Is There Stigma Surrounding Community College?

Education is for everyone, but do we end up judging everyone's education?

I never gave community college a chance. After getting rejected from UCLA, my lifelong dream school, I “settled” and committed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Fortunately, I’ve loved my time at Cal Poly and I honestly can’t imagine myself at any other school, including UCLA. However, my dreams of donning blue and gold were put to rest because I rashly eliminated the community college route from my choices, and I don’t think I’m the only person who’s fallen victim to this.

Society has ingrained in the minds of many a traditional view of a student’s trajectory that consists of elementary school, middle school, high school, college at a 4-year university, and earning a job after graduation. However, there are other viable paths that offer great value, like community college, which offers more affordable, quality education tailored around the individual. Unfortunately, community college isn’t what society views as desirable, which can lead to students not considering it as an option, or students who do attend community college dealing with feelings of shame.

Society has ingrained in the minds of many a traditional view of a student’s trajectory that consists of elementary school, middle school, high school, college at a 4-year university, and earning a job after graduation.

“Some students, especially in the Asian community, can feel stigmatized about making that choice [to go to community college],” said Lena Kobayashi, a college counselor and application reader for University of California Irvine. “In friend groups where their friends are very competitive and are getting into very selective schools, it can be hard to swallow your pride and say that I’m choosing to take the community college route.”

Although community college is seen as far inferior in comparison to 4-year universities, there are pros and cons with every educational opportunity. Community college’s negative reputation shouldn’t invalidate it as an option in the eyes of students. Most people get caught up in what they think going to community college says about a person, while in reality, those stereotypes are just stereotypes.

“Understanding what community college can actually do for people is really important,” said Katie Mitani, a former student at El Camino Community College. “There’s the constant stigma of ‘you’re not going to end up with a good job if you go to community college’ or ‘you’re not going to make any money’, but a lot of times, the stigma is there because people don’t know anything else about it.”

Everyone that chooses the community college route does so for different reasons. As Kobayashi points out, some students attend community college because they’re not yet sure what they want to study, so they want the time to explore. Not everyone develops at the same rate, so some are still working on their academic skills and aren’t ready for a 4-year college yet. Others may be dealing with financial issues, health issues, family commitments, or even military service, and then there are those who view community college as a means to transfer to their 4-year college of choice. Ultimately, community college is a more accommodating route that allows students to achieve their goals, and this was certainly the case for Ryan Higashi, a transfer student at UCLA from Los Angeles Pierce College.

Most people get caught up in what they think going to community college says about a person, while in reality, those stereotypes are just stereotypes.

After getting his acceptance deferred to Cal State Northridge during the summer of his senior year, Higashi chose to attend Pierce, a nearby community college. Though it took him two and a half years to take all of the classes he needed to satisfy UCLA’s requirements, this journey not only helped him get into his dream school, but also helped him grow along the way.

“I had a very poor work ethic prior to community college, so I was able to fix my work ethic and prepare myself for what a 4-year university would be like,” said Higashi. “The rigor of [community college] isn’t the same as that of a 4-year university, but it was also a good transition because it kind of is like high school. It’s a much easier transition from being dependent to not fully independent so that you’re ready to be on your own once you transfer to a 4-year.”

There are many other benefits that community college has to offer, including the much more reasonable cost of classes as previously mentioned and the higher transfer admissions rates to different universities. There is a state mandate that gives priority to California community college students over transfers from 4-year institutions, and there are even transfer admission guarantee plans that allow you to transfer from a California community college to one of six UC’s (Irvine, Merced, Davis, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz). 

As beneficial as community college can be, it only matters if students take advantage of it.

“You can kind of tell the kids that are trying to go [to a 4-year university] and the ones who are there just because, and I think that’s part of where that stigma comes from surrounding community college,” said Higashi. “Community college is a bit dangerous because if you mess up at community college, you’re done. I started to realize that when I was there, like this is my last chance to do well and go to a good school.”

This greater risk may be the reason why many parents are against community college. On top of dealing with the lack of prestige of a community college, parents may be uneasy with the potential for their kids to get sidetracked and not get a college degree. 

As a student who went through the college process myself, parental support is so important in helping us get to where we need to be. For some families, this may mean being open-minded to the prospect of community college.

“My parents were actually the ones who convinced me to go this route,” said Mitani, who also ended up transferring to UCLA. “My friends in high school and their parents were putting pressure on me to stay and finish high school normally and go to a 4-year, but my parents saw that it was the more logical decision to go to community college. I’m definitely glad that I took their advice because I think it worked out really well.”

The community college experience and the 4-year university experience have their differences, but we can’t continue to elevate the latter over the former. In our comparison-heavy society, it’s easy to look down on others who aren’t attending an institution as prestigious as ours. Admittedly, there are many benefits that 4-year universities offer that community colleges don’t. However, it shouldn’t be that students like Higashi or Mitani are shamed for the educational path that they’re on.

The community college experience and the 4-year university experience have their differences, but we can’t continue to elevate the latter over the former.

“I think people are starting to realize that [community college] is a realistic route that people can take, but that stigma for whatever reason still exists and people automatically assume that you’re stupid or not on track,” said Higashi.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all path to getting an education, and if we can all keep that in mind, we might be able to dismantle the stigma surrounding community college and give validation to students who explore this option.

“I’m not saying community college is the perfect route for everyone,” said Mitani. “I think it’s a really reasonable route and unfortunately, it’s not talked about enough to where people see it as a viable option. High school students should look into it as an option if it’s something that can be beneficial for them. If not, don’t judge other people if that’s their decision.”

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