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In a previous post we looked at liberal arts colleges, which can be as exclusive, selective, and well-endowed as private universities. In this post, I focus on a very different kind of college: the community college.

Story #1: Sue

Here’s a true story to get us started…

Sue came to America during her senior year of high school. Having switched into the American system so late in the game, she was left without a lot of college options and had to enroll at her local community college, De Anza College, where she worked hard to improve her English skills and maintain good grades. At the end of two years, she was accepted into UCLA as a transfer student. Keeping up the hard work and making maximal use of the opportunities that came her way, she won the immigrant’s dream ticket: entry into Harvard.

The possibility of such happy endings is one of the things that still makes America great. Though flawed, the U.S. educational system provides more second chances than any other comparable system around the world. And the two-year community college is one of the best ways the system keeps these possibilities alive.

2 main benefits of community college: financial and mental/emotional

One of the main functions of the community college is to provide a bridge from high school to university for those who are academically or financially unable to make the transition right away.

In today’s volatile economic climate, more and more families are finding the financial transition to a university or liberal arts college to be challenging. For some, the two-year college is the only financially viable option out there.

Attending a community college is highly cost-effective: families save by paying less tuition (full-time tuition and fees at a community college costs around $3,000 a year; full-time tuition and fees at a UC costs approximately $13,900 a year) and because students living at home save on room and board.

For some students, the option of continuing to live at home can also be desirable for non-financial reasons. Not all high school graduates are ready to go off on their own. Many lack the mental and emotional readiness to function independently and need more time to mature under supervision. This is a critical factor that many parents neglect to consider.

In fact, it is for such reasons that many universities, including Princeton and Harvard, encourage students to take what is called a “gap year”: a year off between high school and college during which burnt-out students are allowed to recharge their batteries, try on new responsibilities, and grow up a bit. Some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill and Florida State, may even offer fellowships for specific service-related gap year programs.

Still others students simply won’t have developed the academic credentials necessary to get accepted into a four-year university of choice. For these students, a two-year college can be a time to develop academically as well as emotionally.

So financial considerations aren’t the only reasons to consider a two-year college. A student’s personality, emotional maturity and academic readiness should be factored in as well.

Other factors to consider when choosing a community college

Now students facing the prospect of attending a community college should bear in mind that they still have lots of options available to them.

In California, in particular, students who take a year or two at community college not only don’t suffer any disadvantages, they enjoy some great benefits! California has one of the most generous and user-friendly transfer policies for students moving from the community college system into the Cal State or the UC system. Transfer students are given admissions priority—in 2018, a record 28,750 transfer students were admitted to the UCs, with the number of community college transfers up by 8% from last year. These students can transfer up to seventy units of academic credit over. This means that two students can end up with the same degree from UCLA…but one might end up paying thousands of dollars less!

Are there disadvantages to attending community college?

There are of course some disadvantages to attending a community college. For some students, staying at home for an extra two years can be a disaster, leading to a loss of purpose and direction. Some students become idle; others become depressed as most of their peers leave the area. And of course, even motivated and purposeful students miss out on some things, such as the dorm life and intense social interaction that is such a big part of the American college experience.

Furthermore, lower tuition rates inevitably buy fewer resources. Community colleges cannot afford the same caliber of institutional upkeep that four-year colleges can maintain. Libraries, laboratories, even faculty quality can unfortunately be compromised.

How to determine if community college is right for you?

At the end of the day, the decision to attend a two-year college must be made in sober consideration of the various factors at play.

For every Sue, there are many more students who don’t make use of the opportunities that community colleges provide. And some of these students may have been better served by taking out the loans necessary to get into an invigorating four-year school.

In the U.S. higher education system, the choice of undergraduate college is only the beginning of things. What really matters is what happens once a student has arrived on campus.

Everything still remains possible for the driven and capable community college student. But nothing is guaranteed, not even for the Harvard student. Take the case of “Edward” in closing: a cautionary tale diametrically opposed to Sue’s inspiring story.

Story #2: Edward

Edward was a superstar high school student. Valedictorian, national award-winning violinist, student-body leader, Siemens Westinghouse finalist.

Since elementary school, his mother had groomed him for Ivy success, making it her full-time job to seek out the best music schools, tutors, summer camps—anything and everything that would give Edward an edge.

To no one’s surprise, Edward was accepted into Harvard. Two years later, he dropped out. His explanation? He was so burnt-out from all the energy he had expended getting into Harvard that he lost all motivation once he was there. He had never had the chance to set any goals or develop any interests other than getting into Harvard, and when he finally got there, he wasn’t sure what he was doing there.

Edward’s story, unfortunately, is more common than Sue’s. Parents must realize that the acceptance letter isn’t a finish line but a starting line.

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