Skip The Debt, Reap Immediate Rewards: Why I Chose Community College for My Design Education

Nubby Twiglet | Skip The Debt, Reap Immediate Rewards: Why I Chose Community College for My Design Education

Over the weekend, I joined my family at a gathering to celebrate our relative’s high school graduation. High school isn’t easy — and making it through deserves a party! As the party wound down, I asked her dad what the next step was. Did she want to go to college? He said yes and we moved onto chatting about how community college was the smart choice with the cost of school going up so rapidly.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you probably already know that I am a super fan of community college — so much so that I earned three separate degrees on my local campus. Why? It’s practical, affordable, fast-paced and the schedules are set up for the real world since most attendees are probably working or raising a family. It’s full of so many wins and provided the foundation for the career I have today.

Even though I swear by community college now, I’ll be honest — it wasn’t my first choice. Post-high school, the allure of big-name schools with beautifully designed welcome packets definitely swayed me. I looked at art schools in Portland and New York but every time, felt a lump in my throat when I saw the cost of tuition. Without a college fund, there was no way it was going to happen.

Realistically, I knew that community college was my only option at the time so I sucked it up and enrolled. Once I got there, I went from feeling uncool to savvy when I realized that many of my teachers also lectured at much bigger, prestigious schools. And, they had so many success stories of people they’d taught doing amazing things that it gave me confidence in my decision.

When I went back to school in 2006, it was only after I’d toured bigger schools once again, feeling out their graphic design programs. The cost still got to me — paying loans back into old age felt like a heavy weight I just couldn’t bear. I wanted to own a house, travel and have a savings account. A huge bill in my mailbox every month felt like a shackle on my future.

Instead, I enrolled in a limited entry program when I was 25 years old. The days were long but the classes were informative, the instruction top-notch and interestingly, after comparing notes, I later found out that many of our projects were exactly the same as the art schools and universities.

Within two semesters, the skills I’d learned helped me land my own clients and by the end of the first year, thanks to a connection from my teacher, I had an internship at a thriving design studio.

When I graduated, I had less than $10,000.00 worth of debt and made enough extra income from working full-time at a studio and freelancing on the side to pay off my loans in about 2 years.

Having a design degree from community college didn’t stop me from working with companies including Virgin Records, Forever 21, Nike or Adidas — education is important but so is hard work and forging your own path. A name on a diploma only means so much — it’s what you do with your skills that will take you the furthest.

In case you’re interested, this is the graphic design program I attended and I can’t recommend it highly enough. This post isn’t sponsored in any way — with graduation winding up and research for schools beginning, I want to remind you that there are other options for your education that aren’t publicized nearly enough.

Have questions about my program or community college in general? Let me know in the comments!

Photo: Bubblerock.

32 Responses to Skip The Debt, Reap Immediate Rewards: Why I Chose Community College for My Design Education

  1. Kat Curling says:

    Wow. Your education experience sounds a lot like mine. When I was getting ready to graduate high school I was dead set on the big artsy school idea. Then the price really got me. I completed my degree at a community college too and have no regrets.

    I’m sure it varies with the field of study, but for artists and designers you really do learn as much as you allow yourself to. I’d say 90% of what I know was self taught or by trial and error in real world situations anyways.

    Glad I’m not the only one who feels this way!

  2. Tracy says:

    Thanks for this, I’ve been curious to hear more about your experience.

    I went to an Ivy for undergrad, but when I needed to fulfill prereqs for a career change, community college was the perfect choice. At $46/credit, it’s been a great way for me to dip my toes into a new field without giving up my day job.

    Mostly I’ve really enjoyed the atmosphere. My classmates are diverse, and they’re either practically driven to use the knowledge for a career change (like me), or they just really love learning. It’s quite a difference from my cutthroat experience back in undergrad.

    • Shauna says:

      I agree with you about the diversity! And I loved that my classes were full of people looking for a career change — their backgrounds added so much to the mix. Learning SHOULD be affordable and I’m glad you’ve had the opportunity to learn in a way that works with your budget and schedule!

  3. christine says:

    I did the four-year liberal arts college thing, and graduated with a (completely impractical) double major in philosophy and creative writing. What I really wanted was to go to art school, but I let my mom convince me that the traditional path was more “practical.”

    Then, I earned a master’s degree in computer science, with a focus on educational design, in a night-school program offered through Harvard University’s Extension School.

    Now, I design online classrooms and instructional materials for General Assembly. So continuing ed is a topic I’m SUPER-passionate about!

    Recently, I attended a talk on the future of educational technology, where the mind-blowing thought of the evening came from Coursera’s Julia Stiglitz, who noted that “this new lifelong learning category” didn’t exist even a decade or two ago. She challenged the audience to ask and answer the questions: “WHY go to college? Why STOP at four years of school? How much longer will we NEED the current K-12+4 model? And WHAT will the new model look like?”

    I think it it looks a lot like your experience, and mine, and the ones I’m building at my day job.

    • Shauna says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience here! Like many of us, you found your path in a less linear way but it sounds like it’s all worked out. And Julia is totally right about the “lifelong learning category” — that’s something I think about a lot. And, it’s part of the reason why digital courses are so helpful because we now have the power to learn exactly what we want, when we want.

  4. Andrea says:

    I’m a college professor, and while there are some college experiences you may only get at an Ivy League or big name school – knowledge is knowledge. The most important contribution to a worthwhile college education is the attitude of the student. If you go in trying to learn the most you can (instead of doing the least possible to get a good grade as many students do) it doesn’t matter where you go. That attitude will get you a good education at any price and success after you graduate.

  5. Steff says:

    Awesome post, Shauna! Your career is a testament to the fact that the prestige level of your school matters not a bit! We are really blessed here in NZ that our student loans are interest free, so it is a bit easier to pay them off. My husband just paid his off and it’s an awesome feeling and a bit like getting a pay rise :)

    Where you decide to go to university/college matters much less than how hard you work and the contacts you make. Sometimes it’s even better to be a big fish in a small sea. I earned 11 scholarships at university that got me through my degree debt-free, many of them I was one of only a handful of people applying. I wouldn’t have stood a chance at an Ivy League (although it’s still one of my dreams to study obscure ancient texts at Oxford one day).

    • Shauna says:

      Steff, that is absolutely AMAZING that you got 11 scholarships! You’re a perfect example of someone who has used drive and determination to carve out a great career.

  6. Brittanny says:

    I love how much you advocate for going to community college. I’ve been out of college for ten years and I’m so glad I went to a state school. It wasn’t a CC but I suppose you could say a step up from it. The money saved is staggering and I can say that I am on the same level as my contemporaries that went to big name schools with even bigger tuitions.

  7. Iida-Emilia says:

    This is one reason I’m happy to live in Finland. Higher education is free here and all the unis and colleges are equal. But I actually think you really made a wise decision. Having a debt over 100 000 dollars after graduation sounds like a terrible thing :s

  8. Misaki Shimizu says:

    Being from Europe, I never understood the issues of Americans with school costs until a few years ago. I still can’t believe they are charging so much for school education!

    Otherwise, I agree with you and regardless of which school you attend, I guess you can make the most of it only through hard work. (Like, someone in community college can have better results through hard work than someone in a fancy school who is lazy haha)

    • Shauna says:

      It’s totally backwards here and even though people can’t afford it, prices continue to skyrocket every year. Europeans have it so much better when it comes to affordable options!

      • Misaki Shimizu says:

        it’s so sad, education should be easily accessible for everyone, even more so since America is a first world country ! O.o

  9. August says:

    You’re so smart. I hope you sway plenty of young designers as well as anyone who is considering student loans to pay for college. I have two BA degrees (one in Graphic Design from Portland State) and I’m in heavy student loan debt which has caused all kinds of stress. I also have a friend who is also a successful Graphic Designer (her husband is a fully employed lawyer) and they are so far in student loan debt that they scrape by every month, threatening their marriage and sense of well-being. I really feel the education system is broken in this country. (I also have an hourly-wage friend working at a grocery store who has no debt and just bought a beautiful house. I DO envy his choice not to go to college.)

    • Shauna says:

      It’s hard to hear that people put in the time and earn a great degree have to struggle so much to pay the bills — our education system is beyond broken and it’s SO frustrating. On another note, congratulations for earning two degrees — I have a new intern who graduated from PSU and is amazing. :)

  10. Monica says:

    I went to a big name design school in Florida. It was the most amazing education ever, but even a line of internships and achievements, AND an internship with the school’s Design Center didn’t land me a job. I had to jump ship and work as a tarot reader to be able to start seeing some income. I actually love it, though! I found that being savvy in design helped me build my brand, and because of it I’ve had people contacting me both for my design services, and my services as a tarot reader.

    I’ve thought about going back to school many times, either for a MFA or for another career. It’s hard to make those decisions when you have other things to do.

    Your background is really inspiring to me, I was reading your blog while I was still in design school from 2006-2010. I’m glad to see how far you’ve come because you follow your dreams and because your content speaks for itself. : )


    • Shauna says:

      It sounds like even though things didn’t pan out quite as you’d expected, you’ve still carved out a fulfilling path. Good luck with everything — and tarot reading is so, so awesome!

  11. Starving Artist says:

    As someone from a lower-income background, I appreciate that you don’t apologize for having a community college education, and that you would in fact recommend it. When I was in high school, our counselors crammed four-year college down our throats, when community college and trade school are actually better options for many folks. And in any case, I’ve learned a hundred times more about design on the job than in school.

    Just wanted to say that I’ve always admired your pluck and determination, and I appreciate that you maintain a down-to-earth outlook despite great business and personal success. That’s what keeps me coming back here.

    • Shauna says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, totally made my day! I hope more people begin to realize exactly what you said — that community college and trade school are actually better options in many situations. Debt can be crippling and I have multiple friends who have $100,000.00 in school debt they’re now digging themselves out of, all the while cursing their educational path.

  12. Jen says:

    I too am a HUGE advocate for the community college route, and for all the same reasons.

    Folks might also be surprised to know that the quality of education at the community college level may even surpass that of a four-year university. I speak from experience…

    After graduating from community with an AS in graphic design, I transferred to a four-year to pursue a BA in the major. My “choosing” to attend this particular university was due my financial limitations, but I felt assured that the graphic design program I was transferring into would serve me well, as I had heard good things about it from others; even one of my much-respected design professors at community was an alum of the program and was encouraging about my transfer.

    Boy, was I in for some real disappointment. The graphic design program at my university paled in comparison to what I had learned and practiced in community college. Some of my peeves with the university’s program: stale projects that offered mild creative challenges; professors’ acceptance/overlooking of students’ mediocre Adobe CS skills; and lack of relevant information and exercises to prepare us for taking on design projects and jobs in the real world.

    I can trace everything I know and practice in my design work back to my community college education. I’ve scored jobs based on skills and information I learned in community that were absent from the university’s program. From time to time, I still reference my notes and materials from my community courses — I’ve held onto to them because the information I was taught was THAT good and useful.

    In contrast, I took away nothing from the university’s BA program, as I didn’t learn a single thing. I actually dropped out of the program twice before discovering (then transferring and graduating from) the school’s creative advertising program (which totally kicked-ass on the same awesome level as my community college experience)!

    • Shauna says:

      Thanks for sharing your story! It’s refreshing to hear that your community college program was that awesome. Goes to show that a higher cost and fancier so-called credentials don’t always equal a “better” outcome.

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  15. Amber J says:

    Thank you for this post. I just recently enrolled in my CC graphic design program. I was concerned about spending 5-6 years obtaining a BA (I’m 30 yrs old) so hearing your experience definitely gives me more confidence about getting a CC degree. I’m ready to start my career and travel.

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