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 Lindsay Moore.
I have a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge. This fall, I will be returning to graduate school at Harvard University. But there was a time not long ago when I never imagined having these opportunities.
As with many community college students, my circuitous path to a four-year degree started long before I set foot in a college classroom.
My high school was the inspiration for the 1995 film, Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays a former Marine whose unconventional teaching methods inspire her students to take their education more seriously. Unfortunately, the only thing left of Michelle Pfeiffer in my high school was a black and white poster in a vandalized hallway trophy case. As a freshman, my thoughts were consumed with which hallways to avoid, what colors not to wear, and how to keep a low profile.
I went from loving school to becoming physically ill just by stepping on campus. By my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher announced to my class that I didn’t have what it takes to go to college and advised me to drop out of high school.
Community college was my second chance.
I spoke with administrators at both my high school and the College of San Mateo—my local community college. I proposed what was at the time an unorthodox idea: I would enroll in community college to obtain the credits I needed to graduate from high school.
Concurrent enrollment wasn’t a completely new idea in my school district, but it was generally reserved for seniors who wanted to take one class to gain college credit. It was not designed for a sophomore who wanted to spend the majority of her time in community college. Eventually, however, they agreed: I could take most of my classes in community college so long as I continued to take two classes at my high school.
I wish I could say that everything was smooth sailing from that point on. But I was young, and I made all the mistakes you might expect of a desperate fifteen-year-old thrown into a college environment with little-to-no guidance.
Over time, my grades and my academic confidence improved. I finished my high school diploma on time, and then my associate’s degree. I earned A’s in my final eight classes at the College of San Mateo. I was ready to take a shot at a four-year degree.
It was around this time that a good friend was hired in the career counseling office at Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. I’d never heard of Williams, and it was on the other side of the country, but I discovered that Williams had a policy of letting local residents take classes as non-matriculated students.
With seemingly nothing to lose, I packed my bags and moved to Massachusetts. I figured the worst-case scenario was that I would take a class and do poorly. That would leave me no worse off than I was before.
But when I arrived on campus, I fell in love with the College.
When I inquired about transferring to the College, I was initially told by an admissions adviser that I wasn’t Williams material. Specifically, I was told I had a “checkered past” (a weak community college transcript) and, if I was serious about going to college, I should think about attending a local state school.
After my first ill-fated meeting with the Williams admissions office, I went back and asked to speak with the dean of admissions. He agreed to let me take one class and offered that if I did well, he might let me take two during the spring semester.
I spent my first year at Williams pretending to be a “real” student. Without a student ID, I was locked out of most buildings, so I showed up early to events to slip through the doors behind another student. I pretended to have other plans during mealtimes because I couldn’t eat in the dining halls with my classmates. I dreaded the inevitable questions about where I was from, what class year I was in, or where I lived.
In the spring, I sat under a tree clutching my admissions letter.
Three years later, I looked around at my classmates during graduation with one recurring thought: I am no different than many of the students I met in community college. I have known community college students–and even a few high school dropouts–who could easily have filled my seat at Williams, Cambridge, or Harvard.
There are other community college students out there for whom doors to elite colleges and universities should be opened.
They deserve these opportunities, too.