It isn’t breaking news that college tuition for both public and private 4-year universities in America has skyrocketed in recent years. Although the 2.9% average tuition increase seen in 2013 marks the smallest annual increase in college tuition for over 30 years, the fact is tuition that is still on the rise. “Financial assistance” is available, yet the average American undergraduate student still graduates with approximately $26,000- $29,000 in debt. The job market for recent grads remains grim, literally compounding the situation.
Luckily, there is an excellent high-quality AND affordable option available at least for the first two years. I’m talking, of course, about community college.
If you raised an eyebrow at the notion that community colleges provide high-quality education, read on: this post is for you. In my personal experience , community college classes were hands down more rigorous, engaging, useful, and transformative than comparable classes I took my 4-year university. Granted, there is wide variation in quality of academics across both community colleges and 4-year universities. My experience and the experiences of those that I interviewed for this piece is limited to California Community Colleges and the University of California (UC) system. However, there are three aspects of community college which are likely to be similar across the country:
1) Students at community college truly want to learn.
It’s easy, both financially and academically, to enroll in community college. However it is also incredibly easy not to go to class. Like really easy. Just drop the class! No big deal. There are little to no financial, academic, or social repercussions. This means that everyone who stays in the classroom actually wants to be there. Thus, students actually participate in class, ask questions, and contribute to the learning environment.
Furthermore, many students are also working full- or part-time, have children, and/or many other factors in their life that actually make it quite difficult to attend class. So when they show up, they mean business. Community college students are there to learn, and are acutely aware of that purpose. They are not there to party, not there to meet new friends, but to learn.
2) Professors at community college truly want to teach
Newsflash: teaching is often not the priority for professors at large 4-year universities. Research, grant-writing, and publishing (activities that bring money in) are often prioritized over actual teaching. Especially teaching some “measly” undergraduate lower division class, like, say Biology 101. However, at community college, teaching is the priority. Teaching and only teaching is exactly what the professor signed up for! Likewise, community colleges often have smaller class sizes than large 4-year universities, allowing professors to have more one-on-one interaction with students. Community college teachers are there to teach. Not to research, not to publish, but to teach.
3) Demographic and “Life-Experience” Diversity
There is general awareness that community college is far more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse than 4-year institutions. However what most people never think about is the vast diversity of age and life- experience found at community colleges. Diversity is incredibly valuable in a learning environment, and has remarkable ramifications in any discussion-based class such as English, Philosophy, Sociology, or even foreign language classes. You can learn so much more from your classmates when they bring a wider range of life-experiences into the classroom. At 4-year universities, it seems like everyone has essentially followed the same path in life: going to college straight out of high school.
At community college you meet people you may have never otherwise encountered: people who challenge you to think outside your own experience.
Together, these three phenomena create a fantastic classroom experience! There are certainly advantages to attending a large 4-year university, such as opportunities to conduct undergraduate research and meet top researchers in your field, as well as opportunities to participate in structured social activities and extracurriculars. However, when it comes to instruction and learning… y’know: the main purpose of higher education!… community college classes are on par with, if not better than classes at 4-year universities.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. I interviewed four students who attended California community-colleges and transferred to University of California (UC) campuses about their experiences. Check it out!
- Aria: Track and Field Coach; Laney (in Oakland) to UCLA
- Andrew: Chemist at a Biotech Startup; Santa Rosa Junior College to UC Davis
- Anna: Administrative Assistant; City College of San Francisco to UC Davis
- Ravi: MCAT Course Instructor; Berkeley City College to UC San Diego
- Current Profession: High School Track and Field Coach; Starting a Masters of School Counseling and Educational Psychology in June.
- Academic Path: Attended Laney College, transferred to and graduated from UCLA
- Undergraduate Degree: African American Studies (Minor: Education)
Why did you attend community college? Well I pretty much failed my first two years of high school. So by the time I got my grades up my junior year I still didn’t have a competitive GPA and although I got into a CSU (Cal State University) and a Historically Black College it just didn’t seem right to ship myself off to another state or city at the time. It was one of those intuitive decisions. A lot of it was athletics also…I was in the best shape of my life and heard that that track coach at Laney was the best…which he really was! And they had an all-girls team so I figured it would be a great place to stay focused and save a lot of money
How did you feel about community college before you attended? I wasn’t sure. My boyfriend at the time went a year before me and flunked out but he was an idiot anyways. A lot of my friends’ parents were kinda looking down on me for going to a JC (junior college) and no one seemed very supportive or excited about it. But I knew that I had developed the work ethic to do well and I knew it was going to be good for me
Did the way you think or feel about community college change at all while/after attending? Yes. There are always those unproductive people everywhere you go but it’s really what you make it. I felt completely supported and the academics were great. I felt challenged and prepared to go to UCLA. I learned a lot and loved my classes. I had professors from UC’s and CSU’s, an amazing track coach, and I was really glad that I went.
Do you think that people have misconceptions about community college? I think the misconception comes from people never finishing. Because it is an easy place to get distracted. The main misconception when I started however seemed to be that the classes weren’t quality. But that was not the case!
What did you like or dislike about community college? I think there is more community at a JC because it is directly connected with the community you live in and there is way more diversity. Especially age diversity. It helped me to see that learning was a life-long process and that I could always go back. At the 4-year it’s like only the privileged people are seen and heard…being at a JC is a competitive environment academically but I definitely took away more from JC classes and met life-long friends.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self regarding higher education? I would say take classes you wouldn’t normally be interested in and broaden your horizon of knowledge. I would also urge a student athlete to go to a 4-year university over a JC though, because it’s best to stick with one coach for 4 years. For a student athlete, the 4 year training plan starts when you are a freshman so if you join a team as a junior but have been doing completely different workouts for 2 years, its easier to get injured and harder to improve, actually, because it takes a year to adjust.
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- Current Profession: Chemist at a Biotech Startup
- Academic Path: Attended Santa Rosa Junior College, transferred to and graduated from UC Davis
- Undergraduate Degree: Chemistry (Minor: Environmental Toxicology)
Why did you attend community college? Primarily financial reasons. But I also knew people –including my brother– who had had good experiences community college. I thought it would be a lower-risk plan, financially… Also, I think that on a personal level—I don’t think I was aware of it at the time—I wasn’t much of a risk-taker, or sure of myself at the time, and it seemed a lot more comfortable to stay closer to home.
How did you feel about community college before attending? And did your views change at all? Before attending community college I was under the impression that the instruction would not be as good as at a UC. I also thought that a lot of people get stuck at community college and don’t transfer. But by the end of the first semester all my thoughts about the level of instruction did a 180. It wasn’t until I transferred to UC Davis that I realized the level of Junior College instruction is just as good, if not better than what’s available at UC. But a negative thing I realized about community college is that there isn’t much social structure at community college, because students have busy lives, so it’s hard to make friends
You touched on this already a bit, but what did you like or dislike about community college? I liked the level of instruction. In most cases it was better than what I got at UC Davis. The instructors there actually wanted to teach. I got a lot more personal attention and assistance that at UC. I also liked the diversity of age and backgrounds of people at community college. Most people in my classes were 20 years old or older. It was really inspiring. It was like: if these people can do it, then I can do it. Some things I disliked were the lack of social structure. I didn’t live in the same town that my JC was in. It was a somewhat disjointed community. At UC Davis the social structure was there, which was really nice. Especially since I was moving to a completely new place. I also like the research aspect of it: being exposed to professors who were leaders in their field, working in a lab, working with grad-students…you don’t get that at community college.
What misconceptions do you think people have about community college? That the quality of instruction is bad. That you take classes with people that aren’t actually going anywhere. That there is a high failure rate. That the facilities themselves …classrooms, labs, the buildings… are sub-par.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self regarding higher education? A lot of it would be telling myself that it isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I would reassure myself, and tell myself: “community college is going to be great for you, transferring will not be hard”. But also, I would give myself a heads up that it would be inherently more socially isolating, and encourage myself to make a bigger effort to make friends. Also regarding research, I would say “All that stuff you think is a mystery, isn’t. Research is just a job. It’s people in labs, working.”
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- Current Profession: Administrative Assistant at a Science-enrichment Learning Center
- Academic/Career Path: Attended City College of San Francisco, transferred to UC Davis, plans to graduate in the summer
- Undergraduate Major: Psychology
Why did you attend community college? Because I didn’t have the units from high school. Because I hated the academic system from a very very young age – I cut school a lot. For the final two years (junior and senior) I didn’t ever plan on going to hardcore college after high school – I had no idea what I was doing! I thought spending less money, getting a job, taking fewer classes was a better choice for me at that time. I also don’t have parents that completed college, so the whole COLLEGE ACHIEVEMENT thing wasn’t a message I clearly received. My parents were pro-city college. I think still my parents are intimidated by the fact that I went to University at all.
So, higher education wasn’t a push from my home life. In San Francisco you could have a cool and satisfied life without going to college (artists, bars, venues, etc.) …. so common culture didn’t push me to go to college either. I’m just, uh, a nerd. I went to academic lectures in my spare time. I became more interested in science (biological science, largely) and college is the place to pursue that topic.
How did you feel about community college before attending? I believe before I went to CCSF, I thought that going to community college was somewhat less. I did feel like Community College was defined by society [not my community] as less valuable and at worst, a joke: “these people don’t have what it takes otherwise they’d be in University”… this kind of thinking. But I also recall thinking that people who thought that were probably jerks and I’d talked to loads of adults who had said CCSF was great!
Did your thoughts on community college change when/after you attended? No? I loved it more. I think the major shift I experienced was that at a community college I didn’t have to go: every day I showed up even though I seriously didn’t have to. I obviously chose to. And I had to accept all aspects of my choice.
What did you like or dislike about community college. Especially in relation to UC? One of the largest differences between CCSF and UCD is related to that “I’m choosing this” quality. People in CCSF were rarely students and just students. There was this shared “I’m totally going out of my way to do this, even though I’m super tired and I have a kid at home; or other artistic projects, or a different job, or already worked as a [blank] and I’m returning to take classes in this field”. There was a lot more pride and self-affirmation. UCD people were always more interested in what they wanted to be in the future, not what they were doing now. And diversity. CCSF had mad diversity. Also UCD teaches you how to think …it was like city college inspired me to think. But UCD had professionalism that was unmatched. I mean we are talking about scientists at the edge of our understanding, right? So that was an amazing thing at UCD that city college didn’t have.
What misconceptions do you think people have about community college? That it’s easy. Sometimes it’s easy, but it all depends. I got great grades, but again I’m a NERD. And I only took classes I was totally interested in. I scored really high at CCSF … not true at UCD, there was definitely a shift there in academic standards (and I don’t just mean one dimension). The keyword might be “Teachers” … teachers being more/less difficult to grade students.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self regarding higher education? Holy crap – acquire certificates as soon as possible! And ask more people about their jobs, like in real life. I wish I had known more about job paths. “I love psychology! I’m interested in this!” is pretty good, but it’s not everything you need. Or maybe I also would tell myself to become an artist. I feel this way because I’ve currently chosen the long haul school route. My academic major won’t pay off until after graduate school! So that means I’m really only halfway done before a legit job. I hate that about CCSF, it put me back 4 years so to speak …because I was chillin’ and workin’ and waiting for cool classes, the right time of day etc. I do administrative work right now, which is all well and good. I wish I had more years of experience in that sort of work training than … schoolwork training.
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- Current Profession: Kaplan MCAT Course Instructor; Starting a Medical Degree Program in the Fall
- Academic/Career Path: Attended Berkeley City College and Merritt College, transferred to and graduated from UC San Diego; completed a Masters program at UC San Diego.
- Undergraduate Degree: Biology
- Master’s Degree: Biology
Why did you attend community college? I graduated from high school when I was 16, and community college seemed like the next logical step. I knew that I wanted to go to college but I wasn’t really academically motivated in high school. I just wanted to get out of high school as quickly as possible. Also, no one in my family had done the 4-year university thing, but my sister had transferred to UC Berkeley from community college, so it seemed like the best option…or maybe really the only option.
How did you feel about community college before attending? I was just 16, so I was intimidated by community college. Other than that I didn’t really have negative or positive views of it.
Did your views change at all after attending? There was a wide range of people there, most were a lot older than me…or people who wanted a cheaper option. Because of that range I felt like I could have gotten more out of it if I was older or more experienced. The classes were relatively difficult. Sometimes they were even harder, or on par-with UC classes.
What did you like or dislike about community college? I liked the price and the class size. At UC you have over 100 students in a class and you don’t get to know your professors. I also like the diversity of age and like experience. At UC San Diego most people were straight out of high school but at community college people had really rich life experiences. I didn’t like that with the Peralta Colleges (community college consortium in the Bay Area) not all the classes were offered in one location. I sometimes had to physically go elsewhere to be able to attend the class I wanted. Also professors were hit or miss…but I guess that was true at UC also. Another thing is that there were a lot more coordinated research and volunteer opportunities at UC. And the extracurricular connections were not very good at community college compared to UC San Diego.
What misconceptions do you think people have about community college? People think that community college is a lot easier than a 4-year college, but it isn’t. People also think that the people who go to community college are not at the same level in terms of rigor.
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self regarding higher education? I would emphasize that it’s important to focus on how academics connects to real-life situations rather than just thinking of homework as something that I need to “get through”. I would also tell myself “it’s what you make of it” and encourage myself to be more proactive in learning.
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