“So, where’s your kid going?”
I used to wince every time I heard these words. Some part of me felt a degree of shame, I think, even though everything was going exactly as planned. Whenever I explained my post-secondary plans, I always felt as though I was being judged. As though people assumed that I was falling back on a safety school because I hadn’t been accepted anywhere else. As it turns out, the community college down the street from my mother’s home was the only place I had applied. I knew what I wanted from the very beginning, and I knew how I was going to get there - even if many of the closest people in my life didn’t quite share my vision.
As an admissions counselor for Berkshire Community College, I feel lucky to help provide
others with the same level of opportunity that I was given. The community college
system of Massachusetts set me up for life; in more ways than one, that’s the reason
I’m here. Of course, community college isn’t for everybody. But the fact of the matter
is that most of us aren’t going to get a full scholarship to a prestigious university.
Before you put yourself in a new home’s worth of debt, (or more), it’s worth your
time at least to consider an alternative.
When you’re eighteen years old, it’s nearly impossible to wrap your head around the idea of a Master Promissory Note. Without ever having had to deal with a mortgage or a car payment, how are you expected to imagine the difference between a 40k loan and a 140k loan? Reality only sets in when your creditors come to collect.
Let me give you a real-life example of the difference community college can make: while I was enrolled in community college, my best friend got accepted directly into a private four-year institution. Both of us worked full-time (mostly) throughout our undergraduate careers. And while she graduated with a bachelor’s in four years, I took four years to earn my associate degree – I withdrew from the college three different times and changed my major twice. Fast forward seven years: despite paying for three extra semesters that I didn’t complete and taking countless unnecessary courses, I’m barely in any debt. My monthly payment is under $60, while my best friend’s falls just shy of $900. When you put it that way, the difference is striking: my student loans cost me about as much as my electric bill, and hers cost more than I pay in rent.
Thanks to some older friends, by the time I reached my junior year of high school I already knew about a state-wide program in Massachusetts called MassTransfer. Here’s how it works: first, you spend two years at a public community college somewhere in the Commonwealth. If you earn your associate degree and maintain a certain GPA, you’re guaranteed admission into any state school – whether UMass Amherst, Salem State, or MassArt. Your credits are guaranteed to transfer. Best of all, if you can keep that GPA up for your first two semesters in the four-year institution, your tuition is waived. If you’re willing to commit to do all of this within a certain time frame, there are even more benefits to reap. (I should mention that many other states have similar programs, too). So now you’re saving even more money, plus you never have to do the whole dog and pony show to get in. You show up at that public university and tell them you go there. And then you do. Bear in mind: when you transfer into that university, totally crush it, and graduate with honors - your degree doesn’t say anything about having gone to a community college first. You get the same bachelor’s degree as everybody else, plus you have an associate degree to add some more meat to the education section of your resume. In other words, you’re getting two degrees for half the price of one (or even less). Most credits are the same – community colleges are just more affordable.
Here in the Berkshires, that’s an especially salient quality. Many local students require substantial financial assistance, often coming in the form of loans. Rather than simplifying the borrowing process, we should be trying to reduce that borrowing as much as possible. If the increase in a graduate’s income is completely engulfed by monthly loan payments, one begins to wonder whether that education was worth it. Two-year institutions are a way to sidestep much of education’s financial burden.
And let’s get something clear: there’s an old saying, “You get what you pay for.” Well, as far as community colleges go, I’d argue that you get way more than what you pay for. You get unparalleled support services, as noted by the Atlantic as well as a 2017 New York Times article titled, aptly, “Revised Data Shows Community Colleges Have Been Underappreciated”. (Fun fact: the cover photo for the NYT article features graduates from right here at BCC!) You get a stellar education: many of my community college professors gained their expertise by working in their discipline for years before teaching, rather than going directly into academia after earning a Ph.D. They are dedicated, passionate professionals who understand what it’s like to work in your field. Because they’ve been there. And they’re here to help you get there, too.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that, “[C]ommunity college students who transfer to selective four-year institutions perform as well as—or better than—their peers who enrolled directly from high school. The graduation rates of community college transfer students match or exceed those of students who start at four-year institutions as freshmen. Community college students graduate at higher rates than students who transfer from other four-year institutions” (2019). Community colleges set students up for success. I took advantage of the MassTransfer system, but community colleges have articulation agreements with private universities, too – yes, even the “elite” universities.
This is why I love what I’m doing. For me, it's not just a job. It’s a way to help people improve their lives without shackling themselves to a federally authorized loan shark. It’s a better shot at upward mobility, and not just for those who already come from a privileged background. We’re here to help everybody – community colleges are open access institutions. (Community is our middle name, right?) I’d be remiss not to mention that part of my job involves recruiting new students for my college, but understand me: this essay isn’t some clever marketing tactic. I genuinely believe that community college is the best option for most people, and not taking them seriously is costing us big time. We need to end the stigma. Because you really can earn a degree in something you love without borrowing your way into serfdom.
T.J. Karis is a proud graduate of Middlesex Community College in Bedford, MA. After moving on to receive his B.A. in Philosophy and English literature, he is now working as an admissions counselor for Berkshire Community College. This article ran in the Op_ed section of the Berkshire Eagle on July 26, 2020.