America’s Escalator and Mine: Community College


February 3, 2016

By Jack Esslinger

Washington Post’s recent headline caught my eye: “Community college students deserve better than they are getting.” I can testify. Like millions of students, I started my higher education at community college. While ultimately my experience was a success, it wasn’t always clear it would be. Many of the pitfalls I faced could have been avoided had high schools and colleges done a better job with students like me.


corduroy escalator



My Story

Having just graduated high school in Fairfax, Virginia, community college seemed like it would be a great fit. Northern Virginia Community College (nicknamed “NOVA”) was cost effective, provided an easier high school-to-college transition, and served as a building block for future education goals. Initially all went well. I transitioned smoothly, received decent grades, and proved to myself, or so I had thought, that I was ready to be a college student.

Unfortunately, just as I began to believe I had things together, they unraveled.

While NOVA offered a cheaper alternative than going to a four-year school, it nonetheless required a hefty sum of money. In 2012, my final year of attendance, sticker price for in-state students living off campus was nearly $19,000. The high price made me tentative because I still lacked career direction. I sought out advising, but spent hours waiting for a hasty 10-minute appointment. Eventually, the high price pressured me to take a semester off to decide on a major.

I returned the next fall planning to major in journalism. Though I successfully completed a year of a near full-time course load, I concluded that journalism was not a viable career path. Due to the high price, I needed a career with a strong salary or at least growth opportunities to support the repayment of my student loans. And there I was again, in search of yet another major.

Lost and unmotivated, I entered the next semester still undecided on an academic program. I received poor grades and dropped classes I saw no point in taking. The lack of student life made things worse. Because NOVA is a commuter campus, I simply went to class and left when finished. Community college felt like a menial job: one where you punched in and punched out.

My poor grades put me on financial aid suspension and forced me to pay out of pocket to get my completion rate back up to financial aid standards. Ironically, this is what it took for me to get on track. It took the threat of losing my financial aid to get me serious about school.

Eventually I was taken off financial aid suspension and decided to pursue a degree in economics. The prospect of a career within the social sciences – a field I was interested in – that had a high earning potential seemed to be a pragmatic, financially practical choice. Over the next few years, I was able to excel academically. I obtained my associate’s degree, transferred, and just last month – seven and a half years after I began – earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from George Mason University.


What I Learned, What I Hope I Can Pass Along

As is anyone, I was responsible for my meandering, bad grades, good grades, and degrees. But I often wonder if I had received more institutional support along the way, how much time, energy, and resources I might have saved; how much taxpayers might have saved.

Looking back, for example, leaving school for a semester was a risky choice. With that decision I had already decreased my odds of ever returning (one study found that 28 percent of students who stopped out did not return to college). My school’s lack of meaningful advising was also a factor in that choice. While we didn’t necessarily lack advisors, you always felt like another number to an overburdened, overworked advisor.

At the heart of the community college debate is the data indicating the poor – in fact, dismal – graduation outcomes. Only 1 in 5 full-time community college students graduate within three years with an associate’s degree or certificate. Many proponents advocate for community college as an affordable gateway to the bachelor degree. But if only 14 percent of degree-seeking community college students actually receive a bachelor’s within six years, then community college isn’t an effective gateway at all.

CC 3yr grad rates


CC-BA 6yr grad rates



What to Make of It

The specifics of the data are debated. But regardless of measure, students – and colleges – should be doing much better.

What should we do? In my experience and that of my friends and classmates, three issues create the main obstacles for students who attend community colleges:

(1) Many come from low-income families.  They can’t afford to go to school full-time.  They’re tired from working and taking care of their families and not able to give their all when going part-time.  High prices also force students to make enrollment decisions that can be at odds with successful completion.

(2) Many lack academic preparation.  Let’s face it.  High schools want you to graduate, but care less about how much you know or can do upon graduation.  Many “low-track” high school students end up going to community college, and they’re not academically ready.  There shouldn’t be a low track in high school.  There should be a track for all that leaves students with a choice after high school of college or career – no interim steps.

(3) Students lack proper advising and guidance once enrolled.  Price and academic preparation get the publicity, but people on campus helping students often make all the difference.

While much of the onus is on community college students themselves, policymakers and educators on both sides of the high school-higher education transition should be held accountable for making sure students who are attending these schools succeed in them.

When a 17-year-old drops out of high school, we don’t just throw up our hands and say, “that’s on the student.”  We recognize schools bear some responsibility as well.  I can tell you, nothing magically changes at age 18 or 19.  High schools and community colleges, all colleges, bear some responsibility for students who don’t make it.

Community colleges are a good option for many students to begin higher education. But more adequate financial aid, academic preparation, and perhaps least noticed and supported of all, personnel on campus are needed to help students break all the way through the college world.  We can do a lot better than a 14 percent success rate.