Let me set the record straight: I am an unapologetic advocate of getting a community college education. I do not see it as a backup plan or an embarrassment you should hide from and leave off your résumé. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Columnist

I made a mistake.

In a recent column I wrote, “Repeat after me: My child is not a failure if he or she has to start out at a community college.”

Read: Community college should be a first choice, not a last resort

An email from a reader pointed out my subtle — although unintended — slight.

It was the “has to” part in the sentence that didn’t sit well with the person, whose grandson attends a community college.

“We have not and would never use the words ‘has to’ when talking about his choice,” the grandmother wrote.

She’s right.

I updated the wording to reflect my intentions because in the rest of the column I challenged people to see community college not as a last resort but as a first choice. Even so, without realizing it, I, too, had let bias creep into my word choice.

Therein lies the stigma when people take the community college route. It’s often viewed as a less than desirable choice if there isn’t enough money to attend — from the start — a four-year university. But I didn’t mean that people should feel regret or that they are “forced” to attend community college to save money. I recommend that they consider this route along with other college choices because it can greatly reduce the overall cost to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

So, to be clear, let me set the record straight. I am an unapologetic advocate for getting a community college education. I do not see it as a backup plan or an embarrassment you should hide from and leave off your résumé.

I’ve heard from a number of successful community college graduates. But it was the words of people who have taught students that I want to share. And I do so because we have to stop looking down on an alternative to the movie-promoted four-year college experience.

“I spent my entire career (42 years) teaching life sciences at Northern Virginia Community College and can attest that we took our job of teaching very seriously,” wrote Robin Wilson Gorham, professor emeritus. “Unlike faculty at four year universities, we were not required to do research nor spend lots of time applying for research grants. I well remember a biochemistry professor at UC Irvine coming to class one day unprepared and all he said was ‘... research comes first ...’ I attended UC San Diego and UC Irvine through a PhD degree and had many classes taught by teacher assistants or — perhaps worse — unmotivated faculty. I still got a great education but the large classes and crowded laboratories didn’t help.”

John Hebbe has been a high school substitute teacher in Fairfax, Va., for close to 20 years.

“During the final month of each school year, I have a lingering interest in what the plans are, in the forthcoming fall, for many of the students,” he wrote. “Simple question, easy to ask: What are your plans for the fall? For those in families who can afford it, I’m not surprised to hear names of prestigious schools. For those going to a service academy, I almost break their arms congratulating them. Several are unsure about their immediate futures for different reasons. There are some students who shuffle a little and tend to look aside. They respond: ‘Well, I’m thinking about going to Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), words often spoken apologetically. My support for this choice overtakes the conversation. The ears of the Smith girl in the conversation, standing beside the Dartmouth boy, perk up when they notice I’ve overlooked them to congratulate the NOVA applicant, who is usually just as surprised.”

Hebbe goes on to write, “I remind the group that the first year and a half at most schools tends to be general in nature before they undertake courses pertinent to their previously specified areas of endeavor. My goal is to have the NOVA applicant depart with the understanding that his choice, regardless of the driving factors, was a sound one. At times it’s the better one. The next two years for him will be a wonderful launching platform for his later years in college. She — or he — will be so much better equipped to continue down an academic path, now better tailored to their personal interests.”

Bill Nolte, now a research professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, taught for a time at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC). He had evening classes consisting of military personnel stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland.

“I quickly became an advocate of what the community colleges do for this country,” Nolte wrote. “Many of my students had failed in their first — or first and second — attempts at higher education. Many of them simply had not been ready for the automatic progression from high school to college-level work. In many cases, after failures at places including Duke, Penn State, and others, they were back, on their own volition, and with maturity gained from military service, plus just being four or five years older.”

When he worked at the National Security Agency, Nolte said he would run into former students.

“It was one of the great joys of my career to be walking down a corridor at NSA and see a vaguely familiar face approaching me. Over time, I could tell what this was going to be about. The person involved wanted to remind me that eight or 10 years before they had been in my American History survey course at AACC. In the interim, they had finished undergraduate work, were working on or had gotten a graduate degree, and had become commissioned officers or senior noncommissioned officers.”

Nolte’s advice for community college graduates: “I’ve been at Maryland for the last 11 years, and every once in a while a student will note his or her undergraduate degree from Arizona State or Boston University, then note, apologetically, that they really started with an associate degree from a community college. I tell them as firmly as possible that it is their call whether to note that, but that if they do it should be with pride. I’ve had any number of students tell me they gained admission to a very fine university and did not have a class with a member of the tenured faculty until their third year. I’ve also advised neighbors, colleagues, and now my daughter that if their child or grandchild wants or needs community college, they should be encouraged.”

There are many paths to success and it can start with community college.

Carol Sottili, who was a staff writer at The Washington Post for 20 years, started her college career with an associate degree from Nassau Community College in New York. “I was working full-time as a ‘copy boy’ at Newsday after graduating from high school when a colleague there noted that the community college was right down the road. I transferred to the overnight shift at Newsday and started attending community college on my dime as a full-time student during the day," wrote Sottilli, a former Travel section writer. "Two years later, I graduated summa cum laude and then completed my college education (again on my dime) at Buffalo State College. I have since touted the benefits of community college, especially for the children of those who either can’t or won’t pay for a four-year school. It was a life saver for me.”

Just as a note, check with your local community college to see what programs they have to help students make a transition into a four-year degree if that is what they want. In the District, Maryland and Virginia area, where I live, many of the community colleges have transfer partnerships referred to as “articulation agreements” with four-year colleges and universities in the area.

The fact is if you transfer and graduate from a four-year university after having taken classes at a community college or received an associate degree, you still can, without any explanation of your educational path, just include on your resume the degree from university or college. If a bachelor’s degree is required for your employment, a personnel person is just going to check that you graduated from the institution. You don’t have to mention you went to a community college.

But please do. Embrace your educational journey.

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Color of Money Question of the Week

I’d love to hear from community college graduates. Why did you choose to attend community college? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line, put “Community College.”

Live Chat Today

I’m taking the day off.

But join me next week for a discussion about talking to your aging parents about their finances.

Read: Talking to mom and dad about their money isn’t easy. But don’t wait until it’s too late.

If you couldn’t make the chat last week, read the transcript here.

Parent PLUS loans

In last week’s newsletter I talked about parents heavily borrowing to send their children to college.

Read: Why you shouldn’t take on Mom’s debt even if she defaults on the Parent PLUS loan for your education

I asked: Do you feel you’re morally obligated to pay your parent’s PLUS loan? Are you a parent who feels your kid owes it to you to contribute or take over the loan payments?

Tasha Porcello from Anchorage wrote, “I never expected my mother to pay for my schooling. I was grateful she gave me transportation money my first year of college and graduate school. After the first year of each, I took on part time jobs. But if my mother had taken loans out for me, I would have paid them. If you are old enough to be attending college, you are old enough to make your own financial decisions.”

“My wife and I have been married for 12 years and have five children between us, from previous marriages. There is no way for us to afford paying for our children's college,” wrote Michael from Ohio. “My stepdaughter, who is the middle of the five, wanted to go to nursing school. I told her that I would not take loans out for her, either to pay back myself or to transfer to her. I have been working two jobs for most of our marriage just to make ends meet. She got scholarships and grants but could not get a loan. She called me when I was out of town on business, crying, saying she couldn't get a loan and I had to get a loan and she would pay it back. I ended up getting a Parent PLUS loan and believed that it could be easily transferred to her. The deal between us has always been that she would pay it back. She is now married and she and her husband are making payments each month. I don't think that it is wrong for them to make payments because they are the ones benefiting from the education. If we hadn't done it she would have only been able to take classes as fast as she could earn money. I disagree that students should not bear the costs of their college. With that thinking only the very rich and very poor would be able to go. Most American young adults would not have a path to higher education.”

Lorna Gilkey of Alexandria, Va., wrote, “Our decisions as parents are a never-ending battle that we can’t afford to lose. For the sake of our children and all future generations, the cycle of debt MUST be broken. So, NO, I don’t feel it is a moral obligation to pay my parents’ PLUS loans. If the parent wants the bragging rights, then let them pay. But a better rule of thumb is, if you’re paying don’t send your child to a school that will require loans that can’t be paid off within four years.”

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