Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thoughts on Community College

I've seen several articles recently about President Obama's proposal to provide 2 years of community college at no cost to the student. Without getting into the politics of the proposal on either side, I think this is a good opportunity to have a discussion about the role of community college and the perception of attending these schools. 

I remember when I graduated high school the only question people asked you was "where are you going to college?".  Most were well prepared with a stump-speech style answer about how great the school they were going to is. Every once in a while you'd catch someone who didn't know or didn't care and they'd drag on for a while before eventually giving the name of the local community college. It was the school of last resort. The place to go for those who didn't know what they wanted to do and whose parents didn't want to pay for their kid to get a degree in I don't know. 

I ended up at a community college for a year after I went broke. I hated it. I saw all those high school classmates who had no idea what they were doing and knew that I would become one if I didn't start hustling. The only positive I saw at the time was that I could pay tuition from my paycheck rather than taking out more student loans. Fast forward to the present and I have a much different perspective. 

Teaching at a community college has allowed me to get to know many students and their reasons for attending. Most are working full time (as I did) and have families or other responsibilities that don't allow them to participate in a 4-year school. A lot of them are taking a second (maybe third?) try at school as a means to better themselves and finally get that (associates) degree. I never understood how important a two year degree could be to people. It's a major milestone and can be the catalyst for new jobs with higher incomes. More importantly for some, that degree is the culmination of a journey they started long ago and then life happened along the way.  

That's what is great about community colleges, they provide opportunity at relatively low cost with potentially life altering benefit. You can literally go from working a fast food/big box retail job to a much better paying technical career through a vocational training program in a year or two. Alternatively, you can knock out boilerplate general education classes that will likely be less rigorous at the community college level. Don't get me wrong, there's still a downside to going this route. I've seen many come into community college trying to figure out what they want to do when they grow up and they never figure it out. They take a semester or two of classes, leave uninspired, and drop out. They may not have a lot of loan debt but they have a pile of worthless credits and nothing real to show for their time and money. 

The truth is that no matter where you attend school you have to do it with purpose. The way to make community college work for you is to stay focused on your end goal. Are you looking to better your career through a technical/vocational program or are you going to transfer to a 4-year university? What are the requirements of that program? I am confident if you walk into the registrar's office without a clue what you want you will find yourself taking list after list of classes you will not enjoy to satisfy requirements you do not need to meet. If you are focused and can meet your goals while taking advantage of the lower cost at a community college then this path may be for you. 

If your goal doesn't allow for a delay in starting a sequence of courses for you major or you are willing to pay for the 4-year university experience right away, community college may not be for you. We'll discuss that in more detail in the next post. 

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