Removing the Stigma of Community College

At the end of my freshman year of high school, I had a sit down conversation with my parents. I just received subpar grades on my report card, and was struggling to keep up with the work. My parents gave me two options: 1) Buckle down and start working hard to improve my grades to get into a good college, or 2) Continue on the path of not caring about my grades and attend community college after high school. At that moment it became clear that the second option was, to my parents and even to me, the “worst case” scenario after high school.

What was the implication about community college that made it the worst option? What made my parents feel that community college would be best for someone that wasn’t interested in taking school seriously?

Don’t get me wrong, my parents were looking out for what they believed was best for my future, but they fell into the misconception that community college is a second rate school for underachieving academic students who don’t have the grades to attend a four-year institution. There is a societal expectation in the US of attending a four year college, earning a degree, and entering the job force after graduation, these expectations rarely include community college.

In the college landscape, there is a stigma for students attending community college. Many students, parents, teachers, and even guidance counselors refer to community colleges in a negative light. It is important for all involved to understand the stigmas vs. facts of attending community college, and why community college is not only a viable college option, but a great opportunity to build an educational foundation, or earn an associate’s degree at a significantly lower cost.

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Stigma vs. Fact

Stigma: Community college is “beneath” a four-year institution, community college is not a “real college”, or community college is high school 2.0

Fact: While many community colleges do not have the clout or well-known name attached to the school, these institutions provide valuable academic offerings for all types of students, from recent high school graduates to adults who are seeking to change careers. With the opportunity to take a range of courses at a low tuition cost, students have the option to explore courses that are not specific to one concentration, or receive an associate’s degree or certificate in a specialized field.

In the 2014-2015 academic year, 806,766 students received associate degrees and 516,820 students received certificates at a community college (Fun Facts, n.d.).

As many students who attend community college are career focused, they have the ability to take courses that are designed to prepare them with specific skill sets and earn a degree in less than four years.

In addition to the academic opportunities community colleges offer, the professors who teach at these schools are highly qualified within their respective fields. In 2009, 78% of the professors who taught part-time at community college had a master’s degree or higher (Fain, 2014). Community colleges also reach out to local businesses and corporations to work with the schools in providing real world experience and knowledge to incorporate the experience into the classroom. With these requirements, a community college educational experience within the classroom is comparable to a four year institution.

Stigma: Community college is not as academically rigorous as a four year institution

Fact: In the US, there are over 1000 community colleges with honors programs. Enrolling in an honors program at a community college is a great opportunity for academically advanced students to take advantage of high level courses and curriculums. With skilled professors who teach courses that are designed for career focused students, honors programs provide rigorous academics at a low tuition cost.

Additionally, community colleges have focused on improving their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs in order to attract students and provide a solid framework for a career in the STEM industry. Students have the opportunity to apply for STEM scholarships, as well as social and academic STEM-related programs that form a solid framework for success within the field. Community colleges offer both new college students and individuals changing careers the skills needed to succeed in the STEM field.

Stigma: Credits taken at a community college cannot be transferred to a four year institution

Fact: Many community colleges hire transfer counselors to ensure students are taking the correct classes that will transfer to a four year institution. As a majority of students who go to a community college ultimately transfer to four year school, transferring credits is essential to getting the most out of their education. More specifically, most of, if not all, liberal arts courses taken at a community college will transfer to a four year institution, which helps students capitalize on the low cost of community college for the first year or two of college.

The option to start at a community college is becoming a more feasible option for students, community colleges and universities have taken the path of creating programs that guarantee all credits taken at a community college will transfer to the four year institution. For example, many community colleges and public four year institutions have what are called Articulation Programs. These Articulation Programs ensure that when students earn an associate’s degree at a community college, the degree will cover the student’s freshman and sophomore year requirements at the public four year institution. These types of programs will allow students to transfer to four year institution and focus on their specific major immediately.

Stigma: Degrees at community colleges will not help secure a job

Fact: While many jobs require a bachelor's degree or more, there are many specialized jobs that require degrees that can be earned at community colleges. For example, careers in Radiation Technology and Medical Imaging, Engineering Technology, Plumbing and Heating, and Dental Hygienists are high paying jobs where a degree can be earned at a community college.

Receiving associate degrees in these areas, among many others, provide an opportunity that students may not be able to achieve at a four year institution. The myth that associate degrees cannot help one secure a job upon graduating may be true in some fields, but for specialized fields like STEM, an associate’s degree can help students land high paying jobs upon graduating.

As mentioned many times in the post, the cost of tuition at community college is significantly less than any other higher education institution, but how much less is the actual cost of tuition? In 2017, the average cost of tuition at a community college was $3,520 per year, as compared to public four year institution, where the average cost of tuition was $9,650 per year. Furthermore, the cost of tuition at a private four year institution in 2017 was $33,480 per year (Trends in Higher Education Series: Trends in College Pricing 2016, 2016). Looking at the cost of tuition in a broader light, a student who earns an associate degree in two years at a community college, transfers to a private four year institution and earns their bachelor degree will save $59,920 as compared to the student who attends a private four year institution for four years.
Statistics show, the stigma of community college has indeed (marginally) faded over the past 15-20 years. In 2000 around 5.59 million students were enrolled in community colleges. Fourteen years later, community colleges saw that number increase to 7.3 million students (Sands, 2016). Additionally, in 2014, community colleges awarded 806,766 associate degrees (CITE FAST FACTS), as compared to 411,633 associated degrees awarded in 2000 (Sands, 2016).

With the increasing demand for a higher education degree, coupled with the increased cost of both public and private four year institutions, community college has become an intriguing and advantageous academic avenue for students to consider when making their decisions about advancing their education. Educators and parents alike should push aside the societal stigma of community colleges and promote the option to students as an opportunity to be successful in the era where receiving an education past high school is essential.

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References:

Average Cost of College Statistics 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://studentloanhero.com/average-cost-of-college-statistics/
Fain, P. (2014, April 7). Low Expectations, High Stakes. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/07/part-time-professors-teach-most-community-college-students-report-finds
Fast Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from https://www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts/
Sands, B. (2016, September). Interesting Statistics on Community College Enrollment. Retrieved March 05, 2018, from https://study.com/blog/interesting-statistics-on-community-college-enrollment.html
Trends in Higher Education Series: Trends in College Pricing 2016. Copyright © 2016. The College Board. www.college