From Community College to MBA – My Story

Working Women Wednesdays gives you tips, tricks, and information about being a successful working mom in corporate America. Today’s topic – getting an education while being a mom

It’s advice you hear all the time – go to (or have your kids go to) community college to start out, then transfer to a four-year school. You get the same degree at a fraction of the cost. But often people will dismiss this path, saying that it doesn’t work. Well I’m proof that it can work, and you can do it too.

What are the reasons that I hear for it not working?

  • The credits won’t transfer
  • Community college students often drop out or don’t finish
  • The quality of the education is lower
  • You can’t get a good job after going to community college
  • Community college is only for “non-traditional” students: not those right out of high school

You can overcome all of those – let me tell you how after I tell you my story

college-board-game
In the game of life, this is where I started.

My Community College Story

When I was about to graduate from high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for college. There was no specific educational path that jumped out at me. I did very well on the SAT’s, and pretty well in school, although I did get into a lot of trouble my junior year of high school (yes, I was a big troublemaker. People who know me today wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true). As far as my parents were concerned, this had wrecked my chances of getting into a good college-so why bother trying?

Without encouragement, college tours, or a way to pay application fees, I didn’t see how I was going to go off to a four-year school like some of my friends or the people I read about in books and magazines. My parents also refused to fill out the FAFSA because they didn’t want me to know their financial situation. So I felt like I was stuck with no other option than to pay for college in full myself (you can’t get loans without the FAFSA).

Instead of giving up, I got a job where I would be reimbursed for college tuition. It was working for a Fortune 500 companies call center, answering questions about insurance. They were willing to hire an 18-year-old, and I was willing to work. So I worked full time and went to community college full time nights and weekends.  The cost of school was almost covered by the tuition reimbursement. There were some extra fees and books that weren’t covered, so I saved part of my paychecks every week to cover those.

Working in that call center taught me that I wanted to work in a place that was not a call center. The work was long, hard, people were always mad at you, and you were chained to your desk all day long. I would check out other jobs at the company during my breaks and lunches, and noticed that if you had a degree in accounting or finance, there were a lot of job options available. Now, I’d always liked personal finance, and I figured corporate finance couldn’t be too different. So I switched from a general “business” focus to an accounting focus.

accounting
Accounting – not just for nerds anymore. Oh wait, I am a nerd…never mind

This community college had a program where you could transfer up to two years of credits to one of their partner state schools. So I focused, worked hard, did very well, and was able to transfer every single credit to a four-year school.

Now the four-year school was twice the cost of the community college, so I needed all those savings to cover the fees and books. At this school tuition costs were roughly equal to the fee cost, so I had to pay for half the cost out of pocket every semester. By now I was extremely determined to finish quickly at all costs, and get out of the call center and onto a better job. So I went to school full time nights, weekends, and during the summer I took three classes. I even took a class over winter break. Going to school full time and working full time was no picnic, but I could see that I was almost done and kept pushing hard to the finish line.

Of course all this work and school didn’t leave time for extra activities. Joining a club, a sorority, watching a basketball game, partying with friends? No time. When I left college I didn’t have those kind of lifelong college friends I saw other people making. When you go to school off hours and live off campus, you’re often going with non-traditional students. I was the same age as a traditional college student but felt at least a decade older, and I didn’t hang around on campus, so I only had a handful of friends. This actually made it hard to get a job too – when could I look for work? My lack of extracurricular activities hurt my applications to some places. They didn’t see that I was a person who worked their butt off and supported themselves while working full time and going to school full time. They either saw “a call center employee” or “a college student with no activities”.

Fortunately for my job prospects, I volunteered at work for any project not related to taking phone calls (so I wouldn’t have to be on the phone!). At three and a half years in, I had some of the longest time in the call center. Typical turnover in a call center is about a year. I helped out with a special project where we had to talk to IT about a new paper application process. They got to know me and my work, and I shared with them that I was going to be finishing college in seven months. They invited me to apply for a position as a Business Analyst, which I thought sounded great because it didn’t involve taking phone calls. I interviewed and got the position. So my last semester of college I had a full time job as an IT business analyst while going to school full time.

I graduated from that school with high honors, as a member of several honor societies, with a few awards, and zero debt. From there I worked on my career as a business analyst, rising up the ranks at the company to more senior positions every few years. After about five years of working, a few raises and promotions, I started reading more and more about advanced degrees. Although I was proud of my hard work and what I’d done, I knew others didn’t see my work in the same way. Also, as I studied business problems I really wanted to one day be in a position to solve the kinds of complex issues I would read about in the Harvard Business Review, or Wall Street Journal. (Yes, I was reading those for fun. Yes, I have an odd sense of fun.)

debt-free
Debt free education, got to love it

When you read the Harvard Business Review for fun, you just might want to go back to school to get an MBA. And that’s exactly what I did. I took the GMAT and scored very highly. But I had two kids, a mortgage, and a full time job – I couldn’t exactly just take off work for two years to get a degree. So instead of applying to an elite school, or some kind of fishy online part-time program (I’m looking at you University of Phoenix), I applied to my flagship state schools in person part time MBA program. It’s considered a top program for a public school – number one in my region. So I went there for four years -I couldn’t be as crazy as I was in undergrad with the demands of work and two kids- and received my MBA. Again it was mostly reimbursed by the company I worked for, and then the next company when I changed jobs, except for books and certain fees. I traveled to China and France to study and graduated from my state flagship-debt free.

Countering the Community College Cons

college-word-cloud

So now you know my story, and you can probably see why I’m so passionate about community college. When I had no other options open to me, it gave me a stepping stone to afford to start my education. It’s inexpensive enough where you can pay for it in full with the reimbursements you can get from working at Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, or UPS – you don’t need to work in a call center like I did.

Now over the years I’ve heard and read a lot of arguments against starting out at community college – or making your kids start there on the way to bigger and better things. The key to countering most or all of these is good planning and being very clear about why you’re going to school.

  • The credits won’t transfer
    • Yes, they will, if you’re careful. Many community colleges have a program where you can transfer credits to specific four year schools and the transfer is guaranteed. This takes some research and planning, so you can’t just take whatever you want (underwater basket weaving?) and expect it to transfer to an engineering degree, for example. Community college can be a great, inexpensive way to start college and get some of the basic classes out of the way while you work to figure out what you want to do. And you can take it even further by taking certain courses you know will transfer, saving even more money
  • Community college students often drop out or don’t finish
    • There is truth to this. Over six years full time community college students graduate only 57% of the time, and all students only 39% of the time, looking over six years according to this article from Inside Higher Ed. That sounds alarming until you look at all colleges graduation rate – which, according to this article from Slate, is 55%. I technically left my community college before completing my degree, because I transferred. According to that same article from Slate, 9.8% of community college students went on to complete a four year degree at a different institution. That can be you! Why do students drop out? Academic demands. Can’t afford tuition. Family issues. Stress. Not sure what you’re going to do with the degree. You can counter these by having a firm goal and a plan you can adjust when needed to get your degree. Failing to plan is planning to fail, and you shouldn’t not take it seriously because it’s “just community college”. If you don’t work hard, make plans, and have a goal, you will not succeed.
  • The quality of the education is lower
    • Remember that I’ve been to community college, a four year state school, and a top public school. I did not find the quality of the education at my community college to be lower than when I was taking my MBA. Of course the MBA classes were harder because they were higher level. But at all the schools, there were good teachers, bad teachers, and mediocre teachers. And the thing I appreciated about the community college was just how many of the teachers worked in the field. My auditing class was taught by – an auditor. My accounting class by an accountant. So not only were they teaching the material, they could apply it to real-world situations. This was true in my MBA classes as well, but to a lesser extent. Many of those teachers were full-time instructors with limited experience in the working world. Like the real world, you will get out of your education what you put into it – no matter what the school
  • You can’t get a good job after going to community college
    • No one cares that you went to a community college once you’ve been in the workforce. They care about the quality of your work. Heck, if you’ve transferred your credits to a different school you can even leave the community college off your resume. And your workplaces usually only care about what’s called your “terminal degree” – the highest level degree that you’ve received. And what’s my terminal degree? An MBA from the top public business school in my region. No one knows or cares that I started out in community college. Also, lets take a look at unemployment rates by educational level, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). High school degree or no college has an unemployment rate of 5.4% back in April 2015, while some college or an associate degree was 4.7%. Bachelor’s or higher was 2.7%. If you look at that page, you’ll notice that the spread between unemployment rates at different educational levels is highest during the Great Recession and lowest during better times. Here’s another chart from the BLS that outlines both the unemployment rate and average weekly earnings by education level. You can see that not only do “some college or associates degree” students have a lower unemployment rate, but they also earn more every week than someone with a high school diploma. That extra $120 a week doesn’t sound like a lot until you calculate that it works out to $6,240 per year – or almost $200k over thirty years. That’s a big difference!
  • Community college is only for “non-traditional” students: not those right out of high school
    • I met plenty of kids right out of high school who went to my community college. Of course most of the students were much older (aka non-traditional) – and I loved it! I found other students my age didn’t take school seriously, or goofed off. Often they would be in the first few classes and then drop out, especially if the class was early on a Saturday morning. The non-traditional students knew why they were there. They paid attention, asked good questions, worked hard, and shared stories from their working life. They all had a reason that life had taken them down a different road, and they all had a clear goal as to why they were there. So I feel that a “traditional” student has a lot to learn from those that are older, wiser, and farther down the road of life.

My College-Related Dreams

Given this background, I might have become one of those “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type of people. With my kids I might have told them that since I was on my own for college, they would be too. But that’s not what happened. Having worked so hard for so many years to reach my own goals, I want to help others.

First, my own kids. I have three boys of varying ages (13, 9, and 1 ½). My dream for them is to save enough to fully fund four years at the top public school in my state. If they want to go elsewhere I will help them visit the school and help them apply, guide them through the financial aid process, but I will only pay up to the amount for the public school. They will need work, savings, scholarships, grants, other aid, and maybe even loans to make up the difference. I will be there to help and support them, and I will fill out the FAFSA for them, but I won’t write a blank check. Check back for future posts detailing my college philosophy and plan.

Second, others like me. I know there are other people like I was out there. They are bright but had a rough time in high school. Maybe they had a bad family situation, ran away, struggled with depression, had a baby as a teenager or very young adult, or had some other life circumstance that has kicked them down. Maybe they’re also working full time and going to school, to try and better their life, but struggling financially or with their family to balance everything. I want to help those people one day. So once my own kids are taken care of, I plan to create a scholarship fund specifically for community college in my state, to help others like the me of 18 years ago get the hand up they need to launch into a better life.

Did you get through college debt free like I did? Have you explored community college as an option? Let me know in the comments.

11 thoughts on “From Community College to MBA – My Story

  1. I was accepted to a four year school out of high school. The summer before my freshman year in college I took four pre-requisites through my community college. I then took another four pre-requisites the next summer. I was able to knock out eight classes which in turn helped me graduate college in three and a half years.

    I had a great education from community college and definitely recommend it 🙂

    Like

    1. That’s an awesome idea, and a great way to save money! I also know some kids who take a few classes at community college during high school. The costs are so much less than a four year school and the credits transfer easily if you’re careful about what you take

      Liked by 1 person

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