I grew up thinking I would spend all four years of my collegiate career at a major university. In fact, up until two years before I was supposed to go off to school, I thought I was going to go to a major university straight out of high school. Then, two weeks before the Christmas of my junior year, my dad lost his job.
When I got the news that my parents could no longer pay for college, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Financial responsibility was not on my radar. I thought that was something I could worry about after I graduated with a Bachelors degree, if not a Masters.
I started looking into other options for school. At first, I thought I was just going to have to take out student loans for the whole four years. I didn’t even think about whether or not that was fiscally responsible of me. My parents didn’t have the money to pay it all in chunk change anymore-I was just doing what every other kid in my generation was doing. Then I had a reality check one day when I did the math and saw how much I would have to pay each month if I did that. I started thinking that school was going to be impossible for me- because I didn’t want to live as a slave to school debt the rest of my life.
When community college was put on the table, I immediately rejected it. There was a certain stigma at my high school that surrounded the kids that went to community college after high school. It was seen as the option for kids that weren’t good enough students to get into university, or a place for “the lessers of society” (yes actual quote from a classmate of mine). I thought, “I would rather go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt before I ever step foot on a community college campus.” I thought this partially because of the stigma, and because I thought my academic standings were too superior to attend a community college.
But, that job loss did something to me. I stopped thinking of myself as an entitled upper-middle-class high school kid and came to the realization that my parent’s money is not my money. Shocking. I know. But that was a very big hurdle I had to leap over at the time.
So, after this enlightening moment of my life, I had to embrace the fact that I was broke. Completely broke. I didn’t have a cent in savings to put myself through school. Honestly, the more my parents and I discussed community college, the more and more it sounded like a no-brainer. Tuition with a $1,000 price tag to get all of my general education courses out of the way, compared to the average $6,000 price tag at a university. Free room and board for the first two years. Smaller class sizes so I could get to know my professors. And, in North Carolina, if you get an Associates Degree, all of your credits must transfer to the university you choose with you. All of the sudden I was looking at a maximum of $5,000 with books and tuition combined for the first two years of school, rather than the $20,000+ I would spend completing my GEDs at a four-year university.
After I made this decision, I started to discover just how shallow people can be if you do not meet societal expectations. At first, I hung my head when I told people I was going to community college. Like I said, it wasn’t a glamorous choice. All my classmates proudly wore the shirts of their four your university to Senior Day, and I wore a regular outfit. Teachers told me that I was making a huge mistake by going there. People insulted me with my choice of schools telling me, “Well, you get what you pay for.”
Now, I can stand here today, debt-free going into my last year of college, and tell you that if you are deciding to go to community college first, you will definitely get what you pay for. You will get financial freedom and flexibility. You will get one-on-one free tutoring with professors that know your name. You will get to work while you are going through those first two years to make the next two years more affordable. You will get the opportunity to figure out what the heck you want to do with your life before you are pressured into choosing something as a child and spending $20,000 on it before you realize, you really don’t want to do what high school you thought would make everyone happy with you.
Community college was the smartest decision I made. I am in a much better place in every aspect of my life today then I would have been if I decided to go to school for my desired career path in high school. I am so happy to have the flexibility to choose where I want to go and what I want to do after college because my wallet will not be tied town by SallieMae. So, thank you community colleges, for being the wonderful hidden treasure you are!