My college preparatory high school went to great measures to make sure my classmates and I were equipped to move on after graduation. We had mandatory (and free!) ACT prep, guidance counselors who visited us in homeroom frequently to remind us of steps to be taken to further us in our search for the perfect school, multiple college fairs, and a challenging curriculum that has since proven to have set me up for success in my academic career. It was because of this seemingly foolproof process of feeding some of Chicago’s brightest to prestigious colleges that people like me spent the college process in confusion. I’m by no means slamming my high school, as I owe so many of my accomplishments to them, but it was because of the very specific track that everyone was expected to follow that I, a low-income, first-generation college student, found myself in tears a few days after I confirmed my decision to go to the University of Iowa.
I liked the college when I’d visited, although in retrospect I know that I wouldn’t have fit in there if I’d attended. I enjoyed the idea of the school most especially because, as a future English major, the prospect of getting my feet wet in the same place where folks attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop was attractive. They’d also given me more money than any other school, and with financial aid, I’d be able to afford around half of the tuition. I discussed my situation with people in similar positions as I started to panic about the idea of taking out so much money in loans. At that point, I realized I had struck out on one of the cheapest options, which was attending a state school and paying in-state tuition. I’d only applied to the best state university and after being waitlisted, I didn’t get in. A financial aid advisor at Iowa told me I could stay at school for a year and become a resident there to halve my tuition, but the idea of being away for months at a time was already something I wasn’t looking forward to. I found myself becoming less married to a decision I was already supposed to have made.
One day, a friend of mine who was also struggling with deciding where to go to school the next year made me aware of the fact that community college was less than half the price of in-state tuition at a university and that some people, if their financial aid allowed it, could even get a sizable refund, even after the cost of textbooks. I started to do my research and decided to approach my mother to tell her what I’d learned. Where I had expected concern, I saw an expression of relief. She confided in me that, not having gone to college herself, she’d had no idea what we would have done financially if I’d actually gone to Iowa. For the first time, I assessed my situation in a way none of my counselors had urged me to. I didn’t want to leave home and I didn’t want to take loans out to go to a school I was only content with. I’d been working for a year at that point and we’d had to get fee waivers for every school I applied to. It simply wasn’t realistic to expect that my family could afford the expenses that come with moving away.
A year later, I’d completed my first year at a community college near my house and received a refund check at the end of both semesters. It was so liberating to purchase my books and supplies without worrying about every single penny I was spending. The contrast between having the freedom to take the classes I wanted without primarily considering expenses and the financial difficulty I would have had if I’d gone away to an out-of-state university is still mystifying to me. Two years later, I’ve since transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago and I’m attending this year on a full scholarship.
Community college is smart to—at the very least—consider, not only because Obama has proposed that it should be free, but because it offers some people a similar amount of leisure as to that of a gap year. Working on general education classes, whether one decides to do so on a full-time or part-time basis, is a way to be productive in working toward a degree without taking on the financial burden of attending a university. Additionally, it allows some to consider their next steps at their own pace without leaving school. Although it’s a shame that students like me often have to figure out for themselves that community college is a useful opportunity, I don’t resent having gone through such a laborious process because I now have the ability to inform others of their options.