In next week's State of the Union address, President Obama will officially propose making two-year college free for everyone — like how high school is free now. It's already been called both "a game-changer" and totally impossible.
Along with this announcement comes a recurring discussion about community college itself: Is it worth it? Who'd go to a two-year college instead of a four-year? Is a two-year education valuable enough to subsidize? I can't predict if Obama will get his proposal through Congress, but I can say that junior college is worth it — I know, because I graduated from one.
In 2008, my dad, who had worked as a truck driver for nearly 20 years, lost his job in a layoff. Our family bounced back eventually, but it was a rough time. Asking my parents to bankroll four years at the University of Missouri so that I could attend my dream journalism school that fall (where tuition starts at $10,000, but housing, books, fees, and other expenses push the number toward $24,000 a year) wasn't an option.
That's when community college started to look perfect.
Since I attended high school in Missouri, I was eligible for my state's A+ Scholarship Program, which funds higher education through the state lottery. I had a 3.8 GPA, good attendance, no criminal record, and 50 supervised hours of tutoring other students — all the necessary requirements to qualify for two years of paid tuition at a community college. All I'd have to cover were lab fees, books, and living expenses.
My parents and I planned to save money by starting my bachelor's degree at a community college and then finishing my last two years at the University of Missouri. My mom had completed a history degree at another university this way with no problems. And, advisors at Jefferson College, a community college about an hour south of St. Louis, told me it was more common than I thought.
And yet, for all the sense it made, I wasn't happy at the time about attending a two-year college. I fought with my parents and unfairly blamed them for the troubled economy. Most of all, I felt left out: My best friend was returning for another year at Webster University, a private school in St. Louis where a few of our friends would join her. Other friends and classmates were headed to other state universities, or where I wanted to be — Mizzou.
It was crushing to watch my friends having new experiences while I was still in my hometown. A big part of the college experience is setting off on your own and becoming independent, and I felt delayed. (Not that living at home was so rough. I didn’t have a curfew, I worked, and I had my own life; I was hardly ever sitting around the house.)
But, of all the problems and issues I worked through, the most difficult was the stigma — there's an unbelievable elitism about going to a four-year college. Community colleges are often the butt of jokes, the supposed places where high school burnouts go to learn welding or where single moms go because they have no other choices. Even community colleges with great professors, student activities, and one-on-one attention from faculty (like mine was) are generally not thought of as all that great.
Former classmates told me that studying at a two-year college after excelling in high school was "such a waste," and that not heading straight to a university would mean I'd "never escape" our small rural town. Even my best friend told me, "You're not even going to a real school" during a winter break when she was home from her private university. The friends we were with laughed. I remember sinking into the backseat of the car.
But now, seven years later: I have zero regrets.
First, choosing to start at a community college was likely the best financial decision I've ever made. I think of it as a buy-one-get-one coupon that sliced $48,000 off my debt — the cost of two years at my dream university, including tuition, fees, and room and board.
The tuition at Jefferson College (my two-year school) was covered, and an extra one-time $500 scholarship from my high school helped cover some out-of-pocket expenses. Tallying up the remaining incidentals seems almost unreal: My first two years of college cost me $300.
It also didn't keep me out of four-year university. Halfway through, I applied to the University of Missouri and got in with no problems. I'd expected my first semester at Mizzou to be hard, but I adapted quickly. I managed to room with a high school classmate who took the same junior-college route as I did. I ended up having classes with former high school friends who showed me around the 1,200-acre campus and picked me up for parties. By the end of the semester, I was making friends who were surprised to find out I didn't start there as a freshman.
I can't say I received a completely debt-free degree: With the accrued interest on my federal and private loans, I'm looking at nearly $50,000 in education debt. The last two and a half years at a four-year university added up quickly, including tuition, fees, and university housing.
But, in May 2012, four years after graduating high school, I was beyond happy to don a cap and gown and pick up my bachelor's degree. It had been a fight to get to graduation, but looking back, I see the perks — beyond the financials — that I didn't recognize before.
I had two fantastic professors from Jefferson College who have become lifelong mentors — one in writing, the other in staying fabulous. I met interesting people, such as Dr. Jill Biden, who made a campus visit to campaign for her husband in 2008. For three semesters, I had class sizes no larger than 20, and often with people I likely would have had less contact with at a more selective school — recent veterans, single parents, students with disabilities. I was able to land an internship with campus communications and spearhead the student paper.
It would be easy to say that I "survived" a community college education, but in reality, I think I had opportunities that wouldn't have been available to me at a larger school. I didn't just get by, I thrived. And, these days, I'm not ashamed — not one bit — to claim both of my alma maters.