Community colleges still struggle to shrug stigma

At Carmel High, college is no small matter; anyone will tell you that. From the white board in teacher Barbara Steinberg’s room displaying where all her AP Literature students will be attending college to the colorful hand-drawn names of prestigious schools paired with names of students that have begun to decorate counselor Darren Johnston’s office walls, it is clear that where one goes to college is a big deal, and it warrants recognition.

It seems that nowhere on campus, however, will one witness a student seeking recognition for their decision to attend a junior college. Traditionally, it seems that community college has been reserved in students’ minds as a last resort, better only than no college at all. But is this still true today?

Patricia Hunt, Carmel High School’s college and career center coordinator, says that community college can be a great option for many students, simply because of its affordability.

“It’s obviously way more affordable than a four-year university, and it is also a great education, with Monterey Peninsula College especially,” she says. “I don’t think any of the counselors, and I certainly don’t, have any negative feelings toward community college, but I think peer to peer, people feel like they have to want to go to a four-year.”

And it seems that peer to peer, this is a consensus. Bryce Bishop, who will be attending MPC in the fall, has noticed the comical aspect that MPC and other community colleges have gained in school and even on social media sites.

“The joke is always there,” Bishop says. “Not just at Carmel High, but also at Stevenson and basically everywhere. You see things like ‘I’m going to fail my ACT #MPC life,’ and it’s like ‘Yeah,’ or ‘I just don’t want to pay for a four-year.’ I don’t think it’s actually meant, but the joke is there.”

Bill Schrier, a history teacher at CHS and former community college attendee himself, says that it was a long time before he was able to “appreciate that the path [he] had taken was not something to be ashamed of.” He says he was an abysmal high school student and did not go to community college until he was 23 years old. After community college, he attended law school, served in the Navy and became a lawyer and a federal prosecutor. Now as a teacher, he says he sometimes wonders if the academically competitive environment of CHS is always in every student’s best interests.

“I sit in meetings with teachers and staff and we talk a lot about the messages students get,” he says. “Sometimes they seem so counter-productive. I get that we set high expectations, but there is a difference between [high expectations] and leading someone to believe that their life is over if they don’t get into a good school.”

Senior Elizabeth Harrison, who will be attending MPC, shares a similar viewpoint. Like many others, she is interested in furthering her education at a much more affordable level by completing her general education requirements and then transferring to a four-year.

“A lot of people around here are convinced that [community college] is somehow a lesser option than a four-year because it’s cheaper and more accessible to the general public,” she explains. “We also seem to have this idea that people who go to community college are lazy or stupid, which is ridiculous. I just want to keep educating myself without accumulating massive amounts of debt.”

And in this day and age, debt is no benign matter. According to the New York Times, the average student debt was $23,300 in 2011, with the culmination of federal student loans being over $902 billion.

“I’m saving almost $100,000 just for my first two years by going to community college,” senior Rebekah Lamb says. “That’s a pretty big deal, especially if I want to go on to graduate school.”

Lamb says that not only will she be saving massive amounts of money by going to junior college first, but also simply feels as if she is not prepared to leave home and will have more time to mature and prepare herself for living on her own if she attends MPC.

“I think sometimes people go off to universities when they are not really ready to leave yet,” she notes. “In the last few weeks I’ve realized I’m not ready to leave yet either. In two years I think I will be at a more mature level.”

Despite how some may view community college, it seems that it is becoming an increasingly popular decision for those who wish to save money, and even those who simply are not ready to leave yet. Although the competitive environment of CHS as a whole can sometimes make it seem as if community college is looked down upon, many students have found support from family and friends.

“I think the people that really know you are going to support you and encourage you and think it’s a great idea,” Schrier says. “You just have to do what is right for you.”
-Sophie Robel