Are Community Colleges Looked Down On?

Students contemplating higher education have a lot of different options. If community college is on your radar as an avenue towards an academic credential and/or future career path, then you may be asking yourself a lot of questions about this affordable alternative to university. To get straight to the point, you might wonder, “Is community college good?” After all, these two-year colleges haven’t always enjoyed the best reputation. Before you enroll in one, you’ll want to have a solid indication of where it might lead you in the future. In this article, we’ll discuss the good and the bad when it comes to community colleges and uncover some myths and truths along the way. We’ll also attempt to unravel some of the specific reasons for the ubiquitous community college stigma to answer the question: “Why do community colleges have a bad reputation?”

Is Community College a Good Idea?

Before we dig too deep, let’s address the primary issue at hand: Is community college a good idea? While the long answer may vary depending on your unique academic needs and goals, the short answer is “Yes!” Attending an accredited community college almost always pays off for students dedicated to their studies and know what they want to accomplish from the experience. Let’s discuss some of the many benefits of community college attendance.

Benefits of Attending Community College

There are so many advantages to attending community college that it’s impossible to list them all. In fact, if you asked a hundred community college students, “Why is community college good?” you may get a hundred different answers. So while listing all of the perks of going to a two-year school isn’t feasible, we’ll discuss some of the common reasons, so many people nod enthusiastically when asked, “Is community college a good idea?”.

Tuition Savings

According to the College Board, the average cost of community college for students who attend classes in their district is just $3,770 per year. This represents a significant savings in tuition and fees compared to what you can expect to pay to attend a four-year college or university, even as an in-state student. These in-state tuition fees surpassed $10,500 in 2020. That’s a difference of more than $6,700 annually. For students who want to begin earning money right away without the burden of looming student debt, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a two-year school’s sticker price.

While the cost of community college is much lower on average than the cost of a four-year school, it’s also possible to get a community college education entirely free. The College Board reports that the average full-time community college student receives enough grant money to cover their entire tuition cost plus fees. Moreover, roughly two dozen states in the U.S. now offer free community college education to residents who meet certain eligibility requirements.

Individualized Instruction

Critics of large four-year universities will tell you that the quality of academic instruction at these revered institutions of higher education just isn’t worth your tuition dollars. They’ll offer proof in the form of overworked instructors tasked with research projects that take precedence over the students in their classrooms who are (more often than not) taught by graduate students and teaching assistants rather than the tenured professor him or herself.

Whether this is true for all colleges and universities is a debate for another post, but one thing we can say for sure is that community colleges don’t face this same criticism. These technical schools are solely invested in educating the students who enroll in their academic courses and programs, so instructors may not have as much clout. Still, they enjoy the luxury of focusing on teaching rather than some university-funded research endeavor. That means they’ll most certainly teach their own classes, and they are much more likely to be available should you have questions about course content or assignments, too.

In addition, community colleges typically boast lower student-to-faculty ratios, so you’ll likely find yourself in smaller classes instead of large lecture halls. If you don’t like the idea of just being another face in the crowd, then community college may be the better fit for you. At a larger university, your professor may not even learn your name by the end of the semester, much less be available for one-on-one instruction or coaching.

Real-World Learning

Another criticism that four-year colleges and universities have faced over the years is their propensity to focus on theory rather than practice in their academic courses and degree programs. It may be true that much of what you’ll study in a university class is more idea-centered rather than experiential, but that also depends on your major. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in engineering will surely be more grounded in reality than one in philosophy.

Despite your degree plan, though, a bachelor’s-level course of study will inevitably include some general education classes that may seem unnecessary. That is, even if you plan to teach elementary music, for instance, you’ll still be required to take some college-level math classes. The same is not true for all community college credentials, though. While some associate’s degree programs such as Associate of Arts (AA) and even Associate of Science (AS) programs may also include “gen ed” requirements, others such as Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree plans do not. By and large, community college degrees tend to be much more vocational in nature than universities and seek to prepare students for the workforce immediately after graduation. On the other hand, four-year colleges prepare students not only for employment but also for graduate school.

Another checkmark in the “real-world learning” category for community colleges has to do with the instructors of community college classes. These professors aren’t your typical tenured faculty members you’ll see in university lecture halls, but they often make up for their obscure reputations with plenty of experience in the field they teach. For example, it’s not uncommon for a retired police officer to teach public safety courses at their local two-year college. The same holds true for many other vocational fields like nursing, early childhood education, and culinary arts. The benefit here for students is that they can learn applicable skills that will serve them well in their future professions, and they have the opportunity to learn these skills from seasoned professionals in their chosen field. It’s hard to think of any better type of job preparation than that.

Transfer Opportunities

A lesser-known advantage of community colleges is that many offer associate’s degree programs designed for students who intend to continue their education at a four-year college or university. These university pathways are ideal for students who need to work on their GPAs to be accepted by a four-year school, but there are other advantages. For instance, students who work full-time or have small children may benefit from the more relaxed pace of community college, not to mention the many flexible learning options and resources these schools often have for non-traditional students. Plus, attending community college for a couple of years before enrolling at a four-year school can result in substantial savings on the cost of a bachelor’s degree. Once students transfer to a college or university, they’ll have the opportunity to earn the exact same credential as students who started in a four-year degree plan.

Why Do Community Colleges Have a Bad Reputation?

With all of these advantages associated with two-year community colleges, one has to wonder: “Why do community colleges have a bad reputation anyway?” Pinpointing the many causes for the stigma surrounding two-year colleges isn’t an exact science. Still, there are some clear contributing factors, some of which we’ve addressed below.

The Underachiever Perception

Unfortunately, it seems to be the perception that students end up attending community college because they have no other choice. Of course, this is a myth. The truth is that thousands of students across the country opt to go to community college each semester despite having the opportunity to attend a four-year school. Each individual student attending a two-year college has their own reasons for being there, and it may have nothing at all to do with an academic transcript or test score.

Still, community colleges are notoriously easier to get into than your average college or university. Some even have open enrollment policies, meaning if you have a high school diploma and submit an application, you’re guaranteed acceptance. While this can be seen as an advantage for prospective students, it still perpetuates the myth that community colleges are for underachievers.

The Discounted Price Tag

As we’ve already discussed, community colleges are quite a bit less expensive on average than four-year colleges and universities. This doesn’t always work out in their favor from a student’s perspective, though. Surprisingly, the reduced price tag alone can be enough to sway a student against the decision to attend community college. That’s because, as a society, we tend to make the mistake of equating higher quality with higher cost. In fact, though, this misconception is a logical fallacy known as the appeal to wealth. It’s the belief that since something costs more, it must be inherently better. Of course, this isn’t always the case. In truth, many community colleges rival well-respected universities in terms of quality instruction and student outcomes. Just remember, when it comes to higher education, saving money isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

A Path to a Low-Paying Career?

In the minds of many prospective college students, community colleges represent a pathway towards a less-than-desirable career. From these students’ warped perspectives, the route offered by a two-year school is a shortcut to a career that’s just one step above working at a fast-food restaurant or retail store. In reality, though, community colleges offer many career and technical degrees that lead to high-paying occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for instance, the following lucrative and in-demand vocations require just an associate’s degree and yield a median annual wage of $60,000 a year or more:

  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Computer Network Support Specialist
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant
  • Web Developer
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Medical Sonographer
  • Radiation Therapist

Professionals with the above titles would more than likely answer “yes!” if asked, “Is community college a good idea?”

Remember that many community colleges also offer transfer degrees for students who intend to complete a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year school. These flexible plans of study open up many more doors of opportunity towards future academic and career paths.

Drawbacks of Attending Community College

While community college may not deserve the bad reputation it has earned over the decades, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect higher education solution. Nor does it mean that attending a two-year school is the right choice for everyone. On the contrary, there are some inherent disadvantages of community college compared to a four-year college or university. Below, we’ll discuss a few of these drawbacks.

Student Life (Or Lack Thereof)

Some students decide to go to college solely to get a degree; others go for the experience. If the latter sounds more like your crowd, then attending a university may actually be the better choice for you. While two-year schools are typically no-frills environments focused on academics alone, four-year schools tend to have more of a culture involving student activities, sports, sororities/fraternities, and the like. Student life at a four-year school is important for students looking for more than just an academic credential. If socializing and meeting new people is a priority of yours, or if you want to get involved in student government or Greek life, then community college may not be able to offer you everything you need. Plus, if you’re looking to move out of your parents’ house or leave the town where you grew up to pursue your education, then a four-year college may be your best bet. A community college is much less likely to have on-campus housing options since most students live nearby.

Problems with Student Engagement

Since it’s a lot easier and significantly cheaper to enroll in community college, you’ll find a broader community of students, and not all of them will be as dedicated to their studies as you are. This can be problematic in certain situations, such as group projects or class discussions, for instance. At four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, you’re much more likely to be surrounded by like-minded students with high aspirations, both academically and career-wise. If other students’ negative vibes tend to rub off on you, or conversely, you find that you’re motivated by others’ positive energy, then you may be better served by a college or university learning environment.

No Alumni Network

Another benefit of attending a larger four-year college or university is the advantage of graduating from a school with an extensive alumni network. Being part of such a network can provide you with career and professional development opportunities for years to come. While some community colleges may have career services that tap into some comparable system of graduates, they can’t compete with what four-year schools offer their alums, especially at the bigger, more prestigious universities.

Problems Transferring Credits

Earlier, we identified community colleges as solid springboards for a bachelor’s-level education. It’s important to point out that not all four-year colleges have the same policies for accepting previously earned college credits, though. Thus, students who attend a two-year school intending to apply their earned credits to a bachelor’s degree-granting institution down the line could potentially run into trouble. If credits don’t, in fact, transfer, then it could cost the student valuable time and money. Fortunately, avoiding these issues is fairly straightforward. Specifically, students should check with both the community college and university beforehand to ensure that credits can be transferred seamlessly from one institution to the other. Many schools have well-established articulation agreements that enable students to roll over credits without losing any time or tuition dollars in the process.

Conclusion

Asking the question, “Is community college good?” is like asking whether sandwiches are tasty. While it’s a valid concern, it’s also tough to answer without knowing more about the person asking the question. Like people have different preferences regarding what’s in their lunchboxes, they also have different educational needs and expectations. One thing to take away from this discussion is that community colleges aren’t inherently bad. Despite their historic stigma, there are plenty of good, accredited two-year schools that offer affordable and respectable degrees at a reasonable cost. Weigh the pros and cons, of course, but don’t rule community colleges out because of someone else’s misconceptions surrounding higher education.

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Bambi Majumdar
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Julie McCaulley
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