Community College: You've Heard the Myths, Now Let's Talk Benefits
In 2006, I faced my first adult decision: where should I go to college?
At the time, I was all but sure that I would enroll at my dream school, Rutgers University. Rutgers was close to home, prestigious, and had all of the programming and resources that I needed. Plus, I was already accepted. With only a month remaining before my high school graduation, I had already scheduled my orientation and picked my classes.
There was only one problem. A few days earlier, I received a letter offering me a full-ride scholarship. The condition? I had to attend community college in my home state for two years before I could matriculate.
I know what you're thinking: this is great news; you're so lucky to have this opportunity! You're right, of course, but I didn't know that then. I was 18 years old and the thought of not participating in the "traditional" college experience at my dream school horrified me. In short, I was not yet mature enough to see how lucky I was to have that offer. But, of course, that is why this was my first adult decision.
I could have gone straight to my dream college, stayed close with the friends that I graduated with, and had the typical college experience: large early-morning lecture classes, finding my place among the 70,000 students on campus, the occasional all-nighter in a friend's dorm room.
I could have gone straight to my dream college, stayed close with the friends that I graduated with, and had the typical college experience … But, I ultimately gave that all up.
But, I ultimately gave that all up to attend Middlesex County College. While it wasn't an easy choice (or one devoid of parental nudging) it was still one of the best decisions I ever made.
I wasn't missing what I thought I was missing.
One reason I hadn't seriously considered a two-year school was because I believed the pernicious myths about community college. I worried that they were less academically rigorous and couldn't offer the "real" college experience. Both assumptions proved misguided.
From my first day, I felt academically challenged. My professors all had master's degrees in their areas of expertise, and some even had PhDs. I found them challenging, yet supportive teachers. One faulty assumption many people have about community college education is that instructors are less experienced and otherwise subpar to those you would encounter at a university. But that isn't the case at all: You can expect to learn from qualified educators who prioritize teaching over research. The same cannot always be said of professors at a four-year school.
Contrary to popular belief, many instructors choose to work at a community college. Why? Many of us love teaching and closely interacting with our students. Community college classrooms have fewer students, allowing instructors to provide more individualized attention during class. The classroom environment is also more conducive to asking and answering questions and doing more interactive activities. Auditorium-style survey courses that are so common at four-year schools are generally a less effective teaching environment for both student and teacher.
Community college classrooms have fewer students, allowing instructors to provide more individualized attention during class. The classroom environment is also more conducive to asking and answering questions and doing more interactive activities.
Smaller classes also facilitate more interaction with your peers. You'll likely do more collaborative work, and get to know people from different backgrounds pretty easily. Best of all, you'll still make plenty of friends.
I met one of my best friends at community college, where we spent so much time together in classes, studying for tests, and going out to lunch. We both matriculated to Rutgers in our junior year, and enrolled in two different programs, which meant we rarely saw each other. But because of the bond we formed in community college, our friendship endured the test, and she was even the maid of honor in my wedding years later. The intimacy that a community college fosters can provide the ultimate friend-making environment -- no dorm room all-nighters necessary!
It was a strong financial decision.
Today's students must carefully consider their finances as they evaluate prospective colleges. The average student today accumulates $37,172 of student loan debt, and loan recipients collectively hold $1.56 trillion in debt. Not surprisingly, students overwhelmingly listed costs as a top concern in a recent USA Today poll.
Community colleges offer a more affordable education. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the estimated cost of tuition at a public four-year institution was $10,230, and just $3,660 at public two-year schools. Of course, these numbers vary based on whether you are attending an in-state institution, if you are paying for housing, and how much you've earned in scholarships. But across the board, community colleges are less expensive: According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 60% of community college graduates leave school with little to no debt. Plus, you still qualify for all of the same financial aid opportunities you would at any other institution.
My primary incentive for attending community college was the scholarship I mentioned above. But for anyone evaluating sticker prices without a scholarship in hand, a glance at the cost difference between the schools under my purview shows just how much you can save at a two-year school. Middlesex charged only $81.55 per credit for residents of the county, while Rutgers cost $255.40 per credit for in-state students. For the 70 credits of coursework that I completed at MCC in 2006, my education was $12,170 cheaper than it would have been at Rutgers.
The cost per credit in the 2018-2019 academic year for those same institutions are $112 versus $383, respectively. In today's prices, my education would be $19,000 cheaper. With the wholesale rising costs of tuition, community colleges have become an even better deal.
|College Type||Annual Tuition and Fees|
|Public Four-Year College (In-State)||$9,410|
|Public Four-Year College (Out-of-State)||$23,890|
|Private Four-Year College||$32,410|
|Source: The College Board|
I found my way instead of getting lost.
The main reason why attending community college was one of the best decisions I've ever made was that the experience molded me into the person I am today. My friendships, my financial stability during and after college, my relationships, and my career were all directly impacted by my experiences in community college. It wasn't a transient experience for me as I, and maybe many of you, expect it to be; it was no stepping stone on the way to something better. It was exactly where I was supposed to be.
It wasn't a transient experience for me … it was no stepping stone on the way to something better. It was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I'll leave you with one example why. When I graduated high school, I was certain that I would major in psychology and build a career in the field. That's the path I started on in community college, but after taking several required English classes, I developed a passion for the subject. Soon after, I was taking 21 (yes, 21) credits per semester in order to fulfill the requirements of my psychology major and satisfy my interest in English. It wasn't until one very observant English professor of mine pulled me aside and said "You know you could major in English if you want to, right?" that everything finally clicked.
A year ago, I finished my Ph.D. in English. I've been teaching college English for nine years and I can't imagine pursuing a different career path. But, the fact is that I could have. If I didn't go to community college, would I have developed an interest in this career? Would I have had a keen professor help me reshape my academic trajectory? Would I have had the time, money, and freedom to even explore changing my major? Perhaps I would have anyway, but what I do know is that the support I was offered at my community college was what I expected to get from a four-year school.
So, if you're wondering whether or not community college is the right choice for you, just think about what could be. You might just find yourself and decide on your career path, or, at the very least, you'll save yourself enough money along the way to enjoy the path you're already on.