THE BLOG
09/15/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

The Biggest Misconception About Community College

Community college is not a second-class education.

It's a first-class opportunity.

Are there a lot of things community colleges could improve? Of course. Are there a lot of ways higher education needs to get better in order to make the American Dream more of a reality for more people, especially those traditionally underrepresented in higher education? Heck yes!

But I think what we've done, and what we've got, in community colleges, is still pretty dang special.

Community colleges don't accept just "anyone." They accept everyone. And like any form of public education, that's what makes it so complicated and so important. Educating people from all different backgrounds with many different abilities and needs is hard hard hard.

But it's worth doing. And here's the thing I think a lot of people -- students included -- misunderstand about community colleges:

Just because they don't require a particular SAT score for admission does not mean that classes aren't hard or that getting a degree isn't going to take a tremendous amount of effort and sacrifice.

Community college is hard.

If it were so easy, the graduation rates would be higher.

But as a close friend and long-time beloved community college professor once told me, "I tell my students, there's no such thing on a transcript as 'community college Algebra.' It's still algebra, and often the same textbook being used at four-year schools."

Community college is hard work. Students may end up in community college or choose to go to community college for a variety of reasons. It's a great way to save. It's a great way to start. It's a great way to learn.

But it's also a lot of work. Sometimes even more so because the temptation to just go to class and go home is so huge. Students who are successful in community college do more than just go to class and go home. They branch out. They join (and lead) clubs. They visit professors during their office hours. They hound the career center. They spend time in the tutoring center. They do their homework and research in the college library. They stay on campus.

Many appreciate community colleges for their flexibility, as there are many students who have to balance school with work and family obligations. But college - yes, even community college - isn't something you can casually do on the side, especially if you decide to go full time.

College requires all of you. Your time management skills, your growth, your open-mindedness, your strength, your resilience, your learning, your time, and your greatest effort.

A community college degree is valuable. Because it's hard. Students transfer from community colleges to Ivy Leagues and then graduate from those Ivy Leagues. That wouldn't be possible if their first two years hadn't prepared them for their last two.

A community college education is something to be proud of.

But if that feeling of pride is to be felt by many more students, especially those who start community college but don't finish where they intended -- walking down that aisle in that squared hat -- they must understand from the beginning that they are about to embark on a very great but very difficult adventure.

Like any worthwhile endeavor, it's going to be hard. It's going to be stressful. There are going to be times where they'll question everything, especially themselves.

That is why community college students should never try to do college alone, or without purpose. They must figure out why they're there -- what's in it for them? Why would it be worth all the time and effort and sacrifice that will be required?

And they must also build their college community by reaching out to peers, professors, and professional mentors (as I share in my book). College completion is a team sport.

That's why graduation is such a special moment. It's the moment when you bring your team together and enjoy the victory. It's when you realize your hard work actually mattered, that your actions actually can lead you towards accomplishing a goal.

It's that moment when you feel like all that hard work actually paid off. And that is the moment more community college students should feel. They can't do it alone. And they can't do it if we pretend like what they're doing is easy.