Cabe column: The virtues of community colleges
With graduation in the air and in light of Colorado Mountain College’s 50th anniversary, I’ve had community college on the brain.
Though CMC does offer five bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees, non-credit continuing education classes are its staples. And the flexible, innovative nature of CMC represents the spirit of community colleges much more than that of four-year schools.
I earned an associate of arts from Rock Valley College in 2011, which I’m very proud of today, but at the time of enrollment in 2009, I was less than thrilled.
I was 17 and thought I knew how the world worked. “Mom, everyone takes out a ton in loans for college!” I wailed on more than one occasion, completely ignorant of how crippling the paying back of those loans would become for my generation.
I wanted to go to a big public university straight out of high school. I wanted to lose myself in masses of strangers and find myself on the other side of four years. I wanted to be out of my parents’ house and living in dorms, reveling in the freedom I had only heard about from older friends.
Instead, because my mom is one of the most financially responsible people I’ve ever met (and not one to give in to my whining), I enrolled in Rock Valley College and continued living in my childhood home.
But in no time at all, I found that not only had I stopped complaining about having to attend community college, but I was actually singing its praises.
Through my time at Rock Valley, I visited Washington, D.C., with Student Government Association; wrote features for the student newspaper; took audio and video production classes in the nicest facilities I’ve seen on any college campus to this day; attended a college magazine conference in New York City; took courses from instructors with Ph.D.s with about 10-30 other students in each class; played saxophone in jazz band and performed a concert with Jeff Coffin (the saxophonist in Dave Matthews Band); met and befriended nontraditional students who changed my perception of the world — I could go on all day.
The kicker is, I paid about $90 per credit, and because I won various small scholarships, I had to pay almost nothing out of pocket for my first two years of college.
I went on to Northern Illinois University and graduated with my bachelor’s. At that point, because of other scholarships and making modest out-of-pocket payments, I had a total of $6,000 in student loan debt. In comparison, the average 25-year-old has about $20,000 in loans at graduation.
I did go on to earn a master’s degree from Syracuse University, where each credit hour costs more than 15 times what I paid at Rock Valley College, so I joined the average pretty quickly. But having gone to community college allowed me to accumulate that extra debt to get an advanced degree. Without community college, I never would have taken on that financial burden.
Cost may seem like an obvious, close-ended benefit of community colleges, but their affordability causes something deeper to happen on those campuses. I believe community colleges are the last formal institutions that allow learning for learning’s sake. Yes, most community college enrollees are there to earn some sort of degree or certificate, but there’s also the opportunity for students of all ages to take classes for the sake of learning something new. And there is value in that.
Four-year colleges and universities, in some ways, have turned into mills. Students enroll with a career in mind and take classes they need to earn a degree that will get them a job in the field they’ve chosen. That’s great. I did that, and I think most would agree it’s good to have trained professionals in the world.
But it’s also good to have thinkers. It’s good to have people who believe in the value of learning and that an educated, well-rounded public leads to a better society overall.
Learning for learning’s sake requires accessibility, and four-year schools don’t provide that anymore. It would be insane for someone to take classes at most four-year colleges and universities just for the heck of it. We need to have a payoff in the end because we’re paying so much out initially.
But community colleges, and Colorado Mountain College, allow for learning. Community colleges are places where all kinds of people with all kinds of goals can come together to learn and grow.
Personally, I’ve taken a law class and a ceramics class from CMC even though I have a master’s degree, because I like learning new things. I feel very grateful to live near an institution that allows for that.
Congratulations, graduates. I hope that, just like me, you’ve come to realize how lucky you are.
Jessica Cabe is a former Post Independent arts and entertainment editor.
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