College is expensive, but a degree is becoming necessary to land a job. This leaves many people struggling to figure out a way to reduce the cost of college. If you’re one of them, I urge you to consider my solution for reducing the cost: start at a community college.

In Maine, community college tuition is so low that I genuinely can’t understand why any student doesn’t complete at least the first year at one. No matter where students attend college, their first year is generally spent completing general education requirements like English, math and science. It makes perfect financial sense to complete those courses at a community college for a fraction of the cost, and transfer them into a four-year college to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges are well known in most communities, living up to their well-earned reputation as institutions where students can get specific career training in fields like allied health, technical trades, and computer programs. Where word-of-mouth efforts have fallen short is in the fact that a community college is a great place to begin a four-year college career.

This is the path I chose, despite having the academic record to go to my choice of colleges, and it’s the best decision I ever made.

Not only did I save money, I received such a high level of education that I wished I could have stayed at the community college longer. After completing two years and earning an associate degree in General Studies, I was able to seamlessly transfer with junior status to complete my bachelor’s degree in English. I subsequently went on to earn my master’s degree, specifically because I wanted to teach at the community college level. I enjoyed my time at community college so much I knew I wanted to return.

I’m convinced that attending a community college fostered my passion for lifelong learning and that it can do the same for other students. The coursework was rigorous and promoted critical thinking. The class size was small, meaning I got to know my instructors well and interact with classmates easily. The diversity of the student body enriched the experience in ways that wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere. Where else can class discussions include opinions from a grandmother returning to school and an 18-year old just beginning her journey?

Above all, I was so well prepared for my university-level studies that often those classes felt easier than the courses I took at my two-year school. A former student of mine says that at community college, he learned how to learn. Is there a more valuable skill?

I know there’s a stigma about attending a community college. For many reasons, though, that stigma shouldn’t exist.

First, transferring credits is common and encouraged. Community colleges in Maine have articulation agreements with universities in Maine, meaning that courses are easily transferable between schools. Regular reviews of curriculums ensure that the same standards are being met in the community college classroom as those in universities. Liberal studies students can complete two years at community college and transfer with junior status to any school in the University of Maine system.

Second, the beauty of a community college is that it offers accessible education for all members of a community. This doesn’t mean that it offers a lesser education, but that support systems are in place to help students who might not be as well prepared as others. Whether you’re graduating at the top of your high school class or returning to school 20 years after high school, community college is for you.

Third, there are many chances to excel on a community college campus. Most have active two-year honor societies. Many require service learning projects and internships to expose students to the importance of civic engagement. Students find countless opportunities to develop leadership skills through student leader programs and working with faculty and staff outside the classroom.

Considering all of this, the choice is easy. I’m proud to have begun my college career at a community college. I’m equally proud to spend my teaching career at one, paying forward my positive experience to Maine students so they can reach their full potential.

Carrie Hall is Waterville resident and full-time English/writing instructor at Kennebec Valley Community College. She is originally from Maryland, where she attended the Community College of Baltimore County and the University of Baltimore. She moved to Maine to complete her master’s degree at the University of Maine in Orono and eventually found her dream job working with Maine students.