When I reached the end of my senior year at the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), I had a difficult decision to make: Which college should I go to? I hadn’t been accepted to the schools I most wanted to attend, and most of the schools that did accept me costed upwards of $30,000 a year. My parents encouraged me to consider community college, but I struggled with that idea. I had never heard of anyone from my school ever attending a community college, and I thought I was above that. All of my friends are heading off to all these big-name, top-ten colleges, and I’ll be off to… community college? In the end, though, that’s what I decided to do, and I’m glad I went that route. I wanted to talk about my experiences for anyone that might be in a similar position.
Coming out of IMSA, I had a fair amount of experience with software development, and I wanted to major in Computer Science. My local community college, Harper College, offers a program called the Engineering Pathways Program that, in essence, offers guaranteed admission to the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) for students that satisfactorily complete two years at Harper. There are also scholarships offered through this program; with one of these scholarships, I would be able to complete the first two years of college at no cost and subsequently transfer to one of the nation’s best schools for CS.
Making the Decision
To help me make up my mind, I made a list of pros and cons, an abridged version of which is as follows:
- I’d save a ridiculous amount of cash. $60k (for 2 years of school) is no small chunk of change.
- I’d get to come home and spend time with family. IMSA is a boarding school, and I had been away for internships or studying abroad over the summers, so I hadn’t seen my family much. The youngest of my four younger brothers was only 4 when I left for IMSA, and I wanted to be able to see him grow up a bit.
- My family would be able to afford to get a new car, and I’d get to learn how to drive. IMSA didn’t allow students to have cars on campus, so many graduates never really learn how to drive.
- I’d get to study in a smaller environment with smaller classes.
- I’d be going to community college…
Ultimately, I decided I was being a stuck-up, entitled little prick, and I committed to Harper.
How has it worked out?
Fairly well, for the most part.
The school name is relatively weak
Unfortunately, this matters more than it should. Over my two years at Harper, I sent out more than 60 rounds of resumes; despite having a fair amount of experience in software development, only a single company ever responded asking to schedule an interview. (Thanks, Khan Academy!) Watching friends who’d never written a line of code before college get internship offers at big-name companies was frustrating, to say the least.
That’s not to say there isn’t opportunity. Harper has a great reputation with local companies, and it’s possible to skip the resume screen with other companies by getting a referral. I landed my (wonderful) freshman year internship this way. However, the lack of a school reputation is definitely something I struggled with personally while I was there.
There aren’t as many classes
When I started preparing to transfer, I looked through the course catalogs of other schools and came across names such as “Computational Music Theory” and “How To Learn Mathematics” (surveys challenges in math education) that made me salivate. Harper doesn’t have any of that stuff. The English and humanities departments have a few interesting classes, but the math/engineering/science departments mostly just have your standard core classes.
It’s not just the breadth of classes that is limited; the depth is limited, as well. For most people, this is not a problem; Harper is designed to be a two-year school and has a depth of courses reflecting this. However, I was pretty far ahead in math and CS and ended up running out of classes in these areas. (In my last semester, I took 5 music classes and had a great time.)
The lack of CS classes was a problem for me, but I was able to work around it by taking free classes from Coursera in my free time. Through classes such as Andrew Ng’s “Machine Learning” and Wen Mei Hwu’s “Hetergeneous Parallel Programming” (no longer offered, unfortunately), I was able to learn about topics I’d never heard of in CS and get the experience of taking challenging, rigorous CS classes. (There are many more classes I would recommend on Coursera, although I haven’t been on their website for a while, so their course offerings may have changed.)
Research opportunities are difficult to find
It’s a community college, not a university. Professors don’t really do research. However, if you’re resourceful, you can still make things work. I was able to continue the research that I started when I interned at Sandia National Labs, and I am sure it would not be hard to find a supportive professor if you wanted to do some research on your own.
Harder to find people to do things with
At the University of Illinois, I have one friend working with some people on launching a new electronic card game, another friend working on building a solar-powered car, and other friends working on many more neat things with people. At Harper, it’s difficult to find the people to work on things like that. Unfortunately, the people that have the level of experience necessary to execute those things are usually not at community college.
Harper does have the Harper Society of Engineers, where members will propose neat ideas like the above and then receive funding to build them out. However, HSoE has a problem with finishing stuff. Most students work in their free time, so schedules are difficult to align and people don’t have much time to work on other things. In addition, everyone lives off campus. Because the difficulty in meeting up and the lack of experience most people have, work generally moves slowly, and then the people working on a project graduate and the project dies. When I was president of HSoE, we tried to work on this problem, but it’s still tough.
As with every other downside I’m mentioning, you can work around this if you’re resourceful enough. However, I feel that without having peers constantly challenging me, I didn’t grow as much in my technical abilities as I wanted to at Harper, and it was a little disappointing to see high school friends doing these amazing things when there wasn’t much I could point to.
Less social life
Some argue that “community college” should be called “commuter college” instead, as there isn’t that much of a community. I think this is true to a limited extent; the community certainly is not as strong as it would be if everyone lived on campus together, but it does exist if you seek it out. This didn’t really bother me, as I am pretty introverted and not much of a social butterfly anyways, but this could be a big downside for some.
4-year universities cost a fortune these days… Even after scholarships that sometimes take off half the price, they can be difficult to afford. I couldn’t justify spending $60,000+ for little more than gen-ed classes with hundreds of people packed in a lecture hall, especially not when community college costed nothing in comparison.
Harper also offers extremely generous scholarships that people often fail to take advantage of. The deadline for one scholarship I applied to was pushed back three times because not enough people applied. It’s possible to not only cover your tuition, but to also cover other expenses and part of the cost of the school you transfer to.
I saved roughly $70-80k by attending Harper. That’s a lot of money.
I have four younger brothers, and the youngest was only 4 when I left for IMSA. I realized that if I went to a 4-year college straight out of high school, I would never really be able to see them grow up and they wouldn’t really know me. For some people, staying around family might be a downside, but it was a pretty big upside for me.
Excellent professors and individual attention
I’ve heard horror stories from friends about 900-person lectures that people regularly sleep through, but the biggest class I had at Harper had 40 people. I’d had concerns about the quality of Harper classes, but these concerns turned out to be baseless; for the most part, the professors I had at Harper were excellent and paid a lot of attention to each individual student.
As an example, I signed up for an ethics class and was dreading it based on past experiences with philosophy, but the professor ended up making it one of my favorite classes, challenging all of our beliefs without ever telling us what we should think. I have never taken a physics class at the University of Illinois, but I don’t think it would be hard to argue that Harper’s general physics classes are better than UIUC’s. The physics classes are challenging and rigorous, but in the smaller setting, professors help you succeed instead of leaving you in the dust to catch up on your own.
Meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds
I’ve met vets, single moms, retired folks, people with families – you name it. There are all sorts of people at community college with all sorts of stories, and it has been helpful for me to see a bit of other peoples’ perspectives. I met a retired guy who was bored and had taken 78 credits (including some difficult math and physics classes), just for fun. You don’t meet people like that every day.
A common critique of academics and intellectuals is that we are too distant and disconnected from “real life.” Harper has helped me to really get to know other kinds of people living in the real world. Going to Harper has also made me realize how lucky I’ve been, and it has made me more humble. When you meet people that haven’t had half the opportunities you have had, you realize how fortunate you are.
Forced me to slow down
This point may be unique to me, but I consider it one of the most important aspects of my time at Harper.
When I graduated from IMSA, I was not in the best of mental health… I regularly slept 3-4.5 hours a night and was completely burned out from leading three demanding extracurriculars at IMSA. I’m a very competitive and ambitious person that lacks the ability to say “no” to opportunities, and had I gone to a four-year school brimming with things to do, I am sure I would have driven myself crazy. I would felt like I needed to sign up for the most difficult classes, join the most interesting clubs, and land the most coveted research opportunities, and there is no way I would have been able to handle it all.
Instead, I was forced to slow down, take a few steps back, and chill. Clubs? Not many. Research opportunities? Look elsewhere. 400-level classes? There aren’t any. I got to spend time with my family, and I was able to spend time writing and reflecting. I learned how to play basketball (and learned that I’m really bad at it). I picked up music again. When Christmas came, I played songs with my brothers in a string quartet – something I had wanted to do for many years, but my brothers were always too young. Even classes became more fun; in my journal, I wrote:
One of the awesome things about life right now is I’m enjoying what I’m learning. When I’m not faced with tons of deadlines and spread super thin, I can take my time appreciating and thoroughly understanding material. And guess what? It’s cool! Multivariable calculus is awesome. Physics is awesome. Humanities is awesome. Machine learning is super awesome. All of this stuff is awesome, and now that I have time, I can appreciate and savor it as it deserves.
So, in a sense, I am glad that Harper had many of the downsides I listed above. They forced me to slow down and take a broader view of life.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time at Harper, and I am glad I went this route instead of pursuing a four-year college straight out of high school. Community college definitely had its own set of unique challenges, but it also had many real benefits that made my time worth it.
There is a pretty serious stigma against community college these days, and I wish that wasn’t the case. Community college is such a great option, especially for those that aren’t entirely sure what they want to study or for those who can’t afford a two year school. I think many people try to brush aside their fears about taking out huge loans, which is unfortunate when there is a legitimate alternative available that delivers a quality education at a much more affordable price. Community college has downsides, and it’s not for everyone, but it is such a great option that is too commonly overlooked.