Honestly, you never know how good you've got it until you're talking with your friends one night and realizing how one big decision can really shape your whole life. This may sound a little corny, but that's all it took for me to realize how impactful my decision to go to community college was.
No one really tells you about all the different benefits that community college can offer you. In fact, the prevailing stigmas can prevent many students from ever seriously considering it (myself included).
"You're not going to get the real college experience."
"Community college is for stupid people."
"If you go there, you'll never be successful."
"Why would you settle for community college?"
"Did you not try in high school?"
Let's be honest. I'm here to tell you that community colleges are the hidden gems of higher ed, but in reality, we often think of the prestigious ivy league institution as the proverbial higher ed diamond and community college as, well — a lump of coal. But in my experience, if you put in enough effort and pressure, that piece of coal actually turns into a diamond itself. And if you've made it this far, why don't we settle in, and I can tell you the rest of my story?
First, allow me to introduce myself — my name is Andrea Green, and I'm an Integrated Media Specialist here at SimpsonScarborough living in upstate New York. My local community is flooded with all different types of private and public colleges and universities, which made my decision process even more time-consuming, but it also allowed me to really understand what I wanted out of college. Living in a relatively affluent town, I saw many of my classmates go to ivy league institutions, but my family did not live in the same tax bracket as my classmates, so I started investigating different options to make my education work for my situation. I remember when my mother proposed community college to me one day, and I literally thought to myself, "That's for people who don't know what they want to study."
I know, I know. Yet another stigma.
At first, community college wasn't even on the radar for me because of those prevailing stigmas and my own misconceptions about who community college was really for. Many prospective college students continue to overlook community college in the same way I did. Even during COVID, when many thought that community college enrollment would surge amid the pandemic and influx of online-only classes, it actually experienced worse declines than any other institution type — enrollment dropped more than 10% nationally. But this isn't anything new as total community college enrollment has declined by more than 1 million students nationally (14.4%) between 2010 and 2017. These significant declines have led some institutions to offer prospective students additional incentives like laptops, WiFi hotspots, and even free courses.
This is why right now is the perfect opportunity for students to take advantage of these incentives and really understand how to make their education pay for itself (in addition to all the other benefits).
You Don't Get the Real College Experience By Attending Community College
This is one stigma that's hung around nearly as long as community college has existed. And to some extent, it's correct — community college doesn't always provide the typical college experience. But, in my experience, you still get an incredible college experience and an enriched view of the world. In many ways, the experience can be even better.
Like any traditional college or university, you're exposed to a diverse range of people from different educational backgrounds and cultures. Despite the relative level of homogeneity in my high school, in community college, I experienced an incredible cross-section of people, many of which challenged my existing worldviews. Those experiences forged lifelong friendships with people that I still keep in touch with to this day. And what's more of a traditional college experience than seeing your worldview expand while forming lifelong friendships?
Colleges and universities are often known for being the economic engines of their communities, but community colleges are often just as entrenched in their local communities as four-year institutions due to their funding sources, practitioner faculty, and even local business relationships.
And just like most colleges & universities, community colleges offer an abundance of dual enrollment opportunities to high school students. Often, there are further tuition discounts for dual-enrolled students, which only adds to the cost savings.
Speaking of cost savings — that's maybe the one stereotype about community college that's actually positive. The average cost per credit hour of a 2-year nonprofit institution is $127. Compared to public 4-year institutions, that's less than half the tuition rate for in-state ($307) or a fraction of out-of-state tuition ($879). And it's about 1/10th of the cost of a 4-year private institution ($1,223). Tuition costs are not always the best indicator of the actual (or realized) cost of college, but at a time when public scrutiny of higher education has never been higher, especially concerning access and affordability, it's a critical issue to mention.
What Community College Actually Provides You
Would it surprise you to learn that community colleges have their own clubs, organizations, and even sports teams? Many high school students don't realize these opportunities exist, which perpetuates the stigma that it's hard to meet new people in community college.
You really can make your community college experience your own by getting involved. There are so many opportunities like joining a club, an organization, or even a sports team. For me, I had the chance to play volleyball for my community college. I actually knew the coach who recruited me to play for her, which had an incredibly positive impact on my experience. Like so many other student-athletes, being a part of this team gave me an instant group of friends before classes started and pushed me to improve my time management skills as I learned to balance playing my sport and maintaining good grades. And just like the other students I met in the classroom, I forged genuine friendships with this newfound community.
My friends and I also learned how much easier it was to get into the colleges that we truly wanted in the first place after attending community college. Many colleges and universities overlook transfers as a critical audience to target in their marketing campaigns due to specific barriers to transfer like course credit approval and student acclimation to a 4-year university. In practice, it's often easier since you have other academic credentials to showcase besides college placement tests like the SAT or ACT. In fact, a solid community college GPA usually produces really competitive transfer scholarships, which is what happened in my situation. But by far, the most significant advantage that community college provides when transferring to a 4-year institution is the certainty around what major you're studying and why along with knowing what you really want out of a school (and maybe what you don't want).
For me, I was able to take a lot of my general courses in community college at a cheaper cost (or even getting paid to go to class some semesters) while still getting a similar education to my friends in nearby 4-year institutions. Planning out how my credits would transfer and regularly checking in with my advisors to stay informed on any changes ensured a smooth and seamless transfer process. In the end, I graduated with my bachelor's degree at a fraction of the cost of many of my peers — without the sacrifices that many assume you must make in attending community college.
How Community College Improved My Life
For me, community college never felt like an extension of high school, nor did it feel inferior to my 4-year college experience. The message isn't that community college is for everyone or that it's better than 4-year institutions. It's that, in the ecosystem of higher education, it doesn't just have its place — it's an entirely underrated alternative that prepares students for the real world in many of the same ways that the best colleges and universities in the country do.
That's why I think of community college as the hidden gem of higher education. It allowed me to build a community, challenge my conventional thinking, become a student-athlete, forge lifelong friendships, improve my time management skills, improve my academic profile, and ultimately gain entry to the college I really wanted to attend. Did I graduate with less debt? Yes, significantly so. But that's just a small part of my story and only one of the many advantages that community college provided me (and millions of other students) across the country.
Andrea is an Integrated Media Specialist and part of our dynamic media team. She's a proud graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology where she earned her B.S. in New Media Marketing, though she (quite obviously) credits her time at her local community college as one of the most impactful decisions she made in her educational journey. When not working, you're likely to find her kayaking or playing volleyball near her home in Rochester, NY. Learn more about Andrea and the rest of our team here.