Why I'm Pitching Community College to My Kids

I kissed my ego goodbye.

Community college can make a parent uneasy, and for good reason. Translation: Josie majors in living at home, smoking pot, befriending dropouts, and general mediocrity. It makes my teeth hurt to think my kids might go that route. You're lying if you don't feel the same way. Now that I think about it, my buttocks even clench a little bit, too. But why?

A) I don't want my kids to “settle”, even if they don't have a specific career goal.

I see Josie's potential. At 17 she's proven herself to be kind and intelligent, she has a wonderful work ethic, and is eager to learn new things. If I had it my way, she'd already be in a doctoral program at UNC developing new ways to excavate dinosaur bones. But she doesn't dream like that, she's a little special that way.

She wants a certain lifestyle, not a certain career or title. She works hard and likes working hard. She lives well, and likes living well. Her aspirations are every bit as ambitious as Hilary Clinton's, but they don't look the same.

My first step: be ok with that

B) We have egos, and we have a hard time admitting it.

I thought high school was socially difficult. I was well-liked, but all the eyes and whispers and rumors unnerved me. Parenting is orders of magnitude more difficult for the same reasons. You've probably said these things, just like I have: “I wouldn't let my kids do that” or “Billy knows when I tell him to put the iPad down I mean it” or “Tristan is never allowed outside without shoes.” This kind of shaming puts paranoid eyes in the back of my head, and I'm constantly wondering if my kids are keeping up with their peers. Whatever that means.

Psychologically speaking, we peer reference every minute of every day. It's how we get better as a society. But here's the kicker – I've had enough of parents who can't turn down the narcissism enough to ever shut up about A) Billy's loving his sophomore year at Wake Forest, or B) Jessica's master's degree is shaping up nicely at UNC...let me never stop talking about how proud I am and never stop living through both of them.

Then, when I say, “Susie's almost done with her dental hygiene associate's degree at Local City Technical College,” why is there this urge in me to defend her, and by extension, defend myself? Susie is as bright as bright gets. She just wants a lifestyle where she works 4 days a week with 80k and good benefits instead of an esquire on her desk's golden nameplate.

I know why I get defensive, and I know why many parents share the same anxiety I do. We're all competitive – all trying to keep up with the Joneses. But I'm over it now, at least intellectually.

My second step: acknowledge my kids' lives as their own.

And if community college is the best track for dreams I might not understand, have at it.

I realize now that stigmas, just like cliches and stereotypes, exist for a reason. But when it comes to community college, I'm wrong. Here's why:

1) Community colleges are orders of magnitude cheaper than 4 year public or private universities.

In 2004 my advisor in high school told me not to worry about student loans. “It's the cheapest money out there right now. This is an investment in your future.” She was kind of right, but all I know is this: I went to a private school, had good scholarships, and was an RA for 2 years – only to graduate with an irrelevant degree and 25k in debt I'm still paying off. The year I graduated was the same year you could get a mortgage for less than half my student loan interest rate. Granted, nobody could predict this and it was my decision. I don't regret it.

But the world is changing. The US needs quality, skilled people now. It's becoming less and less critical to go to an important school and leave with an important piece of paper to be somebody important. The College Board calculates that an in-district community college costs a student an average of $3,347 a year. That's food for thought when a 4-year in- state university averages $9,139, a 4-year university out-of-state averages $22,958, and private 4- year universities average $31,231. Ouch.

2) Real life skills will always be more reliable than degrees.

My dad wasn't around much growing up, and when I was 14 a family friend of ours taught me how to tile our kitchen and bathroom floors. He had MS before the medications were as effective as they are now, so he couldn't do it for me. There was no class or seminar, he just coached me sternly while I worked. When I finished the floors after 2 days he said one simple thing to me, “Now that you know how to do this, you'll never go hungry.” Our friend Len is greatly missed.

He gave me a unique kind of education – learn by doing, develop a skill, get your hands cold and dirty, enjoy the satisfaction of hard work. And I did. In a recent Huffington Post article, Thad Baker expertly outlines why employers are starting to value experience just as much as a degree. He says, “...future employers – in a variety of fields – feel that real-world experience is the only thing standing between some graduates and their dream jobs.” He's right, and few realize that community colleges offer incredible degrees and hands-on training in the most needy, lucrative, and reliable fields. A 2 year school qualifies young adults for an additional 2 years of real life experience and income. In my mind, that's better than most Bachelor's degrees.

3) STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, and math) are in the highest demand.

Businesses and organizations are desperate for quality people with STEM training and experience, and STEM industries are only going to grow more in our technological age. The National Science Foundation reports that “the number of workers in S&E [Science and Engineering] occupations grew from about 182,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million in 2009. This represents an average annual growth rate of 5.9%, much greater than the 1.2% growth rate for the total workforce older than age 18 during this period.” If that's not a statistic worthy of our attention, I don't know what is.

A unique benefit to community college is the hands on experience it incorporates into the educational process, and it doesn't matter who you are. You can get practical experience in a high-paying, high-in-demand field with large percentages of graduates finding gainful employment months after graduating – all at around half the cost/time of a four year institution. I'm starting to have regrets now.

But community college isn't a no-brainer. It's just a fantastic option to consider if we can get over ourselves a bit. My peers and I were never too sure what we wanted to be when we grew up. We didn't realize we were adults already, making adult decisions and living with the consequences.

I often wonder why choosing a certain college can feel like a black hole for many young students. They get stuck and wonder if changing their major 12 times will help them discover that vocational purpose they've been looking for – all while racking up a bunch of debt and liver damage. Community colleges seem like a good alternative to learn well, learn practical, and make some money in the process of finding the right dream.

Are your kids attending community college? Did you? What did you think about it?

This entry was posted in: Family, Life Lessons, Parenting, and Education

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