April is Community College Month, and with spring bringing in an atmosphere of rebirth and renewal, this seems like a great opportunity to explain why we need to end the stigma surrounding community colleges to allow this post-secondary education path to blossom.

For many kids coming out of high school, the shock of entering the real world comes with both its freedoms and its debts, regardless of whether they decide to attend a four-year college or stop going to classrooms entirely. The difference, however, is that the kids enrolling in two-year institutions allow themselves the time and space to figure things out, while those who go into tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt in a single semester don’t. It’s essentially the difference between throwing someone who doesn’t know how to swim in the deep end of a supervised YMCA pool versus throwing them into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

To understand the hyper-accelerating price tag of tuition in this country is to confront a dizzying Catch-22: To attract students to attend their campuses, institutions will spend barrels of money to construct and update luxurious amenities and attractions for their campuses. This, of course, costs money, which requires tuition to be raised so the institutions can afford to build this attractive stuff. However, as other colleges compete for the same student enrollment by creating more enticing amenities on campus, tuition must continue rising to fund these new ventures, which creates more competition, etc.

Tuition is continuing to skyrocket, but with initiatives like the Maine Free College grant in the Maine Community College System, states are finally understanding the need for providing alternatives to students who still want to learn but are denied the privilege because of these bloated costs. Sure, there are people like me, who hold down jobs during their higher education to get some beer money and use the rest to help pay off their tuition, but we tend to overlook students who have no choice but to work while they are attending school to provide for their families. Their paychecks leave their hands as quickly as they arrive. 

Two-year institutions tend to see a lot of these folks, and others who are also pigeonholed as “nontraditional students” because of their age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. All in a single day, it is quite common to help a 50-year-old ex-gas station attendant; a man in his late 30s who is an asylum seeker and a new Maine resident, and a middle-class high school student who is taking a second chance at school after shrugging off her secondary education. Deriding community colleges perpetuates negative stereotypes, shames students and detracts from one of the purposes of community college, which is to create an equitable environment for disadvantaged students. 

Beyond offering conventional academic courses, these two-year institutions are also working closely with the community to understand their needs for students who may be interested in a more vocational education. Students can take classes while simultaneously building connections with local companies, industries and organizations that are key contributors to our economy. 

This column is absolutely not meant to diminish the importance of four-year institutions. On the contrary, two-year institutions fiercely promote established program pathways with local colleges to both ensure that students are taking the right classes to earn associate degrees as well as to reduce the number of courses that are ineligible for transfer when students eventually move on to their baccalaureate degrees. It is, however, inappropriate to believe that students in this country can be successful only if the measure of success is to follow the antiquated formula of attending a four-year institution and graduating within four years.

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