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Community College: A Primer

Getting past the stigmas to deliver the good news about two-year schools.

Illustration by Cynthia.

Illustration by Cynthia.

When I interviewed for my first job as a nanny, I said I was going to a private art school for college. I thought the family wouldn’t hire me if they knew the truth: that I went to a community college. Looking back, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference to them, but at the time I was sure the words “community college” would make them think the worst about me: that I was lazy, stupid, or a fuckup (or all three).

I didn’t develop these ideas about community college on my own. I went to an all-girls religious high school that emphasized Jewish subjects and only reserved two hours a day for the basics: English, math, and history (we didn’t get any science instruction at all). The school dissuaded us from attending university altogether, believing we should attend seminary in Israel and get married instead. I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t really understand the difference between a community college, a state college, and a private four-year school. It was only after I dropped out of high school, left my orthodox community, and put on my first pair of pants (gasp!), that I realized I was woefully unprepared for entry to a private nonprofit university (which is what most people in the United States mean when they say “college”).

I knew a few other defectors from my orthodox community, and they were all taking classes at a community college, so that seemed like a good place to start. But when I showed up at a local school to sign up for classes, they turned me away—I was 16 and didn’t have a high school diploma. They told me to come back when I’d gotten my GED. The GED is a group of tests that prove (if you pass them) that you have the knowledge and skill level of a high school graduate. It took me a few months to get mine, but after that, signing up for community college was almost too easy: I just walked in, showed my ID, proof of residence, and GED results, and was able to enroll in classes the very same day.

When I started taking classes at my community college, I was thrilled to be there. I was that girl who shows up bright-eyed to class on the first day and sits in the front row with a semester’s worth of reading stacked in front of her, raising her hand to answer every single question. I was very proud to be at my school, and I loved talking about it—at first. After a while, I noticed that when I went to parties thrown by kids from fancy four-year schools, as soon as I mentioned my school’s name, things got uncomfortable. No one was outright rude to me, and I’m sure none of them intended to make me feel bad, but the awkward silences and tense responses (“Um…ohhh…”) that followed my admission were clear enough, and I felt like people didn’t take anything I said seriously after that. This was enough to give me an insecurity complex that I projected onto almost everyone I met: Before people even had a chance to respond to me, my brain would run through a slew of negative assumptions: They think I’m stupid. They think I’m lazy. They totally think I’m lazy. They think I messed up in high school or didn’t get accepted into any college because I’m not good enough. They think I have no credibility and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. When school came up in casual conversation, I’d quickly turn the question around (“Where do you you go to school?”) or complain that all I thought about was school, so could we talk about something else?

But after two years and a half years at community college (I took some extra time because I had a job), I came to understand how very untrue these stigmas are. Obviously, I can’t speak for every past or current community college student, but for me, going to community college was the best decision I have made. It gave me time to learn at my own pace, helped me figure out what I wanted out of the four-year university I would eventually transfer to, and saved me a lot of money.

For those of you who are considering going to a community college after high school (or who go to one now), I’ve made a list of things I thought or worried about before and during my time at mine (which was, incidentally, Wilbur Wright College in Chicago)—as well as my responses, informed by experience, to those concerns. Consider this little FAQ the opposite of a warning.

What is community college?

The term community college means different things in different countries. In the UK, for example, it’s a school that serves students from age 11 up to adults. In this article, I’m talking about the U.S. version: a two-year college that can grant you an associate’s degree (an undergraduate diploma that’s a tier lower than a bachelor’s) or a certificate that allows you to drive a cab, say, or work as an accountant. Sometimes called junior colleges, technical colleges, two-year colleges, or city colleges, community colleges have “open admission,” meaning, in simple terms, that they accept everybody. In some states, like Illinois, where I went to school, you can sign up for classes without a high school diploma or GED if you’re over 18; but in most places you need some kind of high school equivalent no matter how old you are (unless you’re my friend L., who supposedly sweet-talked his way into community college without a diploma or GED when he was 16—but I can’t guarantee this method will work for you!). Community colleges are also significantly cheaper than other colleges. The average cost for a community college education in this country is $3,260 per year for a full-time student—compared with $8,890 for a state school, and $30,000 for a private nonprofit college.

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13 Comments

  • threelittlebirdies August 18th, 2014 8:32 PM

    Thank you SO much for this article! I’m going to community college this upcoming year (actually instead of my senior year of high school) & when I tell people, I get the most negative comments ! In my opinion, there are SO many amazing opportunities that come from a community college education. My personal motivation for going is to challenge myself, hopefully get into one of my top “real” colleges (ha !) & start on a nursing degree. When I transfer, since I am most likely going to major in music at my four-year, I also plan on continuing my community college nursing degree at a community college in the vicinity of my four year- because, the great news is- almost ALL credits transfer from community college to community college, and even some to non-community colleges too ! Anyway, thank you immensely for this encouraging, positive article ! :)

  • MR August 18th, 2014 9:30 PM

    Community colleges are such a good option, especially if you want to save money! If anyone is interested in reading more, this is another good article (written by a CC dean) with great, practical advice for new students: http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2011/07/advice-for-incoming-students.html

  • spudzine August 19th, 2014 12:07 AM

    yessss thank you thank you thank you!!!! thanks so much for making community college not seem like a place for (insert degrading name)-heads!!!! i am considering community, because of financial and emotional reasons. it’s a really smart option!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Laurataur August 19th, 2014 2:02 AM

    This post is awesome! I dealt with so much internalized stigma all throughout my community college education and it was totally ridiculous. I just transferred to a 4 year university and honestly, I’m glad I did my general education at a community college. Now I get to completely focus on what I actually want to study, and I’m not neck-deep in debt :)

  • bella_lmh August 19th, 2014 7:52 AM

    love this piece! really eye opening
    x neophytekid.blogspot.com

  • rratprincess August 19th, 2014 8:28 AM

    fantastic article – community college is my only good memory of “higher” education. After I dropped out of hs, a gates funded program through the college paid for everything, and shortly gave me a diploma that mentioned no where that I had indeed dropped out. I wish the stigma was more that they are the ones who help the community, not just exist in it.

  • Chloe22 August 19th, 2014 10:29 AM

    omg Tova my mom is trying to get me to go to not only a community college…but literally Wright!!! so funny!
    http://criticallycouture.blogspot.com/

  • sans.sheriff August 19th, 2014 2:03 PM

    There’s so much undeserved stigma surrounding accessible (as far as admissions and cost) colleges, which I think is a shame. In a lot of ways, your education will be what you make of it, and I think the pressure to go to a “prestigious” school pushes a lot of students into tough situations later — where they don’t adjust to the workload or have to drop out for financial reasons.
    Really, education should be an option for everyone and community colleges do a lot to make that possible.
    This is a really great article! :)

    http://www.thismoxy.com/

  • julietpetal August 19th, 2014 9:43 PM

    Wait I thought community college was the same as state college? What’s the difference? (I’m in New Zealand and we have either university or tech (which is where you usually go if you’re doing a practical based subject and I guess is similar to community college but kind of without as much stigma).

  • nola August 19th, 2014 11:21 PM

    I am currently a student at a community college in Tuscaloosa, AL, a town dominated by the University of Alabama. The my school’s library is small, but the card gives access and borrowing privilege for both Stillman College’s library [another small school] and every single one of UA’s libraries, including the enormous one.

    Many of the teachers at my school teach because they love the subject. I haven’t been here very long, but my brother went to the same school for a long time; between the two of us, we agree that the teachers tend to be good.

    Said brother has transferred to UA. Whatever organization it is that links all the colleges in my state has made it easy to transfer from 2-year to 4-year schools if you stay in-state… out of state transferring just depends.

    My only real complaint is that there’s no real opportunity to socialize and meet people. There aren’t really any clubs at my school, besides the Baptist student ministry, Phi Theta Kappa, and something or other for nursing students. That’s a small price to pay for a great school, though.

  • avisanti August 20th, 2014 12:50 PM

    Great article! Love all these college articles on Rookie. Hope you can write something for international students (scholarships, pros and cons od studying in a foreign country, etc.) as well. I’m currently in my senior year and I’m hoping to go to grad school abroad for the opportunity to travel and, ya know, explore the big, wide world.

  • Zeballion August 22nd, 2014 8:31 PM

    Really sweet article! Going to a community college rn. So this hits me pretty close. Thanks for making me feel all better and what not.

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