Getting A Certificate Versus Getting An Associate's Degree
When you're going to a community college, getting an associate's degree seems like a no-brainer. It's the most prestigious kind of degree offered at such institutions and is the only way to even get a chance at transferring to a four year university. Consequentially, the degree is often viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger and better things, i.e. a bachelor's or, for the most ambitious students, graduate degrees, encouraging those who finally complete their undergraduate studies to never look back at the humble, often-local institutions where they first started in their post-secondary education.
Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude towards community colleges is not only widespread but justifiable in the minds of many. Parents urge their children to work hard so they can go straight to a four year college and incur thousands of dollars of debt, desperate to avoid the affordable little school down the street because all the "bad kids" their kids knew in high school will end up going there. Students spring at the opportunity to study out-of-town or even out-of-state over the ability to walk to and from class everyday. And college grads, man, are they just happy to never have to set foot on the grounds of their old junior college again. This is not to say community colleges don't have their own share of problems - they do, just like any institution out there - or that there are areas in which four year universities are objectively superior to them, but by zeroing in on these superficial qualities, one risks overlooking major opportunities offered by community colleges.
Although the education offered by such colleges are not regarded nearly as highly as those offered by universities, the information covered in them is, depending on what you do with it, equally, if not more so, useful. While a mathematics professor who teaches at, say, UC Berkeley is probably more renowned amongst his peers than the guy who teaches algebra at your local junior college, two plus two is four regardless of whether the professor teaching you it has tenure or not. If your goal is not so much to gain recognition for the stuff you know as it is the ability to use it in your career or day-to-day life, then community college is a great place to acquire reams of such knowledge, which brings me to the main point of this piece.
It is often brought up by guidance counselors, but a viable alternative to an associate's degree is a technical or vocational certificate. Whereas the former generally seeks to ground students in a wider approach to the field they are pursuing, the latter focuses more on the practical aspects of your major, immersing you in the processes and activities that are part of your major. This is not to say that theory is neglected, but the emphasis is definitely more hands-on than it would be with a traditional degree. Of course, students who really want to familiarize themselves with the theory behind their area of study still have the option of taking related classes on their own time to boost their own understanding. It won't necessarily grant them degree credit, but for those who are serious about their trade, it is invaluable.
It may be verboten to acknowledge the simply fact that college isn't for everyone, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't consider options for those who are interested or would benefit more from the kind of career a technical certificate allows one to pursue. It helps students who already know what they want to do dive right into the nitty gritty of it as well as acquaints them with how the industry they want to take part in works. It also provides college grads who feel like they need to beef up on practical knowledge to supplement their anthropology or sociology degree. If you're serious about learning something useful or just want to add another skill or several to your toolbelt, check out your local community college's certificate program.