Community colleges play increasingly vital role

Community colleges embody their name, providing an opportunity for all in the community who wish to begin or continue higher education.

I was kicked out of community college once – sort of. I’m so glad it wasn’t permanent.

It wasn’t my grades or a violation of academic integrity policies that doomed my college career before it began. It was my age.

I was 15 when I took entrance exams and applied to community college. But Pierce College didn’t allow Running Start students younger than 16 to enroll without meeting requirements for a special exception. With little guidance from high school counselors, I eventually found paperwork to petition for entrance and was accepted. I started fall quarter classes at Pierce College Puyallup a week before my 16th birthday.

Undeniably, enrolling in community college through Running Start was the best decision I made with my education.

Community colleges, with open enrollment and low tuition, are the gateway for students of any background to academic degrees and employment. Prospective students who graduated from high school with a low grade-point average or didn’t graduate at all are welcomed at community college, supported by open admission policies.

With an average student age of 29, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges educate and represent an age-diverse student body. Racial diversity, too, is an important component of community college education. Community colleges are more racially diverse than the U.S. population as reported in the 2010 U.S. Census, with white students making up 58 percent of the population at community colleges, according to the AACC.

Accessible tuition pricing is necessary to enrolling low-income students, and with increased education comes lower unemployment rates and higher salaries. The average yearly tuition cost at two-year universities is $3,131, less than 40 percent of the $8,655 average yearly tuition for in-state students at public four-year universities, according to the College Board.

Even a two-year degree pays off. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings for a person with an associate degree in 2013 were $777. Workers with high school diplomas earned a median of $100 less weekly, and workers with less than a high school diploma earned a median of $300 less weekly.

Community colleges receive criticism for undereducated instructors and undereducated students, yet 80 percent of full-time faculty hold master’s, professional or doctoral degrees, according to the AACC, and graduates begin careers in the medical field and transfer to four-year universities.

Community colleges are the place to educate the uneducated and build successful communities. I’m proud to have started my higher education career at a community college.

Kaitlyn Hall, a 2014 Pierce College Puyallup graduate, is now a student at Pacific Lutheran University.