Guest Contributor: Amelia Watkins
My first year of college was substantially different than I had anticipated, in ways both good and bad. For starters, I chose to attend community college mere weeks before the semester began. I had received acceptances from numerous state and private universities and had settled on Ohio State University. I had paid for housing, chosen a meal plan, and booked a hotel with my parents for orientation week all before my senior year was even out.
Then came my final meeting with my high school counselor. Her name was Camie and we had not had a cozy, supportive relationship. I transferred to the school during the middle of my junior year and I was something of a delinquent, frequently missing classes I deemed unnecessary and generally refusing to assimilate with the student body. But final senior interviews had to happen and I was no exception.
How I intended to pay for college was the topic of discussion and honestly, I didn’t have a plan. I knew that I was unlikely to receive financial aid because of my parents’ income. I had received a chunk of money from the university itself, but the cost was still exorbitant, and I hadn’t had a serious talk with my parents about how to pay for my education. I had accepted the college’s offer and pushed the Money Problem off onto Future Amelia.
Camie forced me to confront the issue and solve it then and there, and I cannot be more grateful that she did.
She urged me to consider enrolling in two years of community college first. General Education courses could be earned anywhere and the cost would be a small fraction of what I would pay elsewhere. Besides, she pointed out, the only college name that matters is the final one on your bachelor’s degree.
Regardless, I was not happy with what she had to say. The promise of leaving home for the stereotypical college experience I had always been promised was too enticing. I argued that I was going to be drowning in college debt regardless of where I went, so what was a couple thousand more in loans?
I left angry, disappointed, and closer to tears than I care to admit but, ultimately, I listened. My parents told me what I already knew: I would have to take out all of my tuition costs in student loans and would be in debt for years to come. Two years of community college was the most cost effective option.
I skipped my Ohio State orientation, deferred my acceptance as a precaution, and finally enrolled in courses at my local college a mere two weeks before they began. A year later, it is has proven to be the best decision I could have made.
Going into college, I carried a strong stigma against community colleges and assumed them to be lesser. I could not have been more wrong. As it turned out, I was being taught Gen. Ed. classes by professors with PhDs, whereas those same classes are often taught by graduate students in four-year universities. My teachers were skilled and knowledgeable, and excited to share their knowledge and resources.
My classmates were incredibly diverse. I hadn’t considered this a selling point prior to attending, but I found myself enjoying that I was sharing classes with people of all ages, backgrounds, and skill sets. Community college is open to everyone and attracts people from all walks of life, rather than the select demographics that can most typically afford a traditional four-year university experience. It makes for interesting classroom dynamics and provides exposure to lives and experiences that are radically different from your own.
Beyond my teachers and classmates, community college was a fundamentally better choice for me, someone who had had a rough time in high school and was wary of higher education. As I alluded earlier, high school – at least the latter end of it – was not a walk in the park for me, even though I was a strong student and loved learning.
Attending college locally spared me the stress and anxiety of moving states to live in a dorm with strangers. This is not to say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time away—and I surely will when I transfer colleges—but only that the stress of such change on top of my fraying relationship with the education system would not have done my grades, nor psyche, any favors.
Finally, the financial benefits cannot be overlooked. Money was, of course, what ultimately made me change schools. The cost of two years at community is minuscule compared to state or private universities, obviously, but two less obvious benefits were my (1) being able to take whatever classes interested me and (2) having more room to make mistakes.
At my college, the semester tuition is a flat-rate regardless of the number of classes taken in a semester. This is not ideal for part-time students, but for me, I was able to take bonus classes that did not pertain to my major without the stress of paying extra. By doing this, I discovered that I love art history and environmental technology, to name only two subjects. These classes obviously still required extra work and dedication, but the ability to learn subjects you have always wanted to for virtually free is not something to be scoffed at. Pursuit of knowledge is, after all, the purpose of college.
Secondly, for students who did not do well in high school or are wary of their ability to perform in higher education, community college is a low risk, high reward option. Because of the relatively low cost of community college, mistakes are less acutely punished than in four-year universities. It can provide students with an opportunity to determine whether or not college is for them, or if they should consider vocational schools or other options, without the investment of other colleges.
Having attended community college for the last year and having had such a positive experience, I now resent the stigma it carries.
I was not proud to be attending community college; I felt like a failure and like my education would be lesser. This could not be further from the truth.
It is harmful to expose high school students to the stigma that community colleges offer education inferior to that of more traditional four-year universities. The price of higher education has risen exponentially in recent years and shows no signs of stopping. It is not a price every student can afford to pay, and yet a college degree is a necessity for most careers.
Community college is a smart and rewarding alternative, despite our culture’s attempts to convince young students otherwise. I hope the stigma against it begins to change before more students find themselves with tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary debt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amelia Watkins is a college student pursuing a degree in journalism and environmental science. She is the youngest of three children, and has a passion for writing.