Community College As A Pathway to Lower Student Loan Debt
Student loan debt was on the mind of nearly everyone I chatted with the morning of March 21, 2019 (Higher Education Advocacy Day) at the Statehouse as I headed to the offices of my State Representatives to speak about the need for increased funding to public higher education. One student in her second year at UMass Amherst told me she was already carrying $20K in loans, and had just signed on to $15K more. Another student at Fitchburg State University was going to graduate in May with $35K in student loans. Even the Chief-of-Staff of my State Representative said her student load debt was such that her dream of going on to graduate school is all but at an end because she cannot incur any more debt.
Then at lunch I happened to sit at a table with two Journalism students from Cape Cod Community College. After we all listened to a speaker talk about her $60K student loan, one of the young woman said, “I’m so glad I’m going to a community college. I’m not going to have any debt when I graduate before I transfer to UMass.” Her friend concurred and said that she wondered why more people didn’t go to community college. She feels she has gotten an excellent education at CCCC and was ready to become an ambassador advocate for community colleges in the high schools to help others lower their student load burden
Completing a degree at one of the 15 community colleges before transferring to a state university or UMass was something I had brought up with the young man graduating from FSU as a way he could have cut his debt in half or even eliminated altogether because there was so much funding support for community college transfer students that is not available to those coming straight from high school. I thought he was going to say something in response like, “I didn’t really want to go to a community college.” Instead he said, “I never thought of doing that. No one ever told me it was a possibility.”
Amazingly, community college transfer is still a secret. In the world of ever-increasing student loan debt, it is a secret with not only economic, but moral and social justice, implications as well. Many of the Commonwealth’s young people can right now cut their debt in half or more if they begin their 4-year undergraduate degree in one of the community colleges of Massachusetts. They don’t have to wait for that day in the hopeful future, after they have incurred their debt, when legislation is passed to make public higher education debt free. To be sure, debt-free higher education is a worthy goal but, for now, it is still a pie-in-the-sky dream when measured against the nightmare of loan statements detailing a 20-year plan of loan repayment before one have even settled into one’s first post-college job.
So why has community college as a pathway to lower student debt been such a secret? Two reasons: ignorance and snobbery. Parents, counselors, even people within the community colleges themselves are unaware of the existence of high quality programs such as, to hear the students tell it, Journalism at CCCC. They are unaware of the agreements that exist between the Community Colleges and the public four-year universities that allow students to transfer seamlessly into the four-year institutions. And they are unaware of the myriad merit- and need-based funding opportunities that exist for community college students that are not available to students coming directly from high school.
Then there is the snobbery, which is constantly reinforced by the punchline politics of higher education: some public figure does not understand something? They must have gone to a community college. It is this superficial perception of cachet, or the lack thereof, that is at the heart of the college admissions bribery scandal that has shaken the world of higher education. Parents apparently will go to criminal lengths to have their children connected to a “prestigious” higher education institution
Things need to change now. Continuing to indulge our pretentious leanings while we burden young people with crushing debt is unsustainable. We need to persistently counter the jokes and erroneous narratives that contribute to the negative perception of our community colleges. High school counselors and parents need to be better educated about the transfer options and funding opportunities at our community colleges. For the sake of our future it is time to become truly proud of our community’s two-year public colleges