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Why Attending Community College Worked for Me & My Career

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If you're trying to decide between a community college or university education, let me share my story. My community college program helped me to land my dream job, advancing my career without driving me into debt. Read on to find out how!

Community College Worked for Me

When I decided to go back to school to earn my culinary degree, I knew I had options. I could choose a private school that had a big name, but along with that prestigious name came a large price tag. I could also choose to attend my local community college's culinary division and earn the same associate degree, but not many people outside of Central Oregon would recognize the college's name. I wrestled with the decision and toured both programs before deciding that community college was right for me.

Within one year of graduating from community college, I was promoted to executive chef at a local restaurant. My hard work, both in earning my degree and in working for this company, had paid off. I really believe that my results would have been exactly the same whether I had attended the private school or the community college. Let's take a look at why I think community college was the right choice for advancing my career.

Big Fish in a Little Pond

In larger schools, competition can be fierce. The 'big fish in a little pond' theory explores the idea that a gifted student in a group of average students will perform better than a gifted student in a group of gifted students. In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes that going to an elite school can actually set some students up for failure. In a 'little fish in a big pond' scenario, only a select few students will shine, whereas students will have a greater chance of standing out in a lesser-known organization.

Big Fish in a Little Pond

In fact, some research studies have shown that highly ranked students have an increased self-perception of intelligence, making them more optimistic about their futures. Students who are highly ranked also self-report feeling more supported by their teachers. So the worst students in a Harvard University class often feel unintelligent and unsuccessful, making them less likely to succeed, even though they would probably rank in the top third of a less prestigious university.

Less College Debt

The average tuition at a community college is $6,000 a year less than a public university and almost $29,000 a year less than a private university. By taking community college classes, I saved a ton of money on tuition, which meant taking out fewer student loans. And as I didn't have to live on campus, I was able to save an average of $10,000 a year in room and board charges.

In addition to saving on tuition, room, and board, community college offered a lot of flexibility in scheduling that allowed me to work full time while earning my degree. Working and going to school at the same time was a struggle, but I was able to pay back my loans as I took them out instead of waiting until I graduated to start making payments. All of this added up to having less debt when I left school, so I didn't feel as much pressure to take a job based on the paycheck alone. This allowed me to work for a company that I loved instead of accepting a corporate job because I needed to pay off a massive student loan debt. I accepted a position at a company that I believed in, and my degree helped me to get promoted within a year of graduation.

Debt Free

A Quality Education

Most of my professors at community college were there because they loved teaching. Many 4-year universities employ tenured professors who are interested in furthering their research. They are required to teach classes; however, teaching is not their main focus. Some prestigious professors at universities even assign all of the actual teaching to graduate assistants.

At community college, my professors had no research projects, so their main focus was on their students. Many of them had master's degrees, and almost all of them had real-world experience that they brought with them to the classroom. It was refreshing to learn from a professor who had a successful career in my field and could bring industry knowledge and experience to my education.

Small Classes Sizes

Most of my classes in community college had 20 students or less, with many of my lab classes having only 12 people. Apparently my experience is not unique, as College Atlas discovered that the student-to-teacher ratio at most community colleges is lower than at 4-year universities, meaning that students get to spend more time working directly with professors. Working closely with my teachers not only had the benefit of increased learning, but also allowed me to make some great connections within the local community by earning these professors' trust. When I asked for references from my teachers, they were all happy to write personalized letters because they knew what a great student I had been.

Small Classrooms

Value of the School Name

I admit, if I was trying to get a job at the French Laundry or another prestigious restaurant, it may have mattered to have a well-known school name on my resume. However, for most jobs, the name of the university doesn't hold as much weight as it used to. In the age of online degree programs, most employers don't question the quality of a school, especially if your community college is accredited. A study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that no significant difference exists in employer interest in graduates of community colleges versus those of for-profit institutions.

Success Story

Whether you're looking to attend a trade program at your community college, or an associate or a bachelor's degree program at a public or private university, you may want to consider community college as a viable option. Not only did my community college degree program help me land my dream job, but also made it possible for me to incur less debt and obtain the same quality education.

Success Feels Good

By Lindsay Mattison
December 2016

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