I’ve had an almost comically varied career path, founding companies in education, robotics and beverages. The most surprising part of my résumé is the most mundane: I went to community college.
For me, the logic was simple. I saved thousands of dollars and the credits counted exactly the same as those from Boston University, from which I ultimately earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and communications. As the son of a school teacher, the savings meant the world to me. And they mean the world to plenty of other students around the U.S.
Community-college tuition costs roughly one-tenth what an average private, four-year university costs, even less when you factor in on-campus housing. While financial aid can reduce private tuition bills, it can also make community college nearly free.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 41% of all undergraduates in the U.S. are enrolled in community colleges, including 39% of first-time freshmen. Those numbers should be even higher. Most college students should begin their careers at community colleges so they can graduate debt-free.
What’s preventing them? Students are embarrassed by community college or simply don’t know enough about it. A recent graduate told me that he didn’t even know that community college, or “junior college” in his words, was real college until he was a junior at his state school. He thought it was a remedial school for delinquents.
This stigma stems from worry about how employers might view community-college credits. This concern is misguided. Labor-market data show a two-year associate’s degree from a community college delivers a significant boost in lifetime income to students. After two years, students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree can simply transfer to a traditional four-year college or university, where they’ll go to class alongside the students who paid full price for four years.
In the process, they can save between $12,000 and $54,000. The average student loan balance in the U.S. is $38,792. This means that we could dramatically reduce new student debt in the U.S. by doing nothing more than normalizing community college for the first two years of undergraduate studies.
Student debt is swallowing young people’s future, limiting their upward mobility while narrowing their opportunities. How many promising careers have been nipped by the high costs of traditional college? How many students have opted for safe, lucrative but unfulfilling careers merely to pay off a backbreaking debt load?
College debt lowers students’ chances of success and fulfillment. Paying less for a degree fundamentally changes your perspective on it; paying too much shifts fresh grads’ focus to their return on investment. When it’s inexpensive to explore new pathways, higher education becomes more about what students want to study rather than how much money they might make in a specific major.
Community college isn’t only for recent high-school graduates. My mom went to college for the first time when she was 44 and raising five children. A job at an oil refinery helped her develop the confidence to return to school. She spent 3½ years taking general-education courses at Diablo Valley College while working first at a self-storage company and later at
She then transferred to California State University, East Bay, earned her degree in sociology, and now works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at a job she loves, rehousing homeless vets.
My mother’s story isn’t common enough, because we haven’t given community college the dignity it deserves. Community college is the hidden, affordable gem of America’s postsecondary educational system. Every prospective college student needs to know it.
Mr. Rasmussen is a co-founder of MasterClass and CEO and founder of Outlier.org.
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Appeared in the July 16, 2021, print edition.