Community College Is More Than Its Stereotype

I never thought I’d end up here, but I’m glad I did

I was thrilled when I received my admission letter to a ridiculously expensive private college last spring. I paid my deposits, signed my housing contract, then spent the summer laying in bed, dreading the moment when I’d have to figure out how to actually pay my tuition.

Like nearly all college students, I felt overwhelmed by the looming burden of student debt. My first loan application was denied and my family didn’t have the economic means to contribute much to my tuition. I crunched the numbers and realized I couldn’t do it: I just couldn’t afford to bend over backward and take out thousands upon thousands of dollars in loans. I couldn’t let four years of my life determine the rest of it. So I dropped out of my shiny, costly private school and enrolled in community college.

As an honors student and a lifelong try-hard, I never thought I’d end up at community college. I assumed I was “too smart” for that because that’s what I’d been told my entire life. I worked endlessly throughout high school to maintain near-perfect grades so I could be admitted to competitive private colleges and receive the scholarships I needed to fund my education. Even though I knew I was more than qualified for the full tuition scholarship at my local community college, I didn’t want to settle for what I believed was a subpar degree. All I could think about as I enrolled, therefore, is something one of my friends had previously said: “Community college isn’t real college.”

He’s hardly the only one who feels this way. It seems that most people assume that community college is only for students who aren’t very smart or driven. They think that going to a two-year institution is “settling” or “taking it easy.” In actuality, a lot of students choose community college not because they don’t want difficult coursework, but because it makes more financial sense for them. Despite trying to make the smartest decision for themselves, the message many community students still receive is that if they didn't choose to be in lifelong debt in order to pursue an education at a four-year university, they must be stupid and lazy.

This stigma certainly influenced me at first. I assumed I’d coast through my first year of college and wasn’t really excited about my decision. I spent the first few weeks moping, frustrated with where I had ended up and worried I wouldn’t receive a quality education.

But I could have spared myself immense amounts of disappointment and frustration if I hadn't bought into these negative stereotypes. Eventually, I grew to love going to community college. I’m not only saving money, but also getting a great education. My classes are challenging and small, which has allowed me to have plenty of one-on-one attention from my professors. One of my professors threw a pizza party for our class to celebrate the end of finals because we had developed such a tight-knight community.

I’ve also established great relationships with my fellow students, who aren’t just recently graduated high school students but also retired military service officers, parents returning to college, and other adults who want to change careers. I’ve learned so much from these diverse students, whom I probably would not have met at a typical four-year university.

But the most important thing I’ve gained from community college is learning what I really want to do with my life. Without the pressure to declare a major, I’ve been able to focus on gen-eds and take classes in subjects I wouldn’t immediately have focused on elsewhere. Based on this approach, I ended up taking a political science course that completely changed my outlook on my career.

But rather than acknowledge benefits like these, most people still focus on the negative stereotypes surrounding community colleges — including other academic institutions. Selective private universities are often hesitant to accept community college students as transfers: Most private universities have lower rates of two-year college transfers, and this rate only decreases as a college's rank increases. What’s more, the academic standards by which applicants are rated for admission aren’t consistent for all community college applicants.

Even if a community college student is able to transfer to a competitive college, they may face unique challenges once there. They can probably expect that at least a few of their credits will not be able to transfer and they might also have to deal with a lack of adequate transfer orientation programs. Obtaining scholarships and financial aid may also prove difficult.

While there are a few diamonds in the rough — like Bryn Mawr’s Community College Connection and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship — these programs are very competitive and enforce strict guidelines. This results in hardly enough opportunities for all (or even most) of the close to 3 million students enrolled full-time in community colleges across the nation to take advantage of.

This stigma should concern more Americans, because it only underscores and adds to the struggles of the already economically disadvantaged among us. The idea that people think the college I chose to attend has any bearing on my inherent intelligence is bad enough, but knowing that I'll be disadvantaged in the future because of this assumption — which is ultimately a result of my financial situation — is even worse. Even though I technically have the option to apply to selective private colleges and competitive scholarships, internships, and other programs, I know it’s very likely I’ll be overlooked because my education is seen as “lesser” than those of students at four-year universities.

Ultimately, all undergraduate students should be given the same opportunities to succeed no matter their socioeconomic background. I want to be respected and admired for the hard work I’ve put into my education regardless of where I received it. Ideally, four-year private institutions can work to fix this problem by accepting more community college transfers and accommodating their specific needs. But until that happens, I can at least recognize that I made the right decision and I’m happy where I am, as are many other community college students. It’s time for other people to realize and respect that too.

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