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.
I too agree, although my personal experience was different and happened a long time ago.
I am currently going through this with my oldest. He got into a good school of his choice and started a program. In his case he decided he wanted to change his major. Well, considering how much thought he put into the first choice, even he thought that he would be better off at the local community college. It is very inexpensive, considered very good. He has plenty of AP credits, some from his four year college and with a couple of semesters will have an associates degree. The four year schools around here almost all tend to accept these students with open arms.
The school he originally went to was a very serious technical university. Compared to what I experienced, being near a large state school, it was positively sedate. It is hard, though, at that age to stay on course.
That's how it worked for me too. In the late 1960s I went to college at age 16, moved into the dorms, changed from science to a double major in Pot and Sandbox Politics, dropped out a few years later. Decades after, when I got serious about learning, community colleges and their awesome teachers welcomed me into some calculus & statistics courses that led to a math degree and a fascinating enjoyable new career.
Who says you have to live at home to go to a community college?
When I was 18, I moved away and went to a community college. I was about 90 miles from home, living off-campus (there was no on campus housing).
There was also great diversity there. I lived and went to school with Iranians during the hostage crisis in the late 70's. There were many other ethnic groups represented at the college at that time. I still stay in contact with some of the people I lived with and whent to school with, including the Iranians, who eventually married and stayed here.
Anyhow, just because you go to a community college doesn't mean you have to live with your parents. (although I would have if I could have - nothing like mom's cooking.)
Totally agree, Dave, that community shouldn't be seen as a Plan B. As far as diversity, I think that definitely depends on your area. I live 30+ miles north of Boston and any community college around here would not have the level of diversity I'd love my kids to experience in higher ed because they're not experiencing it now.
The price of four-year college education is certainly out of bounds for many families, who somehow shoulder through it and take on the massive debt. With more attention paid to the curriculum and programs offered by community college, particularly as part of the high school guidance program, many families and students could breath a sigh of relief and still be set on course to achieving their career goals.
I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of this article. I've known many engineers who started at community colleges, including one who is now a professor of mechanical engineering. It's a good way for engineering students to go, especially in this era of $40K-per-year tuitions (some of the big name schools are now over $50K). Although it's not widely spoken of, many of today's big engineering schools wash out between 50% and 70% of the students who start in engineering during the first two years (this is a figure from the former dean at the University of Texas). Students who aren't ready for the rigor of an undergrad engineering curriculum in a big school with calculus classes of 500 kids can be among those washouts. Community colleges give students a chance to acclimate in smaller classes. If they do well, the students can transfer into the big schools when they're ready and replace those who've left engineering. Many big engineering schools are now searching for kids to fill those spots in junior- and senior-level classes. In the end, employers just want to see the bachelor's degree; it doesn't matter if the first two years were at a junior college.
@Beth: You're right that different students have different needs. My point is that community colleges shouldn't be seen as a "Plan B" or last-ditch option. In my opinion, they are the best option for most students and families.
It's interesting that you mention the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, because I was actually going to include this as one of the benefits of community colleges. My daughter has classmates from all over the world. In fact, she's picked up a few words of Korean, Japanese, Farsi, and Tagalog from her classmates, while she has taught them a few words of Spanish. (She grew up in El Salvador). In contrast, in many four-year universities, students from different countries tend to cluster together, i.e. Indian students with Indian students, Chinese students with Chinese students, etc.
Granted, this level of diversity may be due to the fact that we live in the Chicago area; you probably wouldn't encounter students from many different countries at a community college in rural Montana, for example. But community college students also tend to be more diverse in terms of age and life experiences. Having classmates of different ages provides a healthy mix of perspectives.
These are great points, and as a matter of fact, my experience in a Community College was in some ways more rewarding than the 4 year college. It is not a requirement for kids to be happy with the decisions you make for them, though every case is different. Many people went the conventional way with 4 years of a University and came out just fine. But many will thank you later, because they will avoid the worthless process of 'hazing' that has grown out of control in the last few decades. This alone is a great reason to avoid Freshman and Sophomore years at a 4 year University, and to avoid fraternities and sororities altogether. The only real 'advantages' that I have seen these organizations provide is the ability to cheat, saving years worth of exams for their minions to use, along with countless papers to buy, etc. These organizations are propelling some students that are not well trained in anything other than partying, into the workforce, with less morals than they started with. They are exellent partyers and pranksters, they are great a preying on the opposite sex, and they are great at manipulating the system, none of which are very useful in our society. I personally know people that are still messed up in the head by the lifestyle and hazing that they experienced in college.
All good points here. That being said, I'm not sure my 18-year-old self would have been happy staying home while going to college. Not at that time anyway. I was content to live away from home, come and go as I pleased, while also working to help pay my way.
Of course, after I graduated and was faced with paying off my student loans I probably would have felt differently - had community college been an option when I was looking at colleges, anyway ....
I agree that the four-year college experience isn't for everyone and there is definitely a group of students who go along for the ride, putting their education as a secondary objective. Yet, I wouldn't go as far as to argue the other way--that community college as a stepping stone to four-year college is the only way to go. I think it depends on the kid, their motivation, their career aspirations, the family's financial and life situation, and many other factors. But yes, there shouldn't be an absolute focus from parents, high school faculty, and the media to push students in that direction without considering all of the alternatives.
On the flip side, there is something to be said about that away-from-home college experience that sticks with you for a lifetime. Learning to balance work with fun time, living away from home, managing expenses and temptations, having access to fellow students who hail from different backgrounds and different locales is pretty invaluable and can be life changing. I say the bottom line is different strokes for different folks.
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