD programs? These hands-on classes can be very useful for engineering students. In the past, academia looked down on this kind of practical learning. Now universities are struggling to catch up.
- Opportunity to explore major options: Few 18-year-olds have a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives, yet most four-year colleges force them to declare a major within a semester or two. Community college gives students a greater opportunity to accumulate general education credits and prerequisites while deciding on a career path.
After earning an associate's degree, students can transfer to a four-year school for their junior and senior years. By this time, they will have a proven track record of success in college-level coursework that will make them attractive to admissions departments and help them gain access to scholarships. They will also be more mature, better organized, and clearer about their goals. And starting the four-year college experience at the halfway point makes sense -- by the third year, class sizes are smaller, and both professors and students are more motivated.
The idea that community colleges are only for students whose family incomes and/or grades don't allow them to start out in a four-year school needs to be turned on its head. In reality, community college is the best option for most students and their families, regardless of income or grades. Not only is it a better deal; it's also a better experience.
Readers, do you agree? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.