Community colleges shouldn’t be viewed as merely a fallback option for students who aren’t accepted at a four-year institution.
There’s an unpleasant stigma about community colleges that perceives their education as less legitimate or credible than a university or four-year college. There’s an understandable difference in prestige between these institutions, which often causes donors and legislators to favor the larger schools over the community college.
However, this perspective undersells community colleges and devalues the tremendous benefit they bring to nearby residents—as stepping stones to university, as fast-track options for employment, and as places where curiosity and intellectual exploration can happen outside the pressure of an expensive institution.
So, if you’re trying to make a more positive pitch to students or legislatures for community colleges, here are 5 reasons they should be viewed as more than a backup plan.
1. Students gain access to practical, hands-on experience.
Depending on what career they choose, students can spend a lot of time in classrooms absorbing theoretical knowledge before they ever get a chance to try their own hand at it. There are obvious reasons for this in some areas of study (medicine, for instance), and there’s a compelling case for laying a strong educational foundation through deep theory. But many students learn best by doing, and they need a chance to apply their knowledge for it to sink in.
Community colleges and vocational schools, with their emphasis on workforce preparation, help students experience the day-to-day ramifications of their newfound knowledge more readily. A graphic design student, for instance, may spend several semesters at a university learning about typography and color theory before they ever have to design something that can work in a live online environment. If they don’t discover until their last year that they dislike designing in these conditions, it may be too late for them to switch specializations.
2. Students can explore interests without paying university prices.
Many students who enroll at a four-year college are asked to choose a major as early as their senior year of high school. Yet a full third of these students go on to change their major within the first three years at college, and ten percent change majors more than once.
These changes are understandable. Very few people know themselves well enough to choose a career at seventeen (or eighteen, or nineteen). Most high school students enter college with a vague idea of what kind of work their major might entail, and spend their first semester or two grappling with mismatched expectations.
Other students know full well that their minds aren’t made up, and enter with their majors listed as “undecided.” These students may spend their first year or two fulfilling general education requirements while exploring possible majors, but they do so at a high cost.
Students who change majors after their first year often add a semester or two to their college career, meaning they graduate in four and a half or five years, substantially adding to their overall costs. But those who spend time at a community college first have extra opportunities to explore their interests, often gaining transferrable credit as they go. They may not graduate more quickly, but they’ll do so at less expense.
3. Students save on overall college expenses by covering general education credits.
The cost of education keeps rising, and is already out of reach for many prospective students. But one way many students save on their education expenses is by fulfilling general education credits at the community college, either before they transfer to a four-year institution, or while they’re concurrently enrolled.
While most universities expect courses related to the student’s major to be taken at the university, many offer transfer programs that allow for flexibility when it comes to extracurriculars. It’s even possible in some cases for a student to achieve a two-year associate’s at a community college, then transfer to a university to complete their bachelor’s in two additional years. Using this method, graduates leave college with a university degree, but with significantly less college debt.
4. Change careers or learn new skills in order to advance.
Most of us think of college as a once-in-a-lifetime event that we experience in our early twenties, shortly after high school graduation. But increasingly, adults are re-enrolling later in their careers, either to gain skills necessary to maintain or advance in their current jobs, or to switch careers entirely.
Computer and business courses are particularly popular for adult learners interested in advancing or expanding their skills. They might already hold a bachelor’s degree (or more) from a university, but have identified a benefit to further learning. Or they may be seeking training in a new field, after discovering that opportunities in their current career are drying up. For these learners, community college is a welcome chance to correct course without uprooting their family or leaving their job.
5. Earn high school credentials with a GED.
Some students, for various reasons, never receive a high school diploma. Many dropped out of school for reasons related to their social or economic position. Others may have fallen ill and been unable to attend school during those crucial years. Still others might have pursued an alternative education route, such as homeschooling, and now need a broadly recognizable credential.
In all these cases, community colleges—and the GED preparation they provide—are a necessary step toward any further education. Without the instruction provided by these schools, students would have few options for further development.
By contrast, universities are far more specialized institutions which can only accept students who meet certain criteria. Because the application process is more selective, students often rely on community colleges to prepare for four-year colleges. This makes community colleges less of a “Plan B,” and more of a “Step One.”
Viewing community colleges only as “Option B” ignores the versatility of higher education.
People live diverse lives with wide variances in individual ability, opportunity, and interest. For many of them, a four-year university education was never part of the plan. Or it may have been in the past, and their return to education is part of a new direction. And for others still, community college is just the first step toward a university degree. Community colleges accommodate a wide range of students, and no matter their background, they help those students achieve their goals.