When I told my high school guidance counselor I was considering community college after graduating, she first asked why I was afraid to leave home.
“I’m not,” I told her. “I’m just not sure what I want my major to be, and I’d like to save money while I take core classes and figure it out.”
Unsatisfied with my answer, she insisted I could benefit from considering other options and should perhaps apply to the University of Michigan. This suggestion wasn’t lost on me as I passed by the giant bulletin board outside the office after that useless meeting. As I glanced over the names of my classmates who had already committed to four-year universities, I knew it would look better for the school to add another name to one of those lists.
The encounter was disappointing, though not entirely surprising. Even if my guidance counselor wasn’t intentionally feeding into the stigma surrounding community college, her attitude toward my desire to go there certainly didn’t negate it.
Community college isn’t equated to academic or personal success in the same way as a four-year university.
Sadly, it seems like this is a growing trend. Over the summer, The Guardian reported that community college attendance in the U.S. saw a sharp decline this year. But this decrease didn’t only happen this year. Forbes published a piece in 2019 that highlighted the steady decline of community college enrollment since 2011—a full decade.
Why is this happening? Dr. Steve Robinson, president of Owens Community College in Ohio, credits the stigma surrounding community college in the Forbes article. He notes that a growing number of middle-class families equate post-high-school success with the act of “going away” to college and that community college does not convey the same level of prestige for them. This, combined with other common misconceptions like a lack of academic rigor and the “bad student” stereotypes, all feed into the stigma.
To be fair, community college isn’t the same as a four-year university. Because most community colleges don’t offer on-campus housing or dining, the social atmosphere that so many young adults seek in college isn’t there. Degree programs are often more limited, and transfer requirements can be challenging. It’s not the best fit for everyone.
But community college also offers some distinct benefits for students of all backgrounds and interests. Affordability is an obvious one. These colleges also tend to offer flexible accommodations for those who juggle family responsibilities or jobs on top of their academic workload. In fact, many community college students have work experience and are career-focused from the get-go of their college journey. Because of these advantages, seventy-five percent of community college students are more likely to graduate upon transferring to a four-year institution.
Those who do choose community college recognize these benefits, and it’s time to recognize the misconceptions that come with the community college stigma. Not all students who attend community college do so because they had low grades and couldn’t get into a four-year university. Not all students who attend community college do so because they want a trade or technical job. And not all students who attend community college do so because they are older adults with jobs and families.
I chose to attend community college after high school, and as much as I would have enjoyed more time at Calvin, this was the best choice for me. That’s not the way I always looked at it, though. My decision contributed to some insecurity at the time because I was all too aware of the community college stigma.
But I wouldn’t change the path I forged for myself. I had the opportunity to explore different interests and complete core classes with less financial pressure. I continued to work four or five days a week while taking full-time class loads. I made new friends and stayed close with my family members. Ultimately, community college contributed to my academic and personal success in ways for which I’m still grateful. It didn’t make me any less of a student or a person.
Every time I hear a high school student say “I’m just going to community college,” disappointment creeps over me. It’s as if they’re all dismissing the potential before the experience even begins. Making the decision to attend community college shouldn’t be a shameful one or one that needs to be justified.
Let’s stop the community college stigma and start recognizing the value of choosing the path to higher education that’s the best academic and personal fit.
Kayleigh (Fongers) Van Wyk (’18) graduated with a degree in writing and resides in West Michigan. She works as a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine while also making time for freelance writing. When she’s not behind a screen, she enjoys going for walks, eating ice cream, and buying more books than she’ll ever read.