Especially late in my career working in k-12 schools, I often drew the ire of guidance counselors and school leaders by recommending students consider community college for their first stop in higher education. For context, late in my career, I worked as a licensed teacher, but my role as an educational technology specialist found me working with all students and in many classrooms.
My rationale for making this recommendation was based on several observations I made consistently over my career:
- Many high school seniors find their “first choice” college is not a good fit for them. This is the result of many factors, not the least of which is being too influenced by others. These colleges tend to be more expensive than community college, so that first experience can come with a large price tag.
- Students who complete an associate degree may find they can find an entry level position in their field that allows them to begin working sooner and to continue their education as they work. Perhaps their first job will include tuition benefits as well.
- At least in my region, community colleges tend to be in many areas, so a student can find one close to home so they can save the costs of living away as well.
- Many community college faculty have professional experience that complements their academic experience.
- At least in my region, community colleges tend to be smaller than universities, so students can enroll in sections with fewer students and they have greater opportunity to participate in campus activities, including leadership.
Of course, there are some things to understand about community colleges:
- Students who anticipate transferring to a 4-year institution should be aware that some course may not transfer. The cost of retaking courses that don’t transfer may affect their savings by attending community college.
- Many students benefit from attending college away from their homes. This is especially true for students whose identities have been controlled by local norms.
- Community colleges do hire many adjunct faculty. These faculty may be less attuned to the academic programs, paths, and services provided by the school.
Over my career, I have worked with a large number of students in many types of schools, and I have been a student in many types of colleges and universities. The one thing that is most obvious to me is that what one learns is more dependent on the degree to which one engages with the curriculum, their peers, and their teachers than the nature of the school. We do students a disservice when—as educational professions—we push them to four-year colleges as if those schools are the only path to successful academic, professional, and personal lives.