Breaking the Stigma: Attending a Community College
Take a moment to think about the stigmas you believe in; do you struggle with prejudice against people of certain economic backgrounds? Our culture’s perception of inferiority relies on a person’s “class” in society. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing some of the things affected by the prejudice between classes in my series Breaking the Stigma. Today, I’m talking about community college.
In my freshman year of high school, I wanted to go to Harvard. I had it all planned out. I would graduate a year early, get scholarships, NEVER take a loan, graduate with honors in Archaeology and become the next Indiana Jones. Life laughed.
By the end of my senior year, everything changed. I switched to journalism, had a major medical crisis, and my parents had little to no money for my education. The thing I feared most became a reality: I was going to community college.
Take a moment and assess your beliefs about community college. What pops into your head? Teachers who don’t care? Classrooms filled with dropouts and vagrants? For me, it was failure. On the first day of my freshman year at college, I felt I had failed. This small campus with a tiny library and little to no parking was nothing like my Ivy League dreams.
Two weeks into the semester, my English teacher gave us an assignment. We were to write an essay about community colleges’ negative stigma and if it is accurate. I knew I would have to say that the stigma was wrong and this college was amazing. Sitting at my kitchen table that night, I came up with the best way to lie in 500 words.
I hated telling people I went to a community college. When I met someone and gave the obligatory explanation of what I planned to do with my life, I self-consciously watched their facial expression. They’d go from “respecting the scholar” to “bless her heart, she must be dumb.” I hated it, even though I knew I had made that same face not that long ago.
But what is it about two-year colleges that repel our uppity senses? Arguments of apathetic teachers and students and the big stamp of “inferiority” come to mind. Some go on to claim that community and technical college students that don’t go on to earn a four-year degree will learn less than their four-year graduate counterparts.
So, let’s break the stigma.
Dropouts and Vagrants?
What’s the driving force behind the stigma? Money. Statistically, community college is the first higher education choice for those coming out of lower-income households. About 44% of low-income students choose community college as their first college out of high school because of its affordability.
The intense marginalization and prejudice against the “lower class” explains the disdain of community colleges. Tell them their education is inferior and you make them feel inferior. Then you use their inferiority to make them subordinate.
Is it true that all the teachers don’t care and the students care even less? No. Again, think about the stereotypical low-income student. Those with low funds and possibly on welfare are considered lazy and leeching off government funds. This view is manipulated on for political gain and has little to do with the people themselves.
Over the course of two years, I’ve learned that my community college is filled with teachers who care but don’t have the resources and students who are dedicated but don’t have the time. Stress over funding plagues both sides, but they strive to do their best despite their limitations.
Your education is what you make it. While some argue that community college teachers are second-class, it’s important to realize that if a student wants to learn, they will. The name of their school doesn’t define the quality of their education; they do.
There are financial advantages to consider as well. According to a study done in 2011-2012, approximately 37% of all undergraduate students attending a two-year college take loans, with the amount of debt per student averaging around $1,200. The other 85% at a private four-year university are usually around $20,000 in debt. With Tennessee’s and New York’s recent decisions to provide free community college to adults, it will be interesting to see how these numbers change in a few years.
Statistically, the amount of students coming from a +$50,000 household and a -$20,000 household is almost the same (coming in at 33% and 36% respectively). This proves the stereotype of community colleges only being for low-income students is a lie.
It took me about a year to realize that two-year colleges are not inferior. My conversion began as I found a ragtag group of friends I could call my own. People like the older gentleman that took my Biology class who always cracked jokes that flustered my teacher and made me laugh so hard I’d almost fall out of my chair and the loud-mouthed redhead I met in the cafeteria who refused to stop talking to me about Hamilton. We’re different ages and come from different backgrounds, but we support each other.
Last week I attended my college’s graduation, and as I watched my friends walk across the stage, faces beaming and baggy gowns flapping, I realized that stigma could discourage us, but it can’t stop us.
As community colleges become a more popular option over the next few years, I hope the conventional stigma marginalizing lower-income students is put to an end, and the recognition of our hard work and education is realized for what it really is: a degree.