My Life and Education as a Community College Transfer Student
When I was 17 my parents offered me a deal: We’ll pay for your entire undergraduate career if you go to community college first, and a public, in-state school for the bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t say no; this was free college. I would still be expected to contribute, but they would pay the lion’s share. I don’t come from a wealthy family. My college fund was a windfall from deceased grandparents who hoarded lottery winnings in their attic (which is a story in its own right).
My parents insisted on community college given my family’s history with higher education. My mom has an associate’s, and my dad is a blue-collar worker with a GED. All three of my brothers failed out of college for a variety of reasons. While my two older brothers would eventually return and discover fine careers for themselves, our parents were convinced that this would not have happened if their kids had spent more time maturing at home.
So in fall of 2001, when everyone else was navigating a new campus and meeting roommates, I was driving all of ten minutes past my high school to go to the local community college. Here are the pros and cons of that choice.
Pro: Trying out classes and majors.
Community college should be an obvious choice for students who have no idea what they want to study, or for those who know, but also understand that it might not be profitable. My associate’s degree is in photography. Though I love photography, two years of being up to my elbows in silver nitrate showed me that I wanted a career with more financial stability. I’m not a hustler by nature, and that business is all about hustling. I’m glad I was able to explore photography in an affordable way and realize that it wasn’t my career path.
Con: Limited course offerings.
While I could try out classes with relatively low risk, I wasn’t able to pursue everything of interest. Though I liked Spanish enough, I wanted to branch out to other languages that simply weren’t available. I was able to take Russian at my four-year school, James Madison University, but because I transferred as a junior I didn’t have enough time to take the classes towards the major. I ended up with Spanish as one of my majors simply because I had almost all of the credits to do so.
It’s worked out well enough, and I did get into the Russia-focused career I wanted, but I get a tinge of jealousy when I hear about the classes and opportunities available to those who started as freshmen at a four-year university.
Con: Missing out on freshman year.
I didn’t really have a freshman year. I did, chronologically speaking, but I missed every major freshman milestone: the ones that are seen as an integral part of college culture. I skipped most prerequisites and 101s. I have never had a dorm room experience. I have no understanding of hall bathrooms or how to share personal space with a stranger. At the time I thought it was great: no awkward interactions, no shower flip flops, no bunk bed negotiations. Ten years on, I’ve realized that this wasn’t so great.
Freshman year is the middle and upper-class equivalent to trench warfare, where lifelong friendships are made and university pride is forged. I have none of that. I’m a bad alumna for JMU with very little school pride, though it’s improving with age. Without the forced interactions of communal dining and shared bedrooms, it’s actually pretty difficult to make friends at college, particularly when you only have a couple years of it left when you finally matriculate. I really struggled to make friends, but conversely, I developed a strong set of skills for making friends outside of college. I’ve met people who haven’t been able to branch out from their college peer group in the 10 years since graduation.
Pro: Flexible professors and more room for negotiation.
Most of my community college classes were small, in the 15 or less range. That meant a lot of one-on-one, individual attention from people who (mostly) enjoyed teaching. It also meant that the classes were more freewheeling in their instruction. I took a “World Dance” class and the entire course consisted of an octogenarian teaching us how to do an elaborate Electric Slide-esque dance choreographed to a techno remix of the “Fiddler on the Roof” soundtrack. I can still do the routine to “Matchmaker.”
The open atmosphere also meant I had more flexibility and room for negotiation in fulfilling degree requirements. I had taken a Psychology 101 course the first semester and hated it. I couldn’t bear the thought of taking the 102 section. Then I found a course in the (hard copy!) catalog, and successfully argued to take it for 102 credit.
That class: “Ghost Hunting in Virginia.” I’m not kidding. I took a ghost hunting class for Psych 102 credit. We created extensively detailed numerology worksheets and discussed our “karmic debts” as group work. For our class trip, we went to Lexington and skulked around Civil War-era cemeteries. Let me repeat: I received transferrable credit for this.
Pro: Transferrable credit.
Many states have an agreement with its public four-year institutions to accept all credits received at community college as long as you finish with an associate’s degree, combined with a minimum GPA. That meant all of my photography, Spanish, and yes, ghost hunting classes transferred. This is almost never the case for those transferring from another four-year school. I’ve heard horror stories from other transfer students about having to retake (and pay for) prerequisites and 101s that didn’t transfer. Furthermore, most four-year schools waive the SAT/ACT requirements for community college transfers, another cost (and stress) savings.
Pro: The cost savings.
I can’t stress just how great the cost savings have been because I chose two years of community college. My associate’s degree cost approximately $6,000. Each class cost less than $100 per credit hour, with very minimal lab fees for science courses. In comparison, JMU was over double that cost at $201 per credit hour, with multiple activity and lab fees per semester. That’s still entirely reasonable, but to cut it in half and not pay room and board was incredible.
Additionally, I almost never bought a new book as professors would purposely choose older editions over newer ones. Some professors even photocopied their books instead of asking students to buy the book outright, passing out photocopies every few weeks. Did it violate copyright laws? Of course. Did it save us money? It sure did.
Cons: Negative perceptions of community college.
When I chose community college over a four-year school, many of my friends were surprised and frankly, made some terrible comments. They believed that community college was for burnouts, the intellectually challenged, or aspiring welders. It wasn’t for nerdy students who meticulously made honor roll, volunteered, hung out with the marching band, and got 5s on her AP tests. I got asked a lot about why I was selling myself short. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I asked myself the same thing. For a time I had a chip on my shoulder about the whole experience, but privately I knew the benefits greatly outweighed the costs no matter how isolated I felt.
When it came time to pick a four-year school, the University of Virginia was my first choice. During the campus tour I asked why almost all of UVA’s resources were geared to incoming freshman and not transfer students. There was no mention of transfer orientations, housing for incoming “third years,” and no mentor programs that I’d seen at other schools. The tour guide looked at me and said, “That’s because most of our students are good enough to get in out of high school.”
It’s been over 10 years and I’ll never forget that remark. That’s the prevailing mentality, and I still hear it now. I cringe when people see community colleges as solely for the inept or unambitious. For years I didn’t admit to being a community college graduate, not wanting others to think that I was also inept or unambitious. Nowadays I enjoy telling people that I am a proud community college graduate, particularly after they have just insulted the institution. Hearing them stammer and try to backtrack is entertaining.
In the end, community college was right for me. I wasn’t ready to declare a major and dedicate the next four years—and thousands of dollars—to something I wasn’t sure about, and my parents’ deal was too good to pass up. While I don’t have the overwhelming affection for my college years that seems to define many other Americans, I also don’t have the commensurate debt to go along with that nostalgia, either. And as I learned in Econ 101, there are opportunity costs to everything.
Danielle Witt lives, works, and agonizes over the cost of things in Washington, D.C., and tweets at @uncorkeddc