Note from Katie: Mark is a friend of mine from my early educational days—he and I attended the same charter school in Littleton, Colorado (and we were on the state-dominating trivia team together in 8th grade. Talk about a claim to fame!). Since then, Mark attended the Community College of Denver before pursuing a degree in economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland. Since graduation, Mark has served 4½ years in the US Armed Forces. I am delighted to offer his insights into the community college experience and why this might be an excellent option for graduating high school students.
The Benefits of Community College Education
So maybe you do not know if you want to go to college. Maybe you have seen siblings, friends, or those Occupy guys who have nothing more than tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars worth of debt and piece of paper after four years of hard work that once promised to be the ticket to the American Dream. Maybe you do not know what you want to study in college. Maybe you are burned out after thirteen years of unending books, essays, and formulas presented in ways that never captured your attention. Maybe you do not want to go to college at all because the prospect of working in a cubicle bores you to the point of insanity.
Maybe you should consider attending a community college.
Community colleges are an affordable alternative for beginning a college education. According to bankrate.com, the national average for tuition for each semester is $2076. Compare that to $5100 at a state university and $20,081 at a private college. Additionally, many states offer incentives that disproportionally benefit community college students. For example, the College Opportunity Fund in Colorado covered about 45% of my own community college tuition. In fact, my four semesters at the Community College of Denver cost less than my first semester at an out-of-state university.
The low cost of tuition allows you, the student, to fulfill courses required for graduation while also taking classes to broaden your perspective, pursue your interests, and determine your future major. I took my first philosophy class at CCD and liked it enough to study ethics and political thought as well. I was also able to knock out most of the intro-level courses for my major in economics and minor in history—all at a huge discount from what I would have paid in freshman and sophomore-year tuitions. Many students arrive at expensive, four year institutions with the “undecided” block checked and spend a great deal of money trying to find their passion when they could have spent dramatically less had their search began at a community college.
For any of you thinking, “You get what you pay for,” it’s worth pointing out that that many community college professors are actually associate professors at local colleges looking to pick up a couple more classes. So my intro to philosophy class was essentially the same one my professor taught at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (a traditional four year institution).
Educational burnout is a common affliction among American students. School can be an incredibly trying process, especially when a teacher's pedagogy does not engage a particular student. You may be considering a break after high school with the intention of going to college after a year. This plan succeeds far less often than those who follow it intend. Community college can help bridge the gap. By offering classes at most of hours of the day and night as well as flexibility in the number of classes taken at a time, students can ease into the college environment while also working. This gives students the opportunity to decide if the academic life is one they want to pursue. You can start with a class in a subject you know and love. Next semester, you take two classes; one in a subject you enjoy, and one you know you need to fulfill graduation requirements (balancing classes like this is an excellent strategy for every semester through graduation. If I had not had many classes I enjoyed, the boring classes would taken the momentum out of my learning). Then the next semester, maybe you go full time. Or maybe you will quit altogether and decide to go a different route.
Which brings us to the next reason community college might be the right choice after all. Many community colleges offer technical and vocational courses in addition to academics. Society has placed a major emphasis on the value of the bachelor's degree while simultaneously discouraging technical and trade vocations. As a result, the number of qualified professionals in those fields has dwindled, creating a greater demand for the services they provide. Automobile mechanics, information technology, and nursing are just a few of the vocations available for study. Community colleges offer students the freedom to dabble in the introductory courses for each trade, take round-out courses like accounting or business administration to complement their skills, and pursue the degrees and certifications required by each field.
With all these benefits to community college, you may find yourself asking about the catch. Most high school students who go straight into community college continue to live at home at a time when most of their friends scatter to the winds. This can be lonely, though you are almost guaranteed to meet some interesting people in your classes.
The biggest caveat to the benefit of community college is transferability. While in-state public schools will accept credits earned at a community college, the proposition gets dicey across state lines. This situation gets even worse if you want to go to a private school. Some accept the credits openly while others reject them categorically. This is a major obstacle and annoyance when you have invested so much time and effort in your education. If a private school will not accept your work thus far, it is probably a good sign that you should keep looking. If you have plans to transfer before you start at a community college, or if these plans develop along with your education, it’s probably a good idea to talk with an advisor early and often to make sure you’re doing all you can to qualify to pursue those goals.
Community college offers an affordable means to pursue an education. With tuition skyrocketing and unemployment among young workers high, the costs and benefits of college should be on every perspective student's mind. Community college is the best way to knock out the general education classes required almost everywhere while saving some money for the years ahead. Beyond that, this option gives you the freedom to explore different topics inexpensively while deciding if college is right for you, the individual. Or you can learn trade skills still highly demanded in our economy that are not a part of a bachelor's degree.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of my own community college education was the people I met. I was fortunate to fall into a group of highly motivated students who were all trying to get into pharmacy school. They were the most diverse group I have ever known and all had life experiences far beyond what I knew as a seventeen year old. Their work ethic rubbed off on me and helped me to succeed in community college and beyond.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like "Small Town, Small School--Big Opportunities" and "Choosing a College: Gut Feelings and Pro/Con Lists."
Thanks very much to Mark for this guest post! Please leave any comments/questions for either of us in the space below, and let us know if this article was helpful.