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: I was a student at 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 reserved just 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 applying to college 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 how woefully unprepared I was 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 that orthodox enclave, 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.