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Community College vs. University: A Personal Educational Discovery

Community college vs university

Editor’s Note:  What follows is a guest post by Samantha Raymond.  She contacted me out of the blue offering to write a guest post based on her personal experiences regarding choosing community college vs. university for higher education.  Upon meeting on Zoom, it became apparent that we not only share the Tufts connection, but a deep appreciation for the fact that education is what you make of it. I’m very happy to share her views with you.

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I Love Community College

If the metric for intelligence and success in our society is admission to a prestigious university, then we are failing a large majority of our students. I am currently a junior at Tufts University taking a “study elsewhere” semester at Montgomery County Community College (MC3). And I LOVE IT. During my brief time there, I have learned so much about myself, about the world, and the elitism that runs rampant in the college process. Even though we are in a pandemic and all of my classes were virtual, I learned so much and made such meaningful connections. Community college has a bad reputation, and most people (including me) never have the chance to realize just how wonderful it is.

Preparing for College: My Assumptions and My Stress

community college vs universityWhen I was applying to colleges, my list consisted of the top colleges in the country. The pressure to attend an Ivy League institution was astronomical. With each person I spoke to came the inevitable question, “What schools are you applying to? Penn? Brown?” Every influential figure in my life was preoccupied with the clout of an elite institution, including my teachers, my college counselor, and even my parents. I landed on Tufts as my dream school. I honestly believed that if I didn’t get into Tufts, my reputation and my future would be ruined. I refused to consider a back-up school and was adamant that Tufts (or a comparable school) was the only option for me. This colored my entire high school career. Every activity I did was with this goal in mind. Will this club make my application more appealing? Will getting a B be the end of my dreams?

My Elitism Was Showing

In high school, I never even considered community college as a viable educational option. I always believed that it was a last resort option for students who couldn’t get in anywhere else. Like many kids my age with my economic and social background, I bought into stereotypical representations of community college.

As I will explain, I no longer believe in these stereotypes. But I want to share from the outset that I still struggle internally with the idea that there is somehow a huge gulf of prestige between those who attend an elite college and those who attend a community college. I would like to say that if I could go back in time, that I would choose to go to community college for at least two years. But I cannot say that with certainty because I like being associated with Tufts. It gives me access to numerous opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. I feel pride in saying I got into a school with a low acceptance rate. My high school self would have been embarrassed to say that I was going to a community college. I would have felt like I “failed”.

I am writing this because I don’t want others to see community college like that, and I want students to be proud to go there. I am proud to go there. I believe that I would have been happy going to MC3 right out of high school. I would have had more financial freedom, and the ability to take different classes.

However, I have to recognize that internalized and externalized elitism are deeply rooted plagues in our society. On a conscious level, I make an effort to be aware of these internal stigmas and biases. And yet, my subconscious biases reared their ugly head again just last week. When someone asked me where I went to school, I immediately blurted out Tufts—even though currently, I don’t go to Tufts: I attend Montgomery County Community College. I was hoping to mooch off of Tufts’ stellar reputation, assuming it would signal to this person that I was intelligent. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t tell the complete truth. Biases die hard, I guess. But with each day and each new opportunity, I will continue to reduce my elitism. It’s a process, and in sharing with you, I invite you to begin that process with me.

College Costs: Is An Elite Education Worth It (Even Without Covid?)

My decision to go to community college was both practical and financial. With Tufts going entirely online, it didn’t make sense to me to pay so much for a campus experience I wasn’t going to get through a computer screen. My positive experience at MC3 has highlighted for me not only the enormous costs of my Tufts education, but also the enormous value of a community college education. I also understand—now more than ever—that my Tufts education is economically out of reach of most American families.

Tuition prices are not the only barriers to an elite education, however. There are so many financial barriers to college beyond the sticker price of attendance. In order to go to a prestigious institution, one must possess the right grades, the right standardized testing scores, and the right extracurriculars. It also helps to attend the “right” high schools. Each one of those components costs money: higher property taxes, good tutors, and parents willing to pay for private piano lessons and traveling sports teams.

community college vs Tufts universityFor some kids, getting exemplary grades in high school is challenging for numerous reasons. Some high school students have to work to help support their family, leaving less time to devote to studying. If one is taking care of their younger siblings or family members, they have less time to devote to studying. Some students have inadequate internet access, making it hard to study from home. Lower income kids with learning disabilities fall through the cracks of the public education system more easily. The unfortunate fact is that students with more financial resources can afford to spend more time focusing on their grades.

On top of that, success on standardized testing is unachievable to a large portion of students. Not only are there fees to take the test each time you decide to. But there is also the cost of tutoring or prep. And if a high school is poorly resourced, its students will likely be less prepared for those tests and will get lower scores—not because they aren’t smart, but because they cannot afford to get personalized help.

All of these obstacles mean that for a student without financial means, going to an elite institution is often out of reach. While we must work to reduce this opportunity gap, we also must acknowledge that prestigious institutions are a measure of socioeconomic status, which is often a prerequisite for academic success in America today.


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Community College Classes Are Rigorous

I am deeply ashamed to admit that when I signed up, I was convinced that MC3 would be a breeze. I was certain that the classes would be a walk in the park. I could not have been more wrong. My classes have been challenging and require a lot of effort and work. The fact is that learning a new subject requires effort, no matter the name of the school one attends. Learning is a function of the energy a student devotes to it. It doesn’t matter if that course is taught at Community College or Tufts. I was reading the same number of textbook chapters and doing the same amount of homework at Montgomery Community that I did at Tufts. The exams have been tough, and the assignments have been thought-provoking and interesting.

While I have enjoyed my Tufts education, I can tell you that not every learning experience has been perfect. I’ve learned a lot in all my classes, but I now understand that my learning is more about the work I do than the work the professor does. The idea that one will necessarily learn “more” in an elite institution is not the reality of how one learns. Of course, having a well-thought-out syllabus and creative assignments can help a student learn. But my point is that good instruction exists in both elite schools and community colleges. A student graduating from an elite school is not necessarily “better educated” than a student from a community college. It’s all about what one does with the opportunity at hand.

The Professors Are Awesome—and Accessible

It is a common misperception that prestigious schools offer small, intimate classes with consistent intellectual interaction with professors. This has not always been my experience at Tufts, but it has been this way at Montgomery Community. At Tufts, my introductory courses had hundreds of students. My professors for Intro to International Relations or Intro to Economics never learned my name. Realistically, they weren’t able to learn the names of the 100+ students in their classes. A lot of the professor-student relationship at Tufts is contingent on how much the student is willing to put into it. It requires numerous trips to office hours just to get to know professors, or it sitting front row in a lecture hall with 200 students and running up to talk to the professor as soon as the lecture end. I was never comfortable with raising my hand and turning around to see the expectant faces of my peers staring at me. I was also intimidated by my Tufts professors. I never wanted to ask a stupid question, or to waste their time.

By contrast, my introductory classes at Montgomery County Community College had ten or fifteen students. This allowed professors to get to know their students, to help them with specific questions, and to address their unique ways of learning. At MC3, I just had to show up and I got to know my professors. I felt comfortable participating and engaging with a smaller group of students, so we created a group rapport. I never went to office hours. Even in zoom classes, my teachers paid specialized attention to me.

It’s definitely true that smaller classes provide not only more support, but also encourage more rigor. In a small class, it’s impossible to hide in the back of the room. Students must show and be ready to participate. Students and professors engage with the material together—because they can. This intimacy also means that when you say the wrong answer, the class has time to review and discuss it, instead of hurrying along to the next raised hand. That encourages a growth mindset, instead of reinforcing a fixed mindset where failure is final. Learning is more collaborative and more fun.

I have attended Tufts for four semesters, and I have had two professors who know me. They have taken the time to invest in my success and connect with me on a more personal level. I’m incredibly appreciative of these relationships. By comparison, however, I have gone to MC3 for only one semester and I already have two professors who really know me very well—even over Zoom. They took the time to get to know me. My Spanish professor for instance, made it clear from our very first class that she cared about each and every single one of us. When teaching lessons, she integrated our interests into the curriculum. She knew that one girl loved cheerleading and one boy loved bowling. She used that knowledge to spark a debate about sports and explain to us what sports are most popular in Spanish culture. When we learned vocabulary for classroom elements, she would stop and ask me to explain what it feels like to live in a dorm, because she knew that I had lived in one at Tufts. She stayed after every class on zoom for questions, or concerns. She regularly checked in with us. She even made an effort to bring us joy with a virtual holiday sweater contest.

My Criminal Justice professor brought every single person into the discussion with her hilarious remarks and inviting nature. There was never a moment where I was afraid to ask a question, or to email her with my concerns, despite the fact that she has been an attorney for 32 years, and an instructor for over 30. Her accolades and unique experience could have made her intimidating, but instead, I wanted to learn more and more from her by way of asking questions. She encouraged us to have confidence in our answers and applauded our hard work. Without ever meeting with her outside of class, she got to know me. From day one at MC3, I felt accepted and connected to my peers and professor. That is a huge feat. I went to a new school that was completely virtual in the midst of a global pandemic, and I felt supported from the start.

And the Students Are Talented

I hate to admit it, but I assumed that my peers at community college would not be very smart. Again, I was wrong. And a number of my MC3 peers are some of the most brilliant people I have ever met. One of my new friends immigrated here and spoke French, she then learned English and Spanish while in the middle of a pandemic in a new country. I have taken French since the 2 nd grade, and I am still not fluent. Her ability to learn new languages astounds me. Another classmate is a firefighter. He has taught me so much about FEMA and Homeland Security. His knowledge and depth of understanding contributed so much to my learning in the small classroom environment, and I feel fortunate to have shared that class with him.

Community College Is Diverse In Every Way

As much as I love Tufts, we exist in a bubble there. Everyone is more or less the same age. Conversations about politics and real-world problems are largely limited to the points of view of the privileged. Liberal political views dominate the conversation. The school is predominantly white, with little racial diversity. I never really understood the depth of the lack of diversity in my learning environment until I went to Montgomery County Community College. There, I have been surrounded by people of all races. Having conversations about important social issues like race education, healthcare, etc. are incomplete without diverse points of view. It is problematic to talk about Black Lives Matter or racial profiling without centering and listening to Black and Brown voices. While I believe that there are efforts to diversify viewpoints at Tufts, these efforts sometimes place an undue burden on the shoulders of a small group of people.

Furthermore, at Montgomery Community, there are students of every age; high schoolers doing dual enrollment, 18-22-year olds, and adults with families. One of my new friends is in high school, and another is home with her daughter while juggling work and school. I met people who worked two or three jobs on top of school. Listening to their ideas and perspectives gave me a new understanding of the world. They bring life experiences that give them dynamic points of view. These experiences were not manufactured for the purpose of a resume or college essay. When we had discussion groups, I learned more from them than my textbooks.

Community College Educates VIPs

One of the most impactful moments of my experience was when my criminal justice professor asked the class about their views on crime and justice. There were several options of attitudes towards criminal justice that we could choose from. I thought this was an obvious answer. For me, rehabilitative justice and equal justice are the most important principles. I believe in the importance of second chances and fair treatment to everyone regardless of age, sexuality, race or religion. At Tufts, I am fairly certain that everyone has similar opinions. If they don’t, they are not very vocal about it.

However, some of my Montgomery Community classmates thought that the most important perspective of justice was the crime control perspective, a view shared by a lot of Americans. The crime control perspective maintains that public safety should supersede everything, and that law enforcement agents should have fewer legal restrictions on their actions. This viewpoint may justify the use of militaristic force or racial profiling to apprehend criminals and deter crime.

community college vs universityA first this discussion seemed very abstract. Then it dawned on me that many of my classmates were planning careers in law enforcement. This realization had a huge impact on me. My classmates, one way or another, are going to make a difference in my society, in my community.

My professor made it clear that all opinions were welcome, and she listened to all viewpoints. The welcoming environment kept the conversation honest and fostered understanding instead of hostility. When my professor talked about racial profiling, she showed clips of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) discussing how racial profiling has affected them in their lifetimes.

Do I believe that my classmates will go on to become police officers who never racial profile? No, but I do believe that without this course, they would not have understood it in this way from the perspectives of those who are racially profiled. Montgomery Community educates everyday leaders like police officers. The education of these members of our community is integral to a functioning society. These leaders represent the values and the morality of a community, and their work informs America. Community Colleges are accessible, affordable institutions that educate very important people in the community. They serve as vehicles for Americans to achieve–and make possible–the American Dream.

Community Colleges Care About Their Students (but for different reasons)

Montgomery Community also goes the extra effort to support their students as an institution. When I did well on a test or in a class, I would receive an email from the school congratulating me. The administration frequently gave me encouraging feedback. This positive reinforcement made me work harder because I was so proud to be acknowledged for my devotion to my studies. MC3 sent me stickers in the mail just because they, “thought my mailbox could use a little shimmer.” I mean, how nice is that?

When I enrolled in MC3 classes for the coming semester, I decided that I wanted to take extra credits. The process to petition for courses is more complicated at Montgomery Community than other institutions. I emailed the academic dean to ask to petition for an overload. Within one day, we had a meeting scheduled. Within one week, I was on the phone with her. The dean talked through my decision with me, reviewed my classes, asked me about my extracurriculars, and then granted my request. That type of personalized support is invaluable. At MC3, the administration is investing me in me and my peers. Montgomery County Community College sees itself not as a provider of services, but as an investor in the next generation of leaders in the community. College is often the first time that some students are on their own, making decisions that impact their future and their life without the involvement of their parents, guardians, or counselors. This personalized support from MC3 makes students feel less alone in their college journey and reminds them that the college is actively invested in their success. With that investment, these colleges instill a passion and an excitement for learning in their students.

A New Perspective on Education

I’ve spent a single semester at Montgomery Community, and I am excited to be enrolled for a second. I wrote this piece because I wanted to share my revelation with others who may not fully appreciate the value and the quality of community colleges.

My perception of education has changed. I realized that success is not solely dependent upon admission to a selective, private college like Tufts. Success is the result of hard work and tenacity. The students at MC3 have those qualities in spades, which is why I look forward to seeing the amazing things my new classmates—my friends–accomplish in their lives.

I wish that I hadn’t spent years of my life judging others for where they went to college. I wish that I hadn’t considered myself smarter just because I had the resources to go to Tufts. But I did. I can’t change my past behavior, but I am proud to have found a new perspective, and to actively work to combat my elitism. I am proud to be a Tufts Jumbo and I feel grateful and privileged to be able to go there. Now, I am equally grateful and privileged to be a Montgomery County Community College Mustang!

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Samantha Raymond is a junior at Tufts University and Montgomery County Community College studying International Relations and French. She is passionate about her volunteer work with Best Buddies, Unreasonable Kids College, and Matriculate. Currently quarantining at home, Samantha spends her time attending remote classes and writing her personal blog, OurMainPurpose.com.  You also can visit her LinkedIn profile.

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