Is Community College a Reasonable Choice for my Teenage Daughter?
August 6, 2009 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Community college: am I asking all the right questions for my soon-to-be-senior daughter?

My soon-to-be high school senior daughter and I have been doing the whole college thing. Some background:

she's a solid "C" student (but "A" in English) in one of the top-ranking schools in the state but is not an academic powerhouse (so she's not going to get any scholarships);
she LOVES animals and is at her most joyous at work as a veterinarian assistant;
she recently bought her own retired standardbred racehorse which has turned her around emotionally and given her a whole new level of love and excitement;
she's a very talented writer;

and very importantly about her...
she has had episodes of cutting (PTSD related) in the past (under control now but she is socially shy, sardonic and a little fragile);

financially, I'm a single mom with 3 kids, we live in moderate-income housing and her dad has said he has $0 for college.

We've looked at the impressive state colleges and universities here in Massachusetts, but the only school that has a pre-vet program will probably not accept her as a freshman.

She's expressed an interest in being an English major (which I think is great).

So here's the idea: she would go to a Massachusetts community college for 2 years and then under a program called"Commonwealth Transfer" she would transfer to UMass Amherst or UMass Boston for her degree.

The pros to this plan are many: no college application stress (and as a teen with PTSD, prepping for SATs almost put her over the edge); huge financial savings; she would probably be an academic star; but most importantly she would get to keep her job and her horse. It's almost like 2 more years of high school.

The con is that for now, she'll remain at home and not get to live the dormitory experience, but my instinct is that she would not react well to that, anyway.

I have 2 friends who have also done this plan and both ended up at prestigious universities for their Master's degrees. They both said it was incredibly smart to do.

Any thoughts?
posted by dzaz to Education (36 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I want to add: I took her on a tour of UMass Amherst and she HATED it. She thought it was too big and didn't at all like the "College City" aspect.

She thinks that she's into the real world of working and learning and taking care of animals, not living in a dorm with thousands of teenagers experiencing freedom for the first time and just going to class with everyone else in the exact same boat as her.

She said she thought that whole thing would be awful.

I moved from NJ to go to Northeastern and while I was glad to get away from home, I didn't like the living on college campus experience and immediately transferred to UMass Boston, got an apartment, roommates, a job, and was happy then. But I've been very careful to not say anything negative about the dorm experience.
posted by dzaz at 9:17 AM on August 6, 2009

As a former academic advisor at a 4-year school, this sounds like a good plan to me. The most important thing is to make sure that she is only taking courses that will transfer through the Commonwealth Transfer program. And, to remember that if she chooses to go to 4-year school that does not participate in that program, she will most likely need to take additional course work for her BA. Also, good grades at the Community College will be essential to making it into the competitive pre-vet programs.
posted by hworth at 9:23 AM on August 6, 2009

It sounds like she is perfectly suited to this plan. I know at my high school they pushed this idea really hard, many of my classmates did it and they are doing great now. The only disadvantages to this idea (freshman dorm life) are things that she would not enjoy anyway, so what's to lose?
posted by amethysts at 9:24 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

My brother went to a community college, got his AA, transfered to a large state university and ended up in medical school at Georgetown. He could have gone straight to the state university, but the community college made more sense financially. He didn't seem to feel like he was missing much by not living in the dorms. I went staight to a university and only lived on campus my first year. I didn't hate it, but I was happy to get out and live in shared housing.

From what you have written, it looks like having your daughter go to community college is a great idea. What does she think? Is she afraid that she is going to be missing out on something if she doesn't live in a dorm? She could always try it her junior year. Just make sure she gets an AA - if she leaves a community college without a degree, the state university my not accept all of her credits.
posted by shrabster at 9:27 AM on August 6, 2009

My sister followed a similar path and ended up with a PhD in molecular biology from Yale University. My brother did likewise and has a PhD in Geology from Scripps in San Diego.

Partly because of these examples in his own family, my soon-to-be-a-senior son is considering the same path for college. He is also socially awkward and this appears to be a good transition from teenage to adult life for him. What I am doing for him as his mother is applauding his choice, expressing my pride and support of that decision when I am with others, and never saying anything about what he might have done instead. This is indeed a smart way to go for all the reasons you have articulated.
posted by eleslie at 9:29 AM on August 6, 2009

My niece just transferred to a four-year school from community college and thinks it's the best idea for anyone who doesn't have super stellar grades and SATs in high school.

So, go for it.

What does she think about this plan?
posted by bluedaisy at 9:37 AM on August 6, 2009

I took a very similar path...the smaller local school most definitely helped me get my footing in the college environment before eventually transferring to a residential university. I was able to keep my part-time work schedule going, while knocking out most of the core requirements that seem to be the undoing of many underclassmen who ship right off to a big 4-year-school.

By the way, the smaller school was every bit as rigorous academically as the large institution. They took great pride in the fact that students from elsewhere would take a quarter or 2 off, come to (smaller school) in what they thought would be a cake-walk to a boosted GPA. They were wrong.

Echoing everyone else, she should talk to a guidance counselor or adviser to discuss the transfer stuff.
posted by jquinby at 9:45 AM on August 6, 2009

It sounds like she might be best sticking close to home, but consider a two-year equine program such as at Suny-Cobleskill. I am certain she could bring her horse, and she could take lots of writing classes. My socially awkward, not-quite-college-material niece is doing this (sans her own horse), and she is beyond happy and thriving. Happiest in her life.

Then, in theory, your daughter could transfer to Cornell's environmental/ag communications program (it's spendy, but by then she'd get the [still spendy] NYS residential tuition). She could write for equine pubs, do tech writing for hippotherapy programs, who-knows-what-all.

What about UMass/Stockbridge? (Of course I have no idea whether it's close enough to home for you/her.)
posted by jgirl at 10:05 AM on August 6, 2009

Best answer: I am a TA at a big you dealing with lots of transfer students. Some are great and some are not. Some CCs are like high school - participation points, extra credit, easy to turn in late work, easy to skip class. And as such at some CCs, one can get a B with little effort. Then they transfer and fail the first term.

Watch for that transition. Keep your kid focused on the goal of transferring. GPA isn't 'just to transfer' - I dealt with a student applying to law school who didn't realize his C average at CC would count.

Otherwise, sounds like an excellent plan.
posted by k8t at 10:05 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: So much terrific insight here; I'm so glad I asked and many, many thanks to all!
posted by dzaz at 10:06 AM on August 6, 2009

You - 'U' (my phone auto-corrects)
posted by k8t at 10:06 AM on August 6, 2009

I just want to second all the above posters - sounds like a really great plan for all the reasons you articulated. I would encourage her to meet (often) with the academic counselor at the school so that she can ensure her schedule and classes will direct her to the type of further schooling she'd like -- i.e. vet school.

Also, you are doing a really marvelous job here. It looks like you've taken in lots of information and ideas and are processing what's best *for her* -- not some generic "ideal" person. Not everyone has the capacity to do this, on top of a job, dealing with an ex-, other kids, bills, life stress. Good job listening to her and trying to think with her outside the traditional box that is pushed on high school students. She sounds like a very cool person and I bet will thrive outside of high school.
posted by barnone at 10:07 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a C (closer to D) high school student who started at a CC and then transferred to an Ivy League.

Had I attempted to go straight to college from hs, I would've only had low-tier options (my SAT scores were definitely not going to help me). On top of that, I would not have been mature enough to really hit the books - too many more-interesting-than-studying options. Living at home and going to CC reduced a lot of distractions and, although totally boring, allowed me to focus on "getting out" by doing well.

If she's serious about going to school, the Community College route is a great option. I saved a ton of money, a little work gave me a lot of recognition (the pool of talent at CC's is, as you can imagine, not very large), and I was able to transfer into a good school as a Junior.

Finally: I second hworth above: make sure those credits transfer!
posted by alrightokay at 10:09 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Something to point out, on the side - Don't think that there are no scholarships available. If you do some digging, you may find that there are scholarships and grants out there that will help. Some of them are solely demographic- or income-related, and don't really care about what the applicants' grades are so much.

It's worth your time to investigate, and dig up some free money! Mass offers some level of tuition assistance for students, and your daughter should be eligible for a federal Pell grant, even if it's a small one.

There are some published guide books for scholarships out there, which represent a small investment toward a larger goal. I've heard that a number of web-based scholarship finders out there are shady, so I wouldn't recommend those.

As for the plan itself, it seems reasonable. I approve. :)
posted by Citrus at 10:14 AM on August 6, 2009

I did exactly this, in Massachusetts. I went to Mass Bay for my Associates, and am now finishing my Bachelors at UMass Boston. I did the Community College route because I'd been out of High School for eight years, and had been a pretty terrible student. (Just like your daughter I was very interested in English and not much else.)

It sounds like you have info about the Commonwealth Transfer Compact, but you should also look into the Joint Admissions Tuition Advantage Plan (TAP) if you haven't already. This was the deciding factor for me, 33% off tuition at UMB if I graduated from CC with a 3.0 or greater. This has been a big help each semester.

I can't speak to the dorm portion of your question, or anything about vet programs, but I wanted to say that this plan is a good one. I was turned on to this by an advisor at a UMass Boston open house. Many, many, many students at UMass go this route.

If you have any questions at all, please feel free to ask or mefi mail me.
posted by sarahmelah at 10:16 AM on August 6, 2009

I opted for a Community College when I left High School early, and it was a really great choice. I ended up with an advanced math degree and have had great science/tech jobs ever since, as well as an abiding interest in and skills for more academic pursuits.

I think a big part of it is that if/when you transfer to a "big" school, you are really ready for it and know what you're there for. Why spend the big dollars figuring it out?

Also there's a much better chance to try out a range of things at most Community Colleges, from vocational stuff taken seriously through enough literature and physics to figure out what you like.

Finally, I think most "big" schools really like to take transfers from Comm. Colleges, for the reasons above - I think transfer students tend to succeed and cause less hassle.

So - I think this is a terrific idea. That said, do make sure it's a good community college. I've seen some that feel very much like the stereotype you see on TV: lame campus, bad classes, flailing students. Many are really really good - staffed by people who love teaching and their field, but don't want to play the academia game; provided with faculties to let people explore a lot of options; and with a campus that's pleasant to spend time on. Make sure it feels fun and interesting, then go for it.
posted by freebird at 10:32 AM on August 6, 2009

One more thing to add to the other great comments here. If your daughter is diagnosed with PTSD she should register with the Office of Disability Services at whatever school she goes to. They can provide her with support services including academic accomodations as warranted such as providing a quiet, private space for exams.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:32 AM on August 6, 2009

I didn't even read the other responses. Yes, this is an incredibly smart thing to do. Good grades at a community college equal entrance to incredible graduate school.
posted by xammerboy at 10:34 AM on August 6, 2009

My path was a little different--I replaced my last two years of high school with two years at the local community college, followed that with four years at a prestigious university, and I'm now in a Ph.D. program at an ivy--but those two years were some of my favorite of my education. I took classes that were just as challenging as any of the 100- and 200-level classes my four-year university offered. I also really enjoyed meeting and working with a lot of students who didn't take the traditional path from high school to college. Most of the friends I made weren't teenagers experiencing freedom for the first time; some had children or had taken breaks between high school and college and were probably more serious about their educations because of it. As it later turned out, the dorm experience wasn't great for me, and I actually wished I had skipped it altogether.

If your daughter does go the community college route, I'd encourage her not to think of it as simply an extension of high school. My experience was that the classes were structured just like other college classes, with a few large assignments or tests making up the bulk of our grades rather than many small assignments throughout the semester, like we had in high school. The transition from high school, where it sometimes felt like we had a test each week, to community college, where a single exam was worth a large chunk of our grades was much tougher than the transition from community college to four year university. Though the professors held more office hours than those at my four-year school, they didn't hold our hands through any assignments.

Of course, the most important thing is how she feels about the decision. For what the opinion of a random internet person is worth, I'd encourage anybody who wanted to start at a community college to pursue that option.
posted by capsizing at 10:39 AM on August 6, 2009

Just want to point out that she still needs to take CC very seriously if she wants to be a vet eventually (not a vet assistant). As pointed out above, it won't be "two more years of high school" if she's doing it right and really preparing for transfer. It does sound like a good way for her to mature and adjust to higher education in a way that suits her, so she should go for it and really focus on keeping her GPA up and learning how to study in math and sciences if she wants to be a vet. Community colleges often have great resources for learning better study techniques and she should take full advantage.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:14 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: hal_c_on, you make excellent points; after working at a veterinarian's for 3 years now, she is pretty certain that she doesn't want to be a vet, but definitely wants to have animals involved in her daily life, on some level.

She has investigated being a vet tech and has put that on the back burner for now; she does recognize the importance of college and looks forward to have her eyes opened to unknown opportunities.

She's into learning about life; not living the freshman campus life.

Great thoughts!
posted by dzaz at 11:15 AM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: To clarify: I meant 2 more years of high school in the sense that she'll be living at home, not academically easy. I've checked with the community colleges locally and it appears that they 100% know exactly what courses to take so they ALL transfer to a MA university (or college) under this program.
posted by dzaz at 11:24 AM on August 6, 2009

Since she doesn't want to be a vet, I'll modify my advice somewhat:

I still think she should take the hardest possible classes and be open to the idea that she might like math or science if she has the right teacher and the right help. Sounds like you're on top of the transfer program, which is great.
I'll add that since she wants to learn about life, she should participate in some small but active student group outside class- a volunteer organization, student government, whatever. This will help her get a head start on some of the social things you learn by proxy in your first year at a big state school.
She could also try taking a few of the more vocational courses that community colleges offer if she has the time. Since she won't be distracted by the freshman party scene, she could learn auto repair for fun or something like that.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:46 AM on August 6, 2009

For a few summers and one fall quarter that I was in high school, I went to the local CC, and I really enjoyed it. I remember stressing out about being out of my element, but I got to really like it. The classes were generally small and the professors were approachable. I was only taking one class at a time, and I never had a reason to stay on the campus, so I never felt "at home" there.

After graduating high school, I went 1.5 hours away to college, where I lived in the dorms for the first two years. A lot of the time, I felt like the dorms were a mix of high school and summer camp. My first year in the dorms was just OK, as there was a clash in schedules on the floor. Many of the guys were in Computer Science or similar programs, with classes that started later in the day, so they stayed up late playing video games and running through the halls. Those who were in the architecture and associated programs had classes starting at 8 and 9am, so we generally went to bed earlier. Not a great plan on someone's behalf.

I switched majors after a few years because my ideals for the profession and what the classes were leading me to believe were rather different. I might have saved myself a chunk of money if I went to a CC for my beginning courses and did more research, and I would have avoided High School Summer Camp. On the positive side, I eventually graduated, and while there I met some great people there who are now my best friends.

"The University Experience" is not one set thing. Maybe your daughter would love the ever-active mass of people in the dorms, maybe she'd hate it. There are some great friendships formed in the dorms, but there are also some terrible personality clashes when people are shoved into tight quarters for a full year (unless someone switches rooms).

If your daughter is looking for a different experience than living at home, you can try to make life at home similar to what she'd deal with in an apartment. Will she be paying for anything out of pocket, or getting loans and other funding? If the former, you could ease her into the world of bills and groceries. If she's not helping to cook food for herself and others, get her more involved with that. Sure, it's her family, but she won't always be living with her best friends (and some times friendship turns sour when everyone's always together). Or if none of that is an issue, she could have more freedom to explore what the CC has to offer.

CCs have sports programs, theater groups, art classes, and I'm sure there are some clubs to join. If she sees some extracurricular activity at a college she really wants to try, have her look for something similar at the local CC. Maybe there are classes that don't need to transfer - has she thought about car repair, or welding? Glass blowing?
posted by filthy light thief at 12:04 PM on August 6, 2009

Also of note: college catalogs change every so often. If she's looking at a few, make sure she keeps up with where the college catalogs are, and if there's any change in the works. Classes that transfer now might get lost in the shuffle, or requirements might change and the transferred credits mean nothing.

On the flip-side: just because the classes don't directly transfer, check into what kind of flexibility the programs have, in terms of accepting other school's courses. If all that fails, look into the ability to "test out" of a class, based on knowledge she already has. Good luck!
posted by filthy light thief at 12:06 PM on August 6, 2009

I don't think this is a bad idea, but I find both you and your daughter's reluctance regarding dorms a little strange. I went to community college for a semester after high school, and while it was an okay choice, it did present some difficulties socially once my friends had left for college. Compared to my later dorming experience, students in community college just weren't very friendly (and my own shyness didn't help very much) and it quickly became a fairly lonely existence. In contrast, I lived in the nerd dorm at my small university, and had some great people reach out to me. While not the only important part of college, I think both the independence and the social opportunities that college represents are fairly integral to it, and a big part of the whole "unknown opportunities" thing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:36 PM on August 6, 2009

(For example: a good friend from my dorms got me into writing poetry again after a few years of not doing-so; he later got me a life-defining job in my college's writing center, which lead, indirectly, to getting a master's in poetry. Really, dorms aren't all keggers and parties.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:40 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: It's not a reluctance to dorm life as much as I think it's more than possible she'll sink, not swim, in that type of life change.

I'm not by any stretch of the imagination a coddling or overprotective parent, and I know my 3 kids' personalities really well. For example, my second daughter is absolutely a different type of person and I have no reservations about her going off to dormlife. She's gregarious, chipper, etc.

But the eldest isn't; she's lackadaisical in school and the only success she feels is with her job and her horse. For her to have to leave those massive supports just to get the dorm experience may set her back (as I mentioned, she has engaged in self-injuring behavior).

Her guidance counselor and therapist also think a dorm could be, for HER, more traumatic than good.

My question was more if others had gone the CC route and if they felt they had "missed" anything by not doing the dorm.

Lastly, a huge consideration is financing: I'm looking at paying for college for 3 kids and we already live in moderate income housing so it's not like I have a lot of budget-cutting choices. I want them to become interesting people with interesting stories and if I can do at mimimal cost, I will.
posted by dzaz at 1:03 PM on August 6, 2009

If she doesn't identify or get along with the "first taste of freedom" crowd, and prefers the "real world", I'm not certain how staying at home with mom while attending CC places her in the "real world."

The real world may involve apartments, unemployment, and ramen noodles. And roommates. Good roommates are hard to find; a dorm situation offers you many opportunities to meet potential roommates. You might go through an exercise of looking for roommate wanted ads in the area just to see what kind of offers are available and how the real world works for many people.

Academically, a CC may make sense. Bachelor of Arts degrees will require a large number of electives outside of English, and having remedial help may be useful. Math and basic science makes up a large chunk of CC classes, and they usually have tremendous resources available that 4year unis don't feel the need to offer.
posted by pwnguin at 1:18 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

My question was more if others had gone the CC route and if they felt they had "missed" anything by not doing the dorm.

Right, well having experienced both, I can tell you that by staying at home, she will be missing out on social opportunities, which are an integral part of the early college experience. There are other ways to get those sorts of experiences--moving into an apartment with similar-age roommates, for example, but (particularly if her friends are moving off to college), she should be aware that her hometown is going to be a significantly different place if she's the last of her social group to stay behind.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:56 PM on August 6, 2009

I think that academically speaking, the plan is well thought-out. I've taught at community colleges as well as more prestigious four-year schools (both public and private) and I usually end up feeling like my CC students get a better educational value (except for students on scholarship or who are gifted or wealthy enough to take full advantage of the 4-year system). CC education for in-state students is often 1/4 - 1/8th of comparable tuition at *public* 4-year schools.

I would caution against deriving any sense of "star mentality" based on the fact that it would be a community college that she might be attending. I find that many stand-out CC students are older, a little wiser, and definitely do not take anything for granted. Straight-out-of-high-school CC students typically have just as many problems adjusting academically as do first-year students at 4-year schools. If she can keep her head on her shoulders (you too, mom, since you seem to be a decision-maker here) then she should be able to succeed and transfer relatively seamlessly.

Good luck!
posted by mrmojoflying at 2:07 PM on August 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, PhoB. You're really helping me dig a little deeper.

She mostly hangs out with friends from her barn and from work. She's got kids she hangs with at class (and Facebook, etc. constantly), but her real social life is with the people she's connected with out of life interests, not high school.

She really is looking forward to meeting all sorts of people at CC. She feels like she's made wonderful friends (and connections) through people with shared interests outside of school and has the attitude that HS kids are kids she's geographically thrown into a building with. She doesn't feel like she has much in common with them. Because of her PTSD and who she is by nature, I see where it's really hard for her to make friends.

She feels really good about the friends she's made by following her passions and finding others with similar passions.
posted by dzaz at 2:08 PM on August 6, 2009

I went to a California CC after leaving high school early, transferred to a UC, and am entering a PhD program at... U Mass Amherst! this fall. That worked out really well for me, and it sounds like it will be good for your daughter too. It was great to take lower division/GE courses in the smaller class sizes offered by CC's. Also, if she's not sure exactly what she wants to do, the lower cost of a CC makes it easier to explore her interests. I had a few semesters of working part time and taking a wide array of classes, so it took me almost 4 years to transfer, but it was great to be focused and certain once I got to university. I don't know if that helps, but wanted to add my 2 cents!
posted by apricot at 2:11 PM on August 6, 2009

I'm an English professor at a small-ish university that accepts a good number of transfer students. Your plan sounds really smart to me. I do think she'd be missing out a big part of a traditional college experience, but there are many versions of the college experience, and it sounds like she would be gaining a lot. The only thing I would add (and I apologize if someone's already said it) is to pay close attention to degree requirements of the school(s) she's seriously thinking about transferring to. English majors at my university have to have the equivalent of two years of another language at the college level. (This is not a university-wide or even college-wide requirement.) Students who are starting fresh with a language have to take a language class every semester that they're here if they want to graduate in four years. Many students are sufficiently deterred by this and wind up major in something else, like Communications, that doesn't have a language requirement. And students who do forge ahead are often terribly stressed in their final semester by the grade requirement (they have to get a C or better for the credits to count) when the language is getting harder. For some students, of course, this is all a non-issue: they're happy to study a language and do well with it. But I've been astonished by what a big deal that language requirement often is, and it's something I wish all of our transfer students thinking about majoring in English knew about well ahead of time so that it doesn't become a deal-breaker.
posted by pittsburgher at 8:30 PM on August 6, 2009

I teach at a junior college, and I'd say that community colleges were more-or-less built for families like yours: you are the target demographic.
posted by wheat at 9:23 AM on August 7, 2009

Kind of seconding a lot of other comments (especially seconding freebird), but:

I finished high school a year early, went to the four-year college that my parents and I had selected based on its apparently excellent language program, discovered that the college was NOT excellent and not a good fit for me and dropped out after three months, came back home, got a full-time job, did two years of community college, then went to a more focused language school that didn't even offer the first two years of undergrad (hence the need to get them at CC), where I graduated, early, with honors.

My CC in Illinois was TERRIFIC. It offered lots of independent study options, which was a huge help while I was working, and I had some great instructors. (I still think about my Russian teacher's tips on learning languages all the time.)

So, I had one semester of the "dorm experience" at my first four-year college. Meh. I had nothing similar at CC, and nothing similar at the subsequent school, and I didn't miss it at all. There were some parties and other social events at the later school, but people there were on a more professional track, and they tended to be low-key gatherings, which I enjoyed much more than the parties I went to at the four-year.

So, two things:

1. Based on my own experience, I strongly commend you, and your daughter, for moving toward an education that seems right for her. Had I been pushed into an environment that wasn't right for me, I would have been VERY unhappy, and educationally, once I found out I was in the wrong place at the four-year, I switched to something that made more sense for me, and it worked out really well.

2. As freebird and some others have said, do check into the academics of the CC. Again, mine was excellent, but here in California, the CCs have been hit with round after round of budget cuts, and I don't know how well they're holding up. If you can talk with anyone who recently took some of the classes she plans to take, I think that would be a good idea.

Oh yeah, one more thing - if you can save some money while getting her a really good education, that's AWESOME. I had pretty small student loans to pay back when I graduated. My CC was unbelievably inexpensive.

Good luck to you both - and to the next two as well!
posted by kristi at 2:03 PM on August 7, 2009

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