Breaking the Stigma around Community College: an astro[sound] bite

by Kiersten Boley & Sabrina Berger

Kiersten Boley is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate at The Ohio State University. She studies the connection between planet formation and the evolution of our galaxy along with magma ocean planet interiors and their evolution. She received her Bachelor’s in Physics from Georgia Tech, and began university at Georgia Highlands College.

Sabrina Berger is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne researching the high redshift universe both observationally and theoretically! She received her Bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at UC Berkeley where she did research in rocky exoplanet modeling. She started her higher education journey at Diablo Valley College.

What is community college?

Before we dive into the bite, let’s first all get on the same page about what an American community college is. In the US, community colleges are institutions where anyone can do the first two years of an undergraduate education and pursue an associate’s degree. There might be an eight-year-old and 88-year-old in an astronomy or physics class at your local college. Community college is a place where we can all access inexpensive and quality education within the US. They can act as an equalizer in the American education system where the ranking of your primary and secondary education is usually correlated with the affluence of your family. Because community college professors can devote more of their time to teaching and have to cater to a diverse range of backgrounds, they tend to make their classes more accessible while maintaining the rigor necessary for students to transfer courses to four-year universities.

Quick question — what is your opinion of community college? If you grew up in the US and didn’t go to one, our guess is that your opinion of community college is probably neutral or negative. Our goal for this astrobite and our two astro[sound]bites beyond episodes (Episode 67 and 68) is to work towards breaking the stigma around community colleges and share stories of those who attended. If you haven’t heard of astro[sound]bites, we’re a podcast spinoff of astrobites featuring four astronomy Ph.D. students who come together and synthesize astronomy research every other week. In these two astro[sound]bites episodes, we include stories from more than five community college attendees who later successfully pursued PhDs in astronomy, including Dra. Natalie Nicole Sanchez, Dr. Andria C. Schwortz, and even yours truly (i.e., both the authors of this astrobite)! We’re here to advocate for community college goers in an effort to diversify the backgrounds of those entering astronomy.

Our Experiences:

To give you a taste of some of the topics that we discuss in these astro[sound]bites episodes, we’ve included a brief look into our experience attending community college below. 

Kiersten: My journey to becoming an astrophysicist was non-linear. In fact, I didn’t even want to become a physicist until I went to community college. Since my family wasn’t able to support me financially through university, community college was the best option for me financially to begin my higher education journey. Looking back, it was the best and most defining decision I made in terms of my career. If it weren’t for my time there, I wouldn’t be pursuing science, because it was my introductory physics classes and Professor Mark Pergrem at Georgia Highlands College that ultimately led me to physics and then to astronomy. It wasn’t all happy though. At the time, I felt a lot of shame associated with being “stuck” in my hometown at community college. Often people actively discouraged me when I told them that I wanted to be an engineer. However, my professors at community college were always supportive, and some of the most caring and impactful professors that I’ve had were there. They sparked my love of science, which helped me push through some of the most grueling courses that I had once I transferred to Georgia Tech. 

Sabrina: When I was at community college and told people that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, many people didn’t believe me. Before transferring to UC Berkeley, I studied at Diablo Valley College for two years. I haven’t even felt comfortable telling many of my peers that I attended community college until recently. My entire family attended community college, and I didn’t receive any training on how to prepare for college applications while growing up. The support and inclusiveness of my community college physics classes enabled me to embark on a career in astrophysics that I don’t think I would have found elsewhere. I encountered excellent professors, including Professor Michael Connor, who spent hours explaining electricity and magnetism to me on the blackboard in his office. I felt comfortable asking questions and participating actively in physics courses in a way that I rarely felt after leaving Diablo Valley College. Since then, I have often sought out environments like the ones I had in community college where professors leave their doors open and offer help in a supportive, non-judgemental way.

What are the benefits of community college?

Average Tuition Fees for Community Colleges in the U.S by geographic region
Figure 1: Average Tuition fee at public community colleges in the U.S. by Region. Source: The College Board

There are major advantages to attending community college before transferring to a four-year university. One of these is price. According to Educational Data Initiative, the average tuition cost to attend community college is ​​$3400 per year compared to the average four-year public university in-state tuition of $9500 per year. According to Figure 1, community college tuitions vary depending on the region that you live in. For example, New England and the Western USA have the highest and lowest community college tuition, respectively. If you study at a university out of state, you could be paying anywhere between $28K  and $56K per year in tuition, with the higher end for almost all private universities. Attending community college before transferring to a four-year institution could save you between $6K and $53K per year.
Most community colleges pair with in-state four-year institutions to make it easier for students to transfer. This usually includes information on which classes at the community college are the equivalent version of classes at the four-year institution. This makes it possible to plan your whole college career. If you’re wondering about the science offerings at a community college, you shouldn’t be concerned as most two-year colleges offer all math and introductory physics classes that you’ll need to transfer, along with at least a few astronomy classes. There are also research opportunities if you know where to look. There are many paid research experience programs which encourage community college students to apply. We’ve collected a list of a few programs at the end of this post, so check them out!

Some Final Thoughts

Community college can cultivate an environment where diversity can thrive unlike anywhere else. Students from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to find others from their background at community colleges rather than at 4-year institutions (See Understanding Community Colleges). For instance, the study and social environment are set up to be more inclusive – community colleges offer an extensive range of night classes and free tutoring programs. 

If we’ve sparked your interest in community college, you can listen to our two community college astro[sound]bites on our website or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, Audible, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. We also have a twitter @astrosoundbites, so tweet at us and let’s start a Twitter thread where we all share our experiences in community college and where it has led us today. Let’s work together to break the stigma around going to community college! 

Research Experiences Open to Community College Students:

We’ve started a collaborative Google Doc where we can keep track of research experiences open to or that have accepted community college students. Feel free to add any that you know of that we didn’t get to. 

Edited by: Will Saunders, Sabina Sagynbayeva, Lili Alderson

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1 Comment

  1. Dr. Connor!!!!! The best professor! Almost studied physics because of him but glad I didnt 🙂

    Reply

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