If you follow higher education news, or if you have a high school graduate in your family, you’ve probably been hearing a lot on social media about what the next class of high school seniors plan to do next year, through the hashtags #BetterMakeRoom and #ReachHigher. This is because May 1 was College Signing Day, which celebrates the choice that about three million diverse and motivated students across the country are making to attend college in the year ahead.
Often overlooked among those students—especially in the images we see on social media—are the 34 percent of undergraduates who attend community college. These students reflect America as it is today: According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 29 percent of community college students are the first generation of their family to attend college, 15 percent are single parents, and 52 percent are students of color.
College Signing Day celebrates students’ achievements to bridge the college access gap, especially for first-generation students and students of color. Given the importance of community colleges to this mission, we wanted to share the stories of some Aspen Institute colleagues who attended community college.
Rachel James completed an associate’s degree at Broward College (BC) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then transferred to Florida Atlantic University, where she received a bachelor’s in communication studies. While at Broward, Rachel worked for the college’s Office of Advancement and the Broward College Foundation. “In Student Life and the BC Foundation, there was always something exciting going on,” Rachel said. “From raising money for scholarships at our Golf Classic to organizing beach clean-ups, being involved in all of these activities made me a well-rounded student!”
Rachel, who supports leadership development initiatives at CEP and is finishing her master’s in higher education at George Washington University, attributes much of her growth and success to her experience at BC. She is only half-joking when she tells people that BC raised her. “When I think about where I am today, I couldn’t have done it without the support of my former colleagues and advisors,” she said. “Each one of them recognized my potential and pushed me forward. Because of them, I was able to turn my adversities into my advantage. I’m so grateful to call these individuals my mentors, and they are always a call or text away!”
Amy attended Austin Community College (ACC) off and on in the early to mid-1980s. Classes that ACC held in central Texas high schools provided her the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge, particularly in office technology, that helped her earn a higher wage while still in high school.
After graduating high school, Amy immediately went to the University of Texas at Austin but became overwhelmed and left after the first semester. “I kept plugging away at college courses [at ACC] semester by semester while I worked and got up the gumption to return to university,” Amy said.
This is the story of many students: They’re considered ready for four-year college, but in reality, may not be fully prepared for bigger class sizes, academic demands, or other realities of the transition. For Amy, studying at ACC, where she had small classes on a more flexible schedule, allowed her to build the confidence to return to university and go on to complete her master’s in community and regional planning.
After graduating from high school, Jennifer completed one semester at a community college, then took a few years off to work. She went back a few years later and finished her associate’s degree in business administration in 1988 at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC).
“The community college was good for me,” Jennifer said, “because when I finished high school I simply wasn’t ready for four years of college.” When she was ultimately ready for higher education, she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being several years older than her fellow freshmen at a four-year school—whereas the average age of community college students is 28. “Had a good community college not been available, I would probably not have gone back to school at all,” she said.
At ACC, Jennifer’s professors provided a great deal of help and encouragement. “It was the first time I felt like I was really learning and being encouraged to challenge myself,” she said. “…For a young person who wasn’t interested in school, community college was the perfect path for me, and it really prepared me to step up to finish my four-year degree,” which she did at the University of Baltimore in 1990.
After high school, Jonathan Melgaard received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota. While working in a fellowship at a private family foundation in Fargo, North Dakota, he was sent to the Aspen Ideas Festival as a professional development opportunity. While there, he met a video production professor at the local community college, Colorado Mountain College. Jonathan had been dabbling in videography and motion graphics and was looking for ways to integrate this passion into his career.
He was hesitant—at times even embarrassed—to attend a community college. But, as he shared in a Facebook post on his graduation day, he is proud of his associate’s degree and “reminded that education comes in many forms and sometimes in untraditional routes.”
He continued, “I stood with 200 of my fellow classmates, who come from diverse and dynamic backgrounds, as we turned out tassels from right to left. These students represented disciplines from veterinary technology to early childhood education, and were able to get skilled up quickly and affordably through CMC … There are many other technical and alternative avenues for people to learn and become skilled. My hope is that we as a society start to value these alternatives just as much as a four-year bachelor’s degree.”
Today, Jonathan is working for the very program that started this journey for him, the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he puts the skills he learned in his program to use.
These stories tell us there is no typical community college student; the only thing typical about them is their desire to pursue higher education that is the best fit for them. Let’s continue to celebrate community college students, encourage them, and invest in them as we strive to create a stronger and more equitable society.