Two years at a community college translated into the fulfillment of a dream, as Jonathan Gardner opened his acceptance letter from the University of Virginia.
Gardner is currently a senior English major who attended Germanna Community College prior to applying to UVA.
“If you are motivated to work hard, community college can provide you with the platform to get into top universities,” he said.
Gardner is part of a rising trend among Virginia college students who opted to begin their college careers at a community college, rather than gong straight to a four-year university.
According to the Virginia Community College System website, enrollment in community colleges has risen 30 percent in the past five years. One of the primary causes for this considerable increase can be attributed to the lower tuition costs at community colleges.
“It was great spending less than $4,000 a year during community college and having everything paid for,” Gardner said. “At UVA I am paying triple the cost for housing, full-time tuition and books.”
Old Dominion University junior Nathan Thomas avoided having to take out student loans, which can often plague students even after they’ve graduated, by first attending community college.
“Every semester I was able to pay for tuition and books by myself,” Thomas said.
The federal government has also been providing support for students who wish to get a degree, but can’t afford a traditional university.
Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration has invested over $3.5 billion in Pell Grants for low-income students pursuing education at a community college. With all the emphasis placed on higher education, President Obama hopes that by 2020 an additional five million Americans could earn degrees and certificates.
For many students, attending a community college prepares them for the demands of a university.
“I excelled right away when I got to UVA.” Gardner said. “The primary reason was that Germanna had adequately prepared me for the workload I was going to encounter when I got here.”
Many students attended community college for the freedom to decide what they wanted to major in.
Steven Noel, a 2010 UMW alumnus who majored in International Affairs, said figuring out what he wanted to do was the biggest benefit of community college.
“If you don’t know what you want to do, take the two years of general education classes to decide that. Ultimately it saves you time and money in the long run,” Noel said.
Another benefit of going to a community college before a university is a higher likelihood of being accepted to a desired school.
Transferring is even more accessible with the Virginia Community College System’s Guaranteed Admission Agreement. The program acts as a gateway between community colleges and state universities. Students who earn an associate degree and meet certain grade point average requirements are guaranteed admission into a Virginia college or university.
Schools ranked nationally among the top 25 by U.S. News and World, are participants, including Georgetown University, rhe College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.
Community college as an educational path has become much more acceptable in recent years, but stigmas still linger.
UMW senior Heather McGrath said she experienced this when she decided to enroll in Northern Virginia Community College after graduating from Westfield High School in 2005.
“In high school we used to joke that NOVA was the college where ‘N’ stood for knowledge,” McGrath said.
She added that peers, relatives and family friends questioned her decision, assuming it was her grades that prevented her from going to a university.
“Many still view community college as a negative extension of high school. I remember my parents were adamant several years ago that I not attend community college because they thought it wasn’t up-to-par with a university,” Gardner said.
Community college has become an educational platform for students to save money, experience real academic demands and provide time to decide on a major, but some students find it still doesn’t offer everything.
“If I had known what I wanted to major in, I would have gone straight to a university,” Noel said. “I just never felt engaged or pursued in quite the same way I experienced at UMW. I really wanted the social dynamic of college life but the community college didn’t provide that for me.”
Dana Cazan, Cindy Chavez, Frederick Couper and Ryan Davis contributed to this report.