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I'm Living Proof That Community Colleges Can Fix Our Broken Education System

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In the U.S., we look down on community college. This must change. Community colleges present a viable cost-effective alternative to universities and, as a result, can play an important role in addressing our student debt crisis.

With more students attending community colleges, student debt will decrease and these institutions will pose a competitive threat to larger universities, forcing them to lower their price of admission.

Let me tell my story. I started my higher education journey at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida. Although I now speak proudly of my time at Santa Fe, this wasn’t the case while I was attending. I enrolled at Santa Fe begrudgingly. I felt like a failure, thinking that community college was for people who either aren’t smart or aren’t motivated. I remember interacting with peers who attended four-year universities and feeling embarrassed when they asked me where I studied.

As with most community college students, I was heavily influenced by financial considerations when deciding to attend Santa Fe. The average tuition at a community college is $3,130 compared to $8,660 at a public in-state university. Tuition at out-of-state universities and private colleges frequently exceeds $20,000. Along with lower tuition, community colleges are located near students’ family homes, which allows them the option to save money on housing and other expenses. Because of the low costs associated with community college, 62% of students finish two-year colleges with no debt.

A Quality Education

Few people realize that community colleges offer a quality education.

At Santa Fe, I was a part of an intimate community of academics and college staff who cared about students. Every one of my classes was taught by a professor, not a graduate assistant. When I turned in an assignment, I received it back full of red ink and with personal comments about my work. This was possible because my class sizes ranged from 20 to 30 students.

After community college, I went on to attend the College of the Holy Cross and then Harvard Law School. The education I received at Santa Fe not only fully prepared me for Holy Cross and Harvard, but also was pivotal to my future academic and career success.

My experience at Santa Fe is not unique; community colleges across the nation offer quality, individualized education. More than 85% of community college professors have a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree. Furthermore, professors at community colleges don’t have the same pressure to research and publish as professors at universities, leaving them more time to focus on their pedagogy and work with students. Because the average class size at community colleges is only 35, professors also have the ability to provide individual attention to their students.

The education offered at community colleges also provides students with a variety of appealing options. After obtaining a two-year degree, students can transfer to a university to pursue a bachelor’s degree. In addition, unlike universities, community colleges often prepare students to enter the workforce after two years. In fact, the job growth for those with associate’s degrees is currently outpacing that of more advanced degree holders.

A Tool for Addressing Student Debt

Community colleges have the potential to help drive down the price of higher education.

When the student debt crisis is discussed, it is often compared to the problem of rising medical costs. As with medical care, there is an unwavering demand for higher education. College is seen as the path to prosperity, so every family is determined to provide their child with a college degree. Knowing there will always be people to pay their tuition, universities are able to charge higher and higher prices.

However, this dynamic can be disrupted by greater market competition.Community colleges can impose a competitive check on rising university tuition. If all college applicants begin seriously considering community college, universities will be forced to compete with community college prices. As things currently stand, community colleges pose no threat to university enrollment because most college-bound students have an unfavorable view of two-year colleges.

In addition to helping put downward pressure on university tuition, greater community college enrollment will decrease student debt simply because it is such a cost-effective option for students.

Changing the Way We View Community Colleges

If we can combat the stigma associated with community colleges, we can unlock their potential as tools for fighting student debt. Our strategy should have two components: 1) raising awareness of the strength of a community college education and 2) taking steps to associate community colleges with prestige.

To raise awareness of the strength of a community college education, community colleges must recruit high school students in the same way universities do. Funding should be provided to community colleges to market their strengths. Community college staff should also be attending college fairs and giving talks at local high schools.

The federal government can also support the effort to raise awareness of the value of a community college education. President Obama recently proposed a “College Affordability Scorecard” that rates the quality and cost-effectiveness of different institutions. Community colleges should be included in the Scorecard. Additionally, some federal dollars should be put towards a media campaign that publicizes the academic advantages of two-year colleges.

To make community colleges appealing to students, we must also take action to make them more “prestigious.” While rankings systems often leave much to be desired, they can be an effective way to build such prestige. We should establish a list of top community colleges that is comparable to the U.S. News and World Report university rankings.

First, ranking community colleges sends the message that they are important enough pieces of the higher education puzzle to have their own in-depth ranking system. Second, community colleges at the top of the list will gain notoriety among students simply because they are seen as “the best.” Having community colleges that have more notoriety than some universities will boost the reputation of two-year colleges as a whole.

Community colleges should also begin going after the best and brightest. A college will immediately appear more prestigious if applicants find out that their high-achieving classmates are deciding to attend it. Community colleges, with help from their states, can achieve this with programs that provide large scholarships to standout students. For example, a scholarship program could help pay for a student’s future graduate school studies in addition to her undergraduate education.

Student debt is a serious problem. We can’t afford to let preconceptions and stereotypes alienate one of the most powerful tools that we have for addressing it. Let’s destigmatize community colleges and fight student debt.

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