I was gearing up for college before I was even a freshman in high school.
The most exciting prospect for me was moving away. I craved a change of scenery and a change of pace from bright and forever sunny San Diego.
In high school, I built, endlessly it seemed, my resume to become the well-rounded candidate. My senior year I compiled all of these elements into eight separate applications and sent them off hoping that the letters I would receive in return would seal my exciting new fate. And it was exciting.
As I received acceptance letters, my options for higher education seemed unlimited. But like all things, this moment of ecstasy was fleeting. Each acceptance packet came with shiny brochures, inviting pictures of current students, promising letters, and one hell of a price tag—a price tag not even scholarships or financial aid could alleviate. And there it was. The barrier between me and (what I thought was) success.
I made the choice to go to community college because it was the only choice I thought was possible for me in the moment. And at that moment in my life, it destroyed me. I had watched my older sister go away to college two years earlier. I was surrounded by an academic community in high school that used derogatory language to describe community colleges. I had teachers I knew and respected tell me I was making a huge mistake. I constantly heard the phrase, “Why can’t you just take out a loan?”
Fast froward a few months: I was attending community college. For a short while I resented it completely, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with my school.
In hindsight, I’ve tried to figure out why so many people, including myself, had such a negative reaction to my higher education choice. And here’s what I’ve realized: community college, at least in some communities, has a stigma of being a less than stellar education experience.
The American Association of Community Colleges reports that as of Fall 2014, 45% of all American undergraduate students attend a community college with 41% being first time freshmen. That’s almost half of all seniors graduating high school who will attend college! With statistics like this, it’s confusing why a negative image surrounds community college as being fake college or (my favorite term I’ve heard so far) high school 2.0.
There seems to be a misconception that courses offered at a community college are less rigorous or less comprehensive than those offered at four year institutions. This is simply false.
This may be due to the idea that some see community college as the education alternative for students who just couldn’t gain admission anywhere else, and speaking from personal experience, this could not be farther from the truth. My college has a wonderful Honors Program that has continued to push me academically, and my chemistry and math courses have been some of the most difficult challenges I have taken on in my life.
Community college (and honestly college in general) is a beautiful learning environment because it is exactly what you make of it. Junior colleges provide great and doable programs for single parents and veterans, they offer certificate programs and award associate degrees, and they offer the rigorous prerequisite coursework to prepare you for your upper division major courses at a four-year institution. A significant number of these schools even award Bachelor’s degrees in certain majors.
Financially, the benefits could not be greater. The average annual tuition and fees at a community college are about one-third of the average annual tuition and fees when compared to public, in state universities as reported in the 2015-2016 school year. On top of that, about 72% of students at community college receive some sort of financial aid. Nothing feels better than being able to say that I will be wrapping up my sophomore year of college in the spring, which I paid for independently, with absolutely no student loan debt.
For me, one of the most difficult things to deal with when I entered into community college was that I was never going to have the cliche college experience I’d seen in countless TV shows and movies growing up. But it didn’t take long to learn that everyone’s college experience is so unique that the cliche college experience doesn’t even exist. You are in charge of the kind of college experience you have. Once I involved myself in on-campus clubs and organizations, college was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
My point: college is college. There are so many great options out there and community colleges should not be overlooked, something I wish I had really understood two years ago. Whether you attend a community college, a university, or are trying to decide between the two, just know that you will get everything out of your experience that you put into it.
I love my college experience because I’ve decided to love it. It is important to realize that having an opportunity to get an education at all is never something to take for granted and certainly not something to stigmatize.