Scrolling through my social media recently, I noticed a post shared by a friend that read: “@ all high school seniors filling out college applications right now: COMMUNITY COLLEGE IS OK [repeated 7x].” The sharer of the post wrote that she was about to get her associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year school with zero debt. Having gone through a similar college pathway, I hit the “like” button and commented expressing my agreement.
This post pushed back against the stigma about community college that many people are enculturated to believe: that going to community college is a failing option as opposed to a helpful means of continuing education and obtaining a college degree.
Coming from a college-preparatory high school, I myself felt a little embarrassed when I enrolled in community college while my peers went off to four-year institutions. During my senior year of high school, the student advisor shamed me for my decision to attend a community college, claiming that I was “too good of a student” to attend community college and that I “belonged to a four-year school.”
The message was clear: going to a community college wouldn’t help me flourish academically.
But immediately enrolling in a four-year school was not a financially viable option. Despite applying for scholarships and grants, none of which provided sufficient funds, I decided to enroll at Durham Technical Community College (DTCC). Four years later, I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a double bachelor’s with less than $15,000 in debt. Looking back on the whole four-year experience (two years at DTCC and two years at UNC) I asked myself, was going to community college worth it? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Without hesitation.
It’s time we put a damper on the stigma of attending community college.
Understandably, everyone’s situation is unique to his or her personal interests or financial goals. That being said, I’d like to share some personal experiences to highlight why I strongly recommend that students of any age consider community college as a practical choice for higher education.
Firstly, It made financial sense—community college is much more affordable than four-year schools. My family’s income limits made me eligible to receive grants (like the Pell Grant and the NC Longleaf commitment grant) that covered tuition, credit hours, with enough left over to buy the expensive textbooks required for classes. (Buy used books instead of new if possible! Even if the syllabus stated that the latest edition was required, I emailed the instructors asking if an older edition was acceptable and they usually assured me that was fine too, saving me hundreds of dollars each semester). In my experience, the popular belief that “college is too expensive for low-income students” did not ring true.
Even students who aren’t eligible for community college grants will still end up paying a fraction of the price they would be paying for similar classes at a four-year institution.
Advising and Mentorship
Secondly, the interpersonal support from the advisors and instructors at Durham Tech was extremely helpful —more so than from the staff at both my private high school and UNC-Chapel Hill. While these instructors were helpful in many ways too, it was a different kind of relationship. Perhaps the community college instructors, free from the pressures of research and publication common at four-year schools, had a greater ability to focus on meaningful mentorship. I was never so inspired, motivated, and filled with hope as I was when I met with Durham Tech’s faculty.
Instructors taught students with the intention of helping them learn and understand the material (as opposed to throwing them into the deep to calculate students’ ability to figure it out on their own). I remember one instructor remarking, “How do you expect students to grow in knowledge or critical thinking if you don’t teach them the foundations in the first place?” This community college seemed to serve students from all backgrounds, helping them meet their educational goals, whatever they may be: learning new skills, earning a credential, or transferring to a university.
Their approach was often a non-judgmental, uplifting one that made us feel encouraged that we could excel through hard work and determination. They provided the one-on-one support and encouragement that helped me thrive both academically and socially.
In my last semester at Durham Tech, I got into UNC-Chapel Hill and was set to transfer as a junior in the fall. In contrast to the stigma-driven discontent with which I had arrived at community college, I was surprised to find that I wished my time there wouldn’t be ending so soon and didn’t feel very enthused about the transition.
Finally, support from the transfer programs helped pave the way to a bachelor’s degree. The college provided transfer sessions with admissions staff from various universities, and also offered advising specific to the transfer process. There was always someone in the office to come talk to about questions, the application process, or goal-setting.
Once a junior at UNC, I remember talking with fellow transfer students who regretted having to transfer as sophomores instead of juniors because not all their credits from other four-year universities transferred. Thanks to my advisor and the transfer center at Durham Technical Community College, I had known about the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which governs a seamless transfer of credits from North Carolina’s community colleges to its public universities.
The transfer center at Durham Tech also promoted information about C-STEP, or the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program. C-STEP is a great option for low- and moderate-income community college students to have guaranteed admission to UNC-Chapel Hill. I knew quite a few people who went through the C-STEP program, and they mentioned how the advising, support, and student activities were helpful in making a smooth transition to Carolina.
The combination of good direction and a system that favored hard-working individuals led me and my friends to receive bachelor’s degrees from our state’s flagship institution, which is ranked 30th in the world according to the 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Bachelor’s diploma in hand, I still overhear people talking down on community college, more so I think due to personal taste than anything else. What I hear is that they miss out on the “college experience” that most four-year institutions market to young adults seeking freedom, which I can understand. Yes, community college offers little in comparison to the student life opportunities and professional connections that a four-year school provides. However, if one can benefit by starting at a community college and ending at a four-year institution—gaining a strong support system, and avoiding loads of student debt— then this is a pathway that should be encouraged.
To all high school seniors and individuals of all ages: Community college is not just “okay;” it is very worthwhile.
Lillian Diaz is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where she double majored in English and Spanish. She currently teaches classes and publishes content on YouTube for her accent coaching business, Accent Practice, while mothering her daughter of one.