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How to counter the community college stigma

Explore some of the ways you can talk to your student about considering community college.

Community college is a great opportunity for all students, including the most high-performing ones. However, if your teen is considering going to a community college, they may encounter some negative stigma. Your teen should recognize community college as a valuable option after high school. Encourage your student to explore and visit community colleges when they are deciding what education they want to pursue. Here are some of the ways you can talk to your student about considering community college and offsetting the stigma. Start a conversation with these questions:

“How are community colleges more or less challenging than four-year colleges?”

You can start by talking directly to your teen about the stigma of community colleges being less challenging than four-year schools. Ask your student why they may have these misconceptions. Talk with your student about the academic rigor at community colleges, which can be just as good, and sometimes better, than the curriculum at four-year colleges. Stephen J. Handel, executive director of higher education at The College Board, says parents and students need to take community college seriously and not underestimate their rigor or value. Community colleges often have small class sizes and a lot of opportunities to work directly with the professors. Some community colleges offer honors programs, which add more rigor to the classroom experience and workload. Some departments, professors and programs will be stronger than others, so additional research should be done to find out more about each school. You should explore programs with your student to get a sense of what they want the most out of their experience in college and beyond.

“Who goes to community colleges? Can you see yourself exploring this option?”

Share information about who attends community colleges with your student so they learn more about the student body. Community colleges make up the largest sector of American post-secondary education, enrolling 45% of all U.S. undergraduates. They also enroll a much more diverse student body than most four-year colleges, with first-generation students, single parents, and students with disabilities making up a significant portion of the student population. The range of students who attend community colleges is a great way for students to be exposed to many different people and learn to interact with all walks of life. Just like four-year institutions, students can develop strong ties and meaningful relationships that can last a lifetime. Encourage your student to consider how they might fit in at a community college.

“How does the cost of community college differ from a four-year college or university?”

Perhaps the greatest draw for many students (and parents!) considering community college is the cost. As a parent, you need to have a conversation with your teen about money and paying for college. This conversation can take many forms, and if your student is considering community college, it is a good idea to highlight the financial benefits of community college. This can be especially important for students who are paying for college themselves. Handel says community colleges can be a huge bargain, with tuition and fees often much lower than four-year colleges and universities. As a result, community colleges are worth exploring for all students, not just those with financial barriers. Talk about the value of the education compared to the price tag. Experts agree it's a myth to say that community colleges are “less than” four-year institutions because they are less expensive. Community colleges are cheaper for many reasons, including local district support and lower overhead costs. Because they are not research institutions and do not have graduate-level facilities, overhead costs like rent, building maintenance, utilities, and marketing costs are much lower.

“How could starting at a community college help you achieve your goals in attending your dream school?”

Your teen might not know the answer to this question, but it may get them thinking about their options. If your teen has a specific college or university in mind, but the cost or application requirements are barriers to getting there, a community college is a great place to start. Some students know they want to eventually go to a four-year college, and starting by earning an associate degree at a two-year college can be a good option to getting there. You can talk to your teen about community college as a pathway to their goals. Handel says students who have a plan coming in to community college are more likely to be successful in navigating the path of transferring from a two-year to a four-year institution. By saving money and establishing their academic competitiveness, your student will be taking important steps at a community college to achieving their goals.

“What kind of careers could you explore through a community college education?”

For some students, community college makes more sense than four-year colleges or universities for the careers they want to pursue. Talk to your teen about the different programs community colleges offer and the careers they can lead to. Your teen may not realize that a community college education is the best fit for their specific career path. And some teens might not even realize certain jobs exist! Talk to a school counselor about these different options early. With your teen, explore a wide range of jobs and career paths, and the education needed to get there.

“Who do you know that has attended a community college?”

By highlighting successful friends or family members who attended community colleges, your student will likely be more inclined to consider it as a valuable option. Consider mentioning some famous celebrities who went to community college, like Morgan Freeman, Steve Jobs, Eddie Murphy, George Lucas, Hallie Berry, and Queen Latifah, to name just a few. If your teen can see some people in their real life and some people they look up to who went to community college, it might make the prospect much more real and exciting to them.

These questions are a starting point to the many conversations you’ll likely have about continuing education. Take a look at this guide to education after high school for more information and options. And it never hurts to have options! Encourage your student to research community college programs along with four-year programs and technical programs. Help your teen see that there are a wide range of possibilities for them, and pursing a program at a community college can be a great way to get there

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Stephen Handel, Executive Director, Higher Education at The College Board; Wendy Rock, Assistant Professor of Counseling, Southeastern Louisiana University; and Bon Crowder, Math Teacher and Blogger,