A Quality Education, Hidden in Plain Sight

As students enter their senior year of high school, they are frequently asked about their plans after high school. For those who chose to go to college, the focus of their senior year is centered on the college application process. There are aptitude tests, applications to fill out, interviews to attend, and essays to write. This period can be daunting and stressful for students as well as parents. Parent’s anxieties about sending their children off to college extend beyond financial concerns. The horror stories of binge drinking, hazing and weekend-long parties are enough to turn a parent’s hair gray.

One of the most overlooked and neglected collegiate options is hidden in plain sight: the community college. I am a strong advocate of the community college system for many reasons: the tuition for a community college is considerably lower than at a four-year college, parents get to have their children at home for a two more years, and students get to maintain relationships with all of their friends that don’t go to college or take a year off before matriculating.

It can be argued that high school students are under much more pressure now than they were thirty years ago. Poor student performance has been a problem in recent years and is usually blamed on the lack of quality teachers in many of our public schools. The social pressure that students endure is much more intense and is a potentially debilitating factor in a student’s ability to compete academically; the increase of drug and alcohol use among high school students presents a difficult obstacle to overcome if they are to remain successful in school.

Four years of balancing friends, schoolwork, athletics and a part-time job with serene dexterity can cause an 18-year old to hallucinate by the time they graduate high school. It can be not only dangerous, but also foolish to send a hard working but burned out child into an environment where they have to make new friends, complete an accelerated academic load and endure (or succumb to) the magnified social life of college where access to drugs and alcohol is increased exponentially. It is also not fair for the student to have to risk their academic success while enduring all of the new pressures of college.

By attending a community college, students are able to slowly acclimate themselves to college life. But unfortunately, most parents look down upon the community college system and still prefer to send their children off to a four-year university where many of the psychological, social and academic pressures could take their toll.

One of the main reasons why many parents and students don’t consider community colleges is because of the lack of prestige that is usually associated with a community college. Community colleges are routinely recognized as the blue collar of academia. Most community college students are older and the student body is diverse; the typical community college student can range from a housewife taking a couple of courses in the evening to senior citizens who enroll for personal enrichment. The community college population is much more interesting and valuable than many people realize.

Many people acknowledge that college is a place where lasting friendships and social networks are formed. It is true, that many four-year colleges have much more sophisticated alumni networks in place, but this argument is not particularly strong in its opposition to the community college. In a community college, an 18 year-old student can have lunch with a 35 year-old bank supervisor from their class and converse about the ins and outs of the banking industry without being under the pressure of speaking to older, more intimidating alumni at a school-sponsored job fair. This information can be invaluable because they can use the insight gained through their friends at community college to demonstrate a more advanced knowledge of a particular industry and speak much more intelligently to the alumni that they meet at the job-fair after they transfer to the four-year school.

The teacher/student relationship at community college is also advantageous for students. Community colleges are ‘teaching institutions’ where most professors aren’t under pressure to publish their research juxtaposed with some four-year colleges where some professors are more engaged with their research than with their students. I should note that a caveat might exist regarding the level of commitment that professors are able to provide to their students. The lack of state funding for many public colleges has caused an increase in adjunct or part-time faculty. While adjunct faculty are just as motivated as tenured professors and uniquely qualified with their combination of academic and professional credentials, their inability to commit to teaching full-time is a problem that exists at both community colleges and four-year institutions.

The academic conditions in the community college system are also a benefit because students have more flexibility. Classes at community colleges can be just as intense as their four-year counterparts, but the assignments and papers are usually not as aggressive because professors know that most of the student body consists of part-time students with full time jobs and/or families. That is the nature of the community college system and is part of the reason why many people dismiss it as a viable option for their children. However, this fact should not deter people from considering community college as an option because exceptional students also have the option to enroll in honors courses. Community colleges also have an honor society: Phi Theta Kappa. PTK is a prestigious honor society. It is the community college equivalent of the better-known society at four-year institutions, Phi Beta Kappa.

As I stated above, one of the main reasons that parents and students don’t want to attend a community college is because of the lack of prestige that comes with it. This proves to be a faulty argument because students will usually spend only two years at a community college. Upon transferring to a four-year school, they can still receive the diploma from the more prestigious university. Also, one of the most important benefits of the community college is that students will have an Associate’s degree after just two years. Whereas if they were to go from high school directly into a four-year college and an unforeseen obstacle, such as a lack of funding, in their third year prevents them from completing college, they will leave college empty handed but the community college student will be armed with an Associate’s degree when entering the job market.

While the organizations and clubs mirror those found at any four-year college, I must point out that the social life differs at a community college. All in all, the social life at a community college is an attribute to both parents and students. While attending community colleges, students will most likely live at home where they are able to save money; they can enjoy the independence of being college students and attend fun parties. Parents can have their children close to home and know that by the time they transfer to a four-year institution and be exposed to all of the more intense aspects of college social life, it will come with two more years of post-high school cognitive maturity.

Perhaps the most important benefits of community colleges on student’s academic life – especially for someone who is less than enthusiastic about college – is that they will be more likely to succeed in an educational environment that is equal in quality, equal in leadership opportunities for student organizations and much more affordable. As a recent graduate of a community college, I am grateful for the relaxed academic and social atmosphere. Community colleges do so much more than provide a haven for under-performing undergraduates; it provides students with a quality education, small class sizes, cost-saving benefits and an opportunity to cultivate an appreciation for the hidden benefits of a local education.

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