Maybe Community College Is a Good First Step
by Randall Bedwell
It’s your senior year, and instead of hanging out with your friends and enjoying the last semester of high school, you’re stuck filling out endless forms. You spent the fall applying to colleges, and now you’ve got the FAFSA staring you in the face.
You look at the “lucky ones” with envy; the ones who won’t have to balance a job with classes, and struggle to save enough to cover the costs of college that aren’t covered by scholarships or grants. You aren’t sure how you’ll ever manage the financial puzzle.
Here’s the truth: Attending community college first is a great solution for many students just like you.
One of the biggest advantages of enrolling in community college after high school graduation is that the financial puzzle instantly becomes much less complicated. In Tennessee, community college tuition is around half the “sticker price” of a state university, and only about a third of the cost of a private four-year college.
By attending a two-year college first, you will be able to use financial assistance such as Tennessee Promise to cover a large part of your tuition and other costs associated with school. This, paired with the lower price tag, allows you to effectively “pay as you go” instead of racking up a large amount of student debt.
You will essentially be taking the same foundational classes required of freshmen and sophomores at a four-year institution. By the time you are ready to transfer to a four-year school, these general education requirements will be complete and you can jump in and get started on your major courses. If you plan to complete your bachelor’s degree at a state university, your credits will transfer without problems if you plan ahead with the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.
Attending a community college first also offers advantages above and beyond the financial picture. Transitioning from high school to college can be difficult for some, particularly if you are shy or are worried you do not have the academic standing to succeed at a four-year school. At the local community college, you will probably see familiar faces in class and on campus, which can greatly reduce the stress of college. You will also find professors who know your name, and can offer individual attention when necessary. This type of one-on-one attention can be hard to come by at a big state school.
Those who were not happy with their high school grade point average or ACT score can also benefit greatly from enrolling in community college first. These criteria are important for high school graduates applying to a four-year school, but have little impact on admissions decisions when you are transferring in from a community college.
In this way, community college offers you a fresh start to prove that you can handle the rigors of a state college. Admissions officers judge transfer students on their college-level academic performance and, in many cases, standardized test scores are not even required for admission.
Although it seems to be a common misconception, community college is far more than just an extension of the experiences you had in high school. The old stereotypes of “13th grade,” “junior college,” or “night school” are long gone.
You may attend a school just down the road from your high school, but you will learn alongside students from different faith traditions and countries, and different generations. Because each students’ history colors their perspective, this type of diversity makes for an incredible learning environment.
Community college also gives you an opportunity to figure out what you want to study. Some people seem to find their calling by middle school, but most of us have no idea until we are well into our 20s. If you are unsure about your major and your career, taking time to figure things out at a community college is a much cheaper proposition than getting started at a four-year state school and then changing your major.
Many of my students at four-year colleges, both public and private, say they feel “pigeon-holed” into choosing a major early on. While that strategy works for many students who are certain of their future academic and career path, it may not be right for you. At a community college, you can take courses that are interesting to you and explore your passions. Because you are not pushed to declare a major, you can take the time necessary to decide what you want to do.
A large number of students — potentially up to a third of all college students — change their majors at least once. On top of that, only about one out of every four of college graduates works in their major after graduation.
If you still are not sure if community college is for you, talking about your options with your Tennessee Promise mentor is a good starting point. The bottom line, however, is that where you initially go to college doesn’t define who you will be or what you will do with the rest of your life. Choosing to attend any school – a community college or four-year institution — is a stepping stone to a great career adventure.
Randall Bedwell is a Tennessee Promise mentor, adjunct college professor, and currently works as an educational consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.