The American education system, when it works, is a place for second chances. No matter how far down you have fallen, education should provide the means to pull yourself up.

Throughout high school I felt suffocated by controlled classroom environments, inflexible curricula, and a lack of autonomy. I fell behind in math and chemistry classes, often in spite of the best efforts of dedicated teachers. My true passions for argument and politics were compressed into extracurricular speech and debate at the end of a long and exhausting school day. I left high school with a dissonant resume: tremendous success in speech but a pitiful academic GPA.

My second chance came from Southeastern Illinois College (SIC), a small community college in Harrisburg, Illinois.

SIC provided me the opportunity to reboot my GPA and attain a fresh start. I attended SIC on a speech team scholarship and worked for Walmart to cover the cost of my rent. My mentors and speech coaches, Dr. Jonah Rice and Paul Cummins, possessed a willingness to hash out ideas with a college freshman for hours on end, day after day.

In high school, my opportunities to work one-on-one with my debate coaches were limited to the end of the day. At SIC, I worked with my mentors on a regular basis. In the process, I honed my skills as a speaker and as a speechwriter while deepening my understanding of politics. With their help, I was able to transfer to a selective four-year university.

Community college introduced me to the rhythms and expectations of higher education. I experienced a different sort of education, where students have the respect and freedom to explore their interests. I could perform well in courses such as mathematics, physics, and biology when my schedule opened up and my class sizes shrank to accommodate my unique learning style.

These are not traits of SIC in particular; I likely would have had a similar experience at most college or university programs. But without an accessible, free, and highly effective form of higher education that was close to home, I never would have known that higher education differed so dramatically from the oppressive high school environment.

Unfortunately, as The Century Foundation’s report Bridging the Higher Education Divide demonstrates, too few community college students have the rich experience I did.

  • Too few have the built-in community and support system that my speech team provided for me.
  • Too few have the opportunity to work with students with different backgrounds and experiences.
  • Too few have access to responsive mentors who cultivate their talents on a daily basis.
  • Too few have the guidance they need to flourish in a college environment that is far less structured than high schools.

In short, too few students have the second chance to cultivate their talents and find an academic culture that works for them.

Let us treat the growing awareness of these shortcomings as a second chance for our system of higher education. It is up to our policymakers to develop a robust community college system that guarantees these opportunities to all students.