Saving for a college fund is a staple of retirement planning for parents. Tuition is a crushing burden, but community colleges are cheaper! Junior college ended up being my path, and I wish more people knew they were a viable option.
The general gist of community college
Community colleges (also called junior colleges) tend to be more accepting of all types of students, with admission rates up in the eighty-percent range. They're more affordable, more flexible, and it's likely there's already one nearby to where you live.
The usual path is to spend two or three years at a junior college doing general education and major prep, then transferring to a four-year university and spending another two or three years getting a bachelor's degree. Ideally you can land scholarships to lessen the financial burden.
Community colleges are a great way to get your GPA up if your test scores were not good enough for a university. It's also a great way to get life experience before diving into the chaotic subculture that is university campus life.
Be aware that transferring out of a community college is difficult without an articulation agreement in place. In my case, I chose a community college a town over from my dream school. Due to their proximity, the colleges had a strong agreement between each other that streamlined the transfer process for me.
My own experience
My college plans were tenuous to begin with, but turned out fortunately well. When I reflect back upon the person I used to be, I can proudly pinpoint my first community college class as the pivotal point that made me the woman I am today.
Of course the groundwork was laid out long before I ever reached college. My parents hoped that I would choose college along my life's path, and gently suggested it to me along the way as I grew up.
Imagine their surprise when I was a teen and told them that I didn't plan to go to college. My mother had a great talk for that: she would support me in anything I do, so long as I do something. She didn't care if I lived on a beach and sold underwater photography, or if I got a degree and a job – so long as I did something with the talents I had. She would support me to do anything, but refused to give me so much support as to let me do nothing.
Not going to college when you're capable of it may seem like a naïve decision, but there's merit in it. It's something of old news by now that university tuition prices have skyrocketed far beyond what others costs have, and the benefit of a degree can be questionable for certain paths – such as entrepreneurship. The Financial Mechanic has a lovely article that gets into the modern university experience:
In my foolishness of teenagehood, I figured that I would be able to pave my own path without a degree. Yet my decision to bypass college did not last long. My teenage years turned rough with my mother's illness, and I ended up dropping out of my first year of highschool. Again she had a wonderful talk (in retrospect, at least) with me about squandering my talents. I had committed the worst form of underachievement possible, to take all my talents and potential and waste it doing nothing.
Then I had one of those crucial turning points in my life, when I entered a charter high school. It was one of the best decisions of my early years. There my teacher was experienced with helping underprivileged students navigate their college plans. My teacher slowly convinced me that getting scholarships and going to college should be my path.
However, rather than go for a prestigious full-ride scholarship to a big name university, I chose a different route: community college.
Community college, also known as junior college, has stayed much more affordable than 4-year institutions. From the graph above you can see that public junior college tuition is about half a public four-year institute's, and nowhere near private schools.
Besides affordability, community colleges cater to non-traditional students and allow for much more flexibility in learning. Thus as a freshman, my peers were of a wide range of age groups and life experiences – something that benefited me greatly, coming from my rural background. I had been starved for diversity before I entered college.
There I was suddenly surrounded by people returning to school after working, many first-generation students, veterans, and other finance-conscious independent individuals. I met several high-power professors who were dedicated to their subjects and helpful in the utmost. Those professors have been consistently impressive with the quality of character – though perhaps that's a side effect of being in sunny southern California.
If I had tried to hustle a scholarship and gone to a big name school instead, I would have burnt myself down like a candle under a blowtorch. I knew even then that I did not fit in with other young university students. What I needed at the time was not a degree and social network, but experience with diverse people to sort out my own identity.
Everyone can benefit from the process of self-discovery, but those of us within the realm of kink and queerdom benefit more so than others. We do not tend to have role models and people to reflect off of until we start navigating the world as young adults. Then it takes time to have enough experiences to decide what you like and what doesn't fit you.
Community college gave me that time to self-discover by virtue of its flexibility and general studies. There was less pressure and time crunches, and I could take advantage of the Big Fish, Little Pond effect to coast along in my classes.
The BFLP effect basically finds that it is better to be a high-achiever amongst average people than it is to be amongst other high-achievers. The most obvious way this crops up is in self-esteem, where high-achievers feel better about themselves when they compare their grades to their peers.
Another way is that it is better for your career to be top of an average class than to be average in a top class. In other words: you are a big fish either way, but if you're in a small pond you look better off.
This comes with a nice, razor-sharp two-edged blade. Being in a small pond benefits you with less competition, so you stand out. That also means you're not pushed to grow as much. I weighed the balance and found that for me, the small pond made sense. Being challenged too much can lead to crippling mental health problems, breaking you under the strain.
Community college is not lacking for competition, either. It's filled with plenty of intelligent people, but it's still a small pond by virtue of the fact that many students are working as they take classes. With such a split attention, the class average grade suffers. Yet there's still the bright sparks to engage with and learn from!
Community college classes however, can often be easier than equivalent university classes. Many of my peers found that their entry-level community college courses did not prepare them for the extent of later classes. This is great for self-paced learners who can make of it what they will, but a pitfall for people that need more guidance.
In the end, I spent only a few thousand dollars going to several years of community college. In the process I transformed myself from a clueless teen into a functional woman, and leveraged my college experience to land my first internship.
My first internship was yet another important milestone in the my meandering life, and it signalled that I had succeeded. I had made it through the hardest problem of young adulthood and landed my first job.
Shortly afterwards, I transferred to my four-year university and completed the community college portion of my educational journey.
Community college was my best investment
Community college was not absolutely cheap, only cheaper than university. The time spent there weighs more heavily than the money. I poured several years of my life into studies and extracurricular activities, alongside those thousands of dollars in tuition.
Not always did the classes I took feel like they were worth what I paid, but from the vantage point gained over the years I know that community college as a whole was worth it.
It gave me a safe place to try new things, experiment, and grow. It consumed vital years of my life, but in return transformed me into a better woman. It gave me a start when I had missed the chance during my teenage years to do so.