Last month, The Century Foundation released its recommendations for improving community colleges. The report noted that while 81.4 percent of students entering community college say that they want to get a four-year degree, only 11.6 percent actually do so. We've asked several community college graduates to share their real-world experiences. This piece comes from Drew Petterson.
I’ve been asked a lot about my time at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC). I often sum up my experience jokingly with an anecdote I once heard about prison:
You do two days in there, the day you go in and the day you go out. You just have to get your mind right for the rest of them.
The complete honest truth, however, goes much deeper than that.
Looking back on my time as a PVCC student I can see that it truly was a community college. My hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, is a town rich in history, and serves as the urban hub for the residents of the sprawling rural communities nestled in the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
The appeal of PVCC transcends the region’s subcultures. Among its students you can find farm kids, town kids, the children and grandchildren of the first black students to attend my elementary school, and students who share their family names with many of the towns, counties, and hamlets of Central Virginia. PVCC unites all who call central Virginia home.
Although it shares a city with one of the nation’s elite public research universities, PVCC remains a popular option, in part because its price tag is far lower than that of the University of Virginia—lower in fact than all the surrounding four-year schools.
But that price tag is relative.
While it is true that tuition at a community college is a mere fraction of that at a four-year institution, the financial burden of the typical community college student is often very different from that their counterparts at four-year institutions. PVCC students do not fit the archetype of the typical backpack-toting, football-game-attending, 18-24 year-old college kid who goes home to their parents' house in the summer. My classmates were often at least working at a part time job to subsidize their own education. Many had children, and a large number were returning soldiers from overseas. These were students more familiar with challenges than privileges.
Perhaps that’s why only 18 percent of PVCC students go on to earn a degree.
Statistically speaking, I was one of the lucky ones. I ended up being fortunate enough to earn an associate arts degree degree after four semesters. This fall, I’ll be heading off to Mary Washington, a nearby liberal arts university, where I was recently accepted into the economics program as a transfer student.
While PVCC remains a both racially and culturally diverse, there is one dimension along which the student body is increasingly homogeneous: socio-economic status. Most of my classmates were poor, and many came from families in which few (if any) had preceded them in college.
Community college can still be prohibitively expensive when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and class time can seem a luxury when you’re choosing between studying and raising your children. And while financial aid is available, navigating the process is difficult. Too often it’s the case that the more in need you are, the less-equipped you are at clearing all the bureaucratic hurdles.
Community colleges need financial aid services that cater specifically to those that need them most. Families with little background in the higher education process need clear, cohesive instructions, and outreach if they are to navigate the murky waters of FAFSA forms and registration deadlines. Lessening the burden of financial and bureaucratic stress, would free students to focus on what really matters:
Getting students through the day they go in and the day they come out.