Community colleges are an oft-overlooked resource for cheap education. They offer classes from trained professionals and provide access to expensive equipment that you otherwise would never be able to use. I love community college for several of reasons:
- Affordability — Community college classes are affordable. Despite recent tuition increases, a class at Portland Community College costs about $200. Community education courses (non-credit classes) cost even less. Some employers will pay for classes; my business will pay for one class per employee per term. If your employer doesn't have a similar policy, ask!
- Facilities — Community colleges have facilities and practical training unavailable at most universities. My local community college has a wood shop, an automotive shop, and quality darkrooms. Many students take classes simply for access to the facilities. A typical woodworking class is self-directed — you decide what your project is, and then have open access to expensive equipment and an instructor willing to help you use it.
- Instructors — Community college classes are generally taught by real professionals from the field. When I learned computer programming, my classes were taught by instructors who wrote code every day for actual employers. (One of my instructors also taught at Portland State University — she taught the exact same courses at Portland Community College for a quarter the cost.) When I take photography classes, I'm being taught by active professional photographers. One of my writing instructors was Craig Lesley, a prominent Northwest author.
- Networking — Community college classes allow you to network with instructors and students, making valuable contacts in your hobby or profession. I took photography classes at the community college for a couple of years, and the contacts I made in these classes continue to benefit me: I can e-mail my former instructors with questions and ideas; I trade photography equipment with other students; I get to watch as certain students make the leap from amateur to professional. I'm currently in a writers group with a former instructor. Some students land jobs through the contacts they make in class.
- Convenience — Community colleges are aware that they serve a large population of students seeking continuing education. They try to make their classes as convenient as possible. I've taken night classes in computer science, writing, photography, algebra, Spanish, and business management. I've taken weekend classes in application design. I've taken late-afternoon classes in assembly language programming. Community colleges make it easy to get additional education.
- Education — Most importantly, community colleges act as a safety net for those who need an education. Some kids aren't ready for high school. Others aren't ready for college. Community colleges are there to help those who have realized the value of an education and are looking to correct mistakes they've made in the past. Even adults in mid-career can use community college courses to change their focus. After eighteen months of community college computer programming courses, I landed a job hacking C++ for an environmental engineer.
When I was in high school, I made fun of the local community college. You'd never catch me going to such a place. No, instead I went to a fancy private institution where yearly tuition cost as much as a nice car. And while I was earning my degree from this fancy private institution (which I love, by the way — don't get me wrong), I made fun of the local community college. That was a place for losers. I'm older now, and wiser.
Over the past fifteen years I've attended a score of community college courses. Only one (small business management) has been a dud. Oftentimes on AskMetafilter, a user will post a question like “How can I improve my photography skills?” or “I want to get better at programming for cheap” or “What's a good way to learn woodworking?” My answer is always: sign up for a class at the community college.