Five Best Reasons to Attend a Community College
Check first with employers or 4-year schools to make sure your program qualifies
Community college seems like an oasis of affordable opportunity: It’s cheap! It’s nearby! And you can just see the number in your bank account ballooning with the salary boost from your new degree or certificate! But proceed with caution. Without a strategy, community college can also be a bonfire of wasted time and funds.
The key, says Pamela Eddy, a professor of higher education at William and Mary, is to articulate your motivations and goals, and then — this is the hard part — see if they realistically line up with a community college program near you. If you’re keen on enrolling, do so for one of these five reasons, which typically provide the most bang for your buck:
You want to nail down an avocation. Not sure whether you’d like nursing or pipefitting or paralegaling? Community college is the place to affordably sort that out. “We often see first-time college students that are coming directly out of high school, unsure of the area that they want to go into, so they go to a community college to experiment and take a number of different courses to figure out where that ‘fit’ is,” Eddy says.
You need a workplace credential or skill. You can’t go wrong with a targeted plan to acquire a professional certificate or degree that will immediately boost your career. “These students often hop in for the short-term, gain their skill, then go along on their merry way,” Eddy says. This is one of the best reasons to enroll, though you should do your job research first. Confirm directly with local workplaces that your new credential or skill is one they want.
You’ve got your eye on switching to a technical, trade or healthcare career. Many programs serve as feeders to local businesses, which sometimes partner with the community college to train students and later hire them. “A lot of times the benefit of these technical programs is that faculty have very strong ties with industry,” says Xueli Wang, a professor of educational leadership at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Look for a program that has previously placed dozens of students in jobs you would want; and, again, check with employers that they’ll accept the training you’re getting.
You’ll be transferring to a four-year university. “If attending a four-year institution right away isn’t an option, then a community college with good transfer pathways would be a wonderful choice,” Wang says. Typically this happens when students have limited financial means or need to stay close to family. Make sure to study the community college’s information web page for details like how many credits will transfer, which credits, and GPA requirements. Check with four-year schools on this, too. “If there’s barely any information, that’s a red flag,” Wang says. Know that some top state schools, like U.C. Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, take community college transfers.
Pressing “re-do” after an uninspiring high school career. If caring wasn’t your bailiwick in high school, this is your chance for a do-over. “It’s an opportunity for students who may not have engaged well in high school, or may not have been encouraged to even think of going to college,” Eddy says. “A good chunk of community college students are adults, and they come with a much more informed perspective, and they’re very targeted in what they want to learn.”
You have my permission to ignore the second-class education stigma that sometimes accompanies community college. It’s untrue. Lots of community college professors blow the socks off the lecturers you’d find at prestigious schools, and Wang says you’d be hard-pressed to find students who don’t have positive things to say about their experiences. (She would know: For a recent research project, she talked to over 1,600 of them.) Instead, put community college to its best use: grabbing an opportunity that might not otherwise fit into your day-to-day life.
But, as always, let the buyer beware. Avoid these blunders when you choose a school.