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Let's Talk About It: The Community College Stigma

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Community colleges offer benefits and opportunities that millions of students can't get anywhere else. So why is there a stigma attached to attending one and how can you deal with it?

Roots of the Community College Stigma

Community colleges today are low-cost, convenient, and proudly unsophisticated—exactly what they were made to be. Attending one was never about prestige. Rather, the Americans who flocked to these schools when they first opened in the early 1900s and who continue to flood their campuses today, do so because community colleges provide a clear route to a better career. But, while more than 6 million students enter community colleges each year, many aren't prepared for the stigma attached to these low-cost institutions. That stigma has roots in the schools' earliest years.

A Humble and Practical Start

Community colleges were created by 19th-century laws designed to make higher education accessible to common folks. When the first community college opened in 1901, a college education was a luxury for even the most well-to-do Americans. The standard university curriculum required at least four years of full-time study and lessons in subjects like Latin and Renaissance literature. Not surprisingly, enrollment was limited to wealthy students pursuing degrees in law, medicine, science, and liberal arts.

But what about the millions of rural Americans working on farms and in small towns? Now that the country was industrializing, these people finally had hopes of leaving the farms for higher paying jobs in the rapidly growing cities. How could they acquire new skills on their limited incomes without having to study subjects they didn't need to learn?

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An Innovative Solution

Community colleges solved those problems. They were inexpensive and did not have the rigorous entrance requirements of traditional schools. They also cut the curriculum down to two years and introduced practical subjects within a liberal studies program. After 1920, many community colleges had even added vocational training. Because of these schools, regular folks could finally earn college degrees and secure jobs that offered a higher standard of living.

Unfortunately, not all Americans cheered at those outcomes. Community colleges were often perceived as nothing more than the poor man's path to higher education. That perception diminished the schools' images and is one part of the community college stigma. The other part springs from misconceptions, which persist today.

Myths About Community College

For students in the 21st century, the benefits received from attending a community college have come at a cost. They're subjected to an ugly stereotype based on misconceptions.

Most common among these misconceptions are that community college students:

  • choose these schools because they don't have the grades required by four-year colleges,
  • seek only vocational training, and
  • won't get good jobs because employers look down on them.

Helping to dispel these myths are some irrefutable facts. First among these is that, according to U.S. News & World Report, the reasons many students today choose community colleges are the affordable tuition, academic flexibility, and school-life balance unthinkable at a four-year institution.

Next, the idea that community colleges are glorified vocational schools simply isn't true. Consider, for example, research in 2015 by the Teachers College at Columbia University that shows that more than 80% of students entering community colleges want to earn a bachelor's or higher degree. There's also this report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that 46% of students who finished a four-year college program in 2013–2014 had previously studied at a two-year establishment.

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Finally, the myth about community college graduates being doomed to lower-paying occupations has most recently been shattered by initiatives focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which are now available at many of these schools. STEM programs teach skills that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are in high demand by most employers today.

Recent Trends Offer Hope

Recognizing that community colleges continue to meet the demand for low-cost higher education and job training, many people are designing ways to improve them.

One way is to offer baccalaureate programs previously available only at four-year colleges. As of 2017, community colleges in 20 states were authorized to do so. California is expected to follow suit. These programs are making students view community colleges as destination schools rather than stepping stones to big-name universities.

Other innovations streamline the transfer of community college credits to four-year colleges, a complicated process long considered an obstacle to achieving a bachelor's degree. DirectConnect in Florida is one such program. Under DirectConnect, the credits earned at two-year public colleges in Florida can automatically transfer to a four-year public school.

Such improvements offer hope that the disparaging lines between community colleges and their fancier counterparts will begin to fade.

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Final Thoughts

If you're a student at a community college today, you don't have to feel stigmatized. You can push back against the idea that you're stuck with a no-frills, last-resort path to higher education. We offer a few suggestions.

  • Remind yourself of all the solid reasons that made you choose community college: the ability to live at home, study at your own pace, not forego a steady paycheck or family commitments, and tuition that won't bust your budget.
  • Be aware that you're not alone. Others feel the shame and are starting to speak out, especially on social media.
  • Know about the authoritative voices hailing community colleges for striving to level the educational and social playing fields.

Above all, take pride in your school's legacy. It came into being because some forward-thinking lawmakers a century ago understood that wealth and status should not prevent any American from enjoying the benefits that a college degree procures.

By Michele Vrouvas
February 2018
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