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Community College: A Primer

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

It’s the “accept everybody” part of community college that usually leads people to make negative assumptions about community college, which leads me to my second point:

Aren’t community colleges for slackers/fuckups/losers/old people?

People go to community college for all kinds of reasons, all of them very valid. Among the most common are financial constraints, time constraints, and just not being prepared, academically or emotionally, for a private four-year university. Some high school graduates don’t know what they want to major in yet and don’t want to spend a lot of money figuring it out. Some people are there because they want a specific type of vocational training or are on leave from the military. I met people who wanted a degree from a fancy school but didn’t want to pay for four entire years there, so they do their first two at a junior college. And a huge number of community college students have kids and/or jobs, or are on leave from the military, and can’t attend college full-time. Community colleges are generally pretty accommodating to restrictive schedules. I had one teacher who would give us time to write essays in class, because he knew that most of his students wouldn’t have time otherwise.

There were also a lot of students from other countries who started taking classes as undocumented students, which you were able to do at my college. And many community colleges offer resources beyond just education: I met a woman from Mexico recently who was struggling to learn English and find a job and further her education. I put her in touch with a Spanish-speaking teacher at my school who walked her through the admissions process, helped her sign up for classes, and introduced her to advisers who helped her arrange financial aid. After a visit to the wellness center, she was hooked up with health insurance and free therapy. She even got to borrow a computer from a school loan program.

A lot of people were at Wright because they couldn’t afford to continue taking classes at expensive four-year institutions. Others had jobs that suddenly required them to get an associate’s degree. Occasionally I would meet people who were there because they had been kicked out of or suspended from another school, but they were the minority. (And none of these people seemed like fuckups, anyway—as you know, school can be super rough at every level!)

Since I left high school with so much catching up to do, community college was perfect for me. The teachers didn’t expect me to write a perfect research paper and were very patient in explaining basic science concepts like evolution to me. There was a writing center where I learned how to properly write an academic paper. My professors recommended books for me to read outside of school.

Don’t you get what you pay for? Does going to a cheap city school mean I’ll have fewer resources, bad classes, and a shitty education?

I have a ton of opinions on this one! In some ways, the answer is yes. My school operated on a pretty small budget (most of it provided by the city), which meant there wasn’t a lot of money for things other schools splurge on. We didn’t have a huge campus with sprawling complexes and pretty ponds. All the classes took place in one building, and there was a single, small library without too many books and no access to expensive academic databases.

But just because your community college doesn’t have some specific resource doesn’t mean you have to go without it. You might live in a city with other colleges nearby. Many colleges give the public access to at least part of their collections, though you probably can’t take anything out. I used to borrow a friend’s student card to get into her school’s library. You can also scrounge around the internet for file-sharing websites, or check out your state or city library’s sharing program. (Another option is to ask a college-going friend for their login to use the big fancy databases, but don’t be mad if they say no—they could get in trouble for sharing their info.)

A lot of the expensive four-year schools have classes with really cool titles covering all sorts of interesting topics (e.g., the Vampire in Literature and Cinema, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and the Science of Harry Potter—all real!). Most classes at community and city colleges are more interested in fulfilling your general, functional requirements: basic English, basic math, and a few more-individualized courses like women’s literature and environmental science. But these classes are pretty solid, and most of the teachers I’ve had have been great. One of my favorites professors also taught at a couple of prestigious four-year schools, but he said he really enjoyed the diversity of the student body at Wright. Another one had been an editor at the Wall Street Journal; she chose to teach at Wright because she wanted to give back to the community. Such do-gooders were rare, but that’s true at any school. Make it your goal to find them and sign up for all of their classes. (I found about five teachers at my school whom I loved, and took almost all my classes with them.) Good teachers make a huge difference at any school you might go to.

I have to admit, though, that I found some of my classes at community college unengaging or limiting. The workload was lighter than at my friends’ schools, and we would often move through subjects really slowly. If this is the case for you, tell your teachers that you aren’t being challenged. One of my professors and I worked out a deal where I would write a semester-long research project in lieu of the short essays required of other students. Or you may have the opposite problem and find yourself struggling in your classes. Most community colleges are well equipped to help people who are having a hard time. I’ve always been terrible at math, and completely terrified of it. When I first signed up for college, I failed the high school math equivalency test. My adviser told me about a free program offered over winter break to help students who were behind in any subject. In short: Going to a community college definitely doesn’t mean you’ll be getting a shittier education, but it might mean you’ll have to play a more active role in getting a good one.

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15 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.

  • VagabondZombie September 2nd, 2014 5:25 AM

    Ahhh! College stuff… scary. Such a helpful article. Though I do agree that getting into a higher institution/uni/college than community college would help you get the full experience of being in such environment, I still think that education is the key and somehow, you’re still going to get something out of it. Of course, we all want to experience uni/college as a life-changing thing. I guess it all depends on you as a person and how you can make use of what you have as of now and probably later on along the way, you might get something even better. :)

    http://vagabondzombie.blogspot.ae/

  • regenerrations November 11th, 2014 11:51 AM

    I’m so glad I came across this article. I’m graduating this year from high school and it made me feel so much better about going to a community college (except the one I’m going to is now a 4 year instead of a 2 year), especially since art schools are so expensive.