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Busting The Myth Of Community Colleges, Two Years At A Time

Amanda Wisniewski (right) and friend Caitlin Wingfield, who she met on the job, enjoy a Columbus crew game.
Courtesy of Amanda Wisniewski
Amanda Wisniewski (right) and friend Caitlin Wingfield, who she met on the job, enjoy a Columbus crew game.

Amanda Wisniewski discovered her niche while processing specimens at medical testing company, LabCorp.

“I found what I wanted to do forever, because something just clicked,” she says. “Working on the robotics and fixing the problems, it was the highlight of my day.”

Wisniewski wanted to make the highlight of her day her actual job: to work full time on the machines, not just with the machines. She met an engineer who changed her idea of what was possible at her job – and it wasn’t just the work that appealed to her.

“I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I could be making this kind of money and have this astounding job. I’m definitely doing it wrong,” Wisniewski says. “So I actually applied for this company and they turned me down because I didn’t have the education they were looking for, even though I had the experience.”

Wisniewski worked with the exact software and machines the company owned, but she didn’t have a degree. She decided to go back to school.

We hope college degrees will get us the job we really want, but attitudes about four-year universities are changing. Arecent survey found 61% of Americans think higher education is headed in the wrong direction. The reasons: tuition is too high and college doesn’t prepare students for the real world.

Meanwhile, trust is growing in two-year community colleges. The same survey shows that 90% of Americans believe workforce-based programs at community colleges successfully prepare students for good jobs. The perception that community colleges are the place you end up when you can’t get in anywhere else – that’s finally changing.

For Wisniewski, a two-year degree at Columbus State Community College was an obvious option for her career change. She found the program online and connected with Nichole Braun, a guidance counselor for the school’s electro-mechanical engineering program.

Amanda Wisniewski in her welding gear.
Credit Courtesy of Amanda Wisniewski
Amanda Wisniewski in her welding gear.

Braun says the program is successful because it connects students with jobs, not just degrees.

“At college, we always start with the degree,” Braun says. “Why do we start with the degree? The job will determine what degree you get. So I start asking students, ‘What kind of job do you want and what lifestyle are you looking for?’”

Braun says Columbus State ensures students are learning what industries need.

Wisniewski is in a workforce development program that requires on-the-job training in addition to classes. She works directly with machinery and makes some money to help with school.

But there’s a pervading myth about her education – that it doesn’t prepare her to be a real engineer.

“Maybe I don’t have the official title, but I know the machinery inside and out. I know the intricacies. I know how it ticks and how to make it better,” Wisniewski says.

Plus, she’s getting real-world experience at a much lower cost. This matters in an environment where student debt is atan all-time high.

Generation Z, those born in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, are turning more to trade schools and two-year degrees to skirt student debt and get job-specific training. That trend is helping renovate the community college look.

Braun sees Columbus State’s affordability as offering more opportunities to students, not less.

“This is just the beginning,” Braun says. “They’ll change their minds, but the difference is there will be less debt and they’ll have gainful employment in the end. When they change their mind, they’ll have a way to pay for it. The rest of us could buy a house with our debt.”

This story comes from the Rivet podcast, which is part of American Graduate.