Out of high school, with little idea of what I wanted to be, I turned to a small school in the middle of nowhere, Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming. I’m glad I went.
As many of my classmates chose four-year universities, I opted for a more affordable junior college, where I would earn an Associate of Arts in photography and, more importantly in the long run, a lot of general studies credits.
I graduated with a degree I would rarely use but transferred most of my credits to the University of Montana to study print journalism. Luckily, the rest fell into place.
The importance of an option to attend a junior, or community, college cannot be overstated. For every high school student who knows they want to be an engineer when they graduate, there are the rest of us who know they want to do something — they just don’t know what it is.
I was reminded of the value of my first years of college when I read Dillon Tabish’s story last week on the first 50 years of Flathead Valley Community College. Despite the nation’s economy rebounding from a recession, which sent many people back to school to learn a new trade, our local college’s student body numbers have remained strong and rose to 2,263 full-time and part-time students this semester, up 4.3 percent from a year ago.
FVCC was born from a basic concern shared by a few determined locals: Not enough area high school graduates were going to college, and those who were had to relocate someplace else. According to research conducted before FVCC’s creation 50 years ago, just 20 percent of Kalispell’s high school seniors planned on continuing their schooling. To change that, those locals believed, the valley should have college of its own. And now it does.
Now there is another option for those who only want a two-year degree, or to save money before they transfer, or who find a community or junior college a better place to figure out what they want to be.
At Northwest College, I tried my hand at everything. Along with photography, I studied creative writing, graphic design, and mathematics. I learned a little about a lot and worked at nearby Yellowstone National Park in the summer to help pay for the classes.
When I entered the University of Montana, I had little debt and enough credits that I was able to earn a Bachelor’s Degree two-and-a-half years later.
Today, community college students represent 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Of those, 36 percent are the first generation from their families to attend college. And the annual average tuition at a community college nationwide is $3,430 compared to $9,410 at a four-year public college.
Our state universities are still relatively affordable, and those students who choose to attend them or others can earn great educations. I’m proud of my degree from UM and stay involved in the school whenever I can. I’m also glad I had another option out of high school, to earn an education at a two-year school before making the jump to a larger university.
During this political season, candidates for higher office have campaigned on the importance of community college and even advocated that it, and even four-year public universities, should be tuition free. I doubt that will happen, but for high school seniors and nontraditional students alike looking to find a first or new career path, there’s a great option right in our backyard.