Looking for a sign: The perks of community college

Community-less College

I stared intently, mesmerized by the infinitely repeating loop. Evergreen Valley, Foothill, De Anza, San Jose City — the names of local community colleges continuously flashed in red-lit font across the canvas of the LED sign normally used for banal announcements. My friend and I had been casually laying in the grass of his old high school, chomping away at a $5 Little Caesars pizza that brought nothing but grease and profound sadness. Recent graduate after recent graduate, followed by college after college.

Very few of these students would be attending four-year institutions in the fall. With nearly 70 percent of the school’s students classified as economically disadvantaged, community college seems like an unavoidable continuation of economic purgatory. The underfunded California Community Colleges system of more than 2.1 million students would not be the largest educational body in the United States if we lived in a more equitable society. But some relatively well-funded community colleges, such as De Anza, can provide an inexpensive path that should not only be viewed as a beneficial second chance, but also as a valued means of breaking higher education’s tough barriers to entry. In some respects, they provide a better learning environment than many four-year schools, even elite institutions such as UC Berkeley.

Take, for example, the comparative professor-to-teacher ratios of both educational models. When it comes to colleges, size most certainly does matter, and, bigger is not always better. Here at UC Berkeley, my heart initially raced upon realizing I would be taught by Daniel Kammen, a celebrity professor who resigned from his position as a science advisor to the Trump administration with a badass acrostic arrangement spelling out “IMPEACH.” Then, class actually started.

The sweat of my fellow neighboring students began to stick to my elbows in the overly compressed design of the 200-some seat Hearst Field Annex building. In most community college courses, smaller class sizes ensure a heightened level of potential friendliness with your professor, whereas UC Berkeley’s populous lecture-style halls means you’re forced to rely on graduate student teaching assistants. I often learn more from my email exchanges with Kelly, one of my GSIs, than I do from lecture. Small discussion sections with her resemble the community college model, in which a more one-on-one style allows her to point out my silly mistakes, such as writing that there are 60 seconds in an hour.

The size distinction expands beyond the classroom, where the sheer expansiveness of UC Berkeley’s campus often creates a sense of loneliness and purposelessness. Navigating through Sproul Plaza crowds ironically feels isolating, as though you are a small, irrelevant fish in an endless sea. Established students will ad-nauseum parrot that you simply have to find your own community, but it’s easier said than done if you’re a new transfer student.

Then, of course, we get to the discussion of money. Four-year students have certainly heard of the generous cost savings from the transfer route, but just how much can you end up saving? At my old community college, in-state tuition without aid stands at around $1,500 annually compared to UC Berkeley’s standard tuition of roughly $14,000. Realistically, 53 percent of De Anza students receive the Board of Governors Fee Waiver, such that they pay absolutely nothing in tuition.

Just recently California passed legislation to ensure that every student’s first year of community college will be free. This is on top of the thousands of dollars already saveable in the cost of living expenses by commuting from home.

Because not all community colleges are created equal, especially concerning issues of funding and transfer rates, I know my experiences can’t be used as an over-encompassing, broad stroke. Even within the Santa Clara County microcosm, De Anza sometimes receives the epithet  of “the Harvard of community colleges,” with students commuting hours away from Santa Cruz or even Gilroy just to attend.

Recently, I returned to De Anza and forgot how much I missed the slowness of it all. Time seems frozen. There isn’t a hyper-career-oriented lust for getting in the fast lane when you go to community college, nor are there soul-sucking Moffitt study sessions until 5 a.m. While opportunities to learn at a college level are nonetheless present, you can reserve time for yourself to experiment with majors, introspect and mature in a judgement-free zone. My two years provided me with ample space and a slow enough pace to better understand what I actually wanted out of life.

For my first few quarters of community college, my legs begrudgingly lugged themselves from class to class, as I desperately looked for a sign. A sign that I would somehow reach the steadfast velocities of my old high school peers, as they posted about success after success at their new universities. I used to fantasize about how much happier I’d be if I had gone to undergrad right after high school, but as the old proverb goes — the grass is always greener. Even if community college continues to be viewed as a condemnation of sorts, I’ll gladly embrace the debasement if I get to keep the $30,000 plus I saved, and all the close friends I made due to the small size and intimate nature of De Anza.

Neil McClintick writes the Monday blog on transfer student troubles. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @neil_park.