The great American poet Robert Frost could have been talking about a number of pro athletes when he penned, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Aaron Rodgers, Alvin Kamara, Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Jimmy Butler and Shawn Marion, among others, took an unconventional path to becoming stars in their respective professional sports.
They all attended junior college.
Most fans, families and prospects are familiar with the more famous four year college and university system, and watch the athletic programs for these institutions each week on major television networks. Many people, however, are not as in tune with the junior college scene, both from an academic and an athletic standpoint.
A junior college is an institution that can provide student-athletes a place to continue their education, while participating competitively in a sport that they may want to pursue at a four year university in the future. Junior colleges provide a two year stepping stone for a student or athlete to prepare themselves academically and physically for a more conventional university experience. In certain instances, they may also offer certain standalone vocational degrees should students want to pursue a trade after their certification and training has been completed.
There are a number of reasons why an athlete and their families might need the buffer between high school and a four year university.
Academic Reasons To Attend Junior College
Academically speaking, it’s possible for an elite athlete not to qualify for an NCAA university or four-year college due to high school transcripts that are not up to their standards.
During 2020, as remote learning has become the new normal in many states throughout the country, students may have more difficulty in the “classroom” than before since they aren’t surrounded by peers. Also, not having the option of meeting with their teachers face to face if they are having trouble with course material makes it a difficult time to catch up if grades have fallen.
An otherwise competent student could be negatively affected by these factors, In that case, a junior college offers an inexpensive way to get back on the right track academically and continue competing at a high level in sports.
Athletic Reasons To Attend Junior College
From that athletic point of view, there are also strategic rationales for why a prospect might go the junior college route. Some players, like Aaron Rodgers (if you can believe that), did not have many scholarship offers coming out of high school, and used his time at Butte Community College to put together more impressive tape that would attract big time Division 1 college football programs.
Additionally, athletes who are plucked from junior colleges by four year universities often have a leg up than the true freshman players in the program, since they are two years older, and have had a chance to mature both emotionally and physically. This can give them an immediate edge when it comes to playing time.
Financial Reasons To Attend Junior College
There’s also a financial aspect to address when reviewing the benefits of a junior college. Great athletes come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, so if a college offer isn't arriving in high school, some student-athletes start to believe they don't have another option. A family may just not have the luxury of paying their child’s way through college at this point and time and a part-time job is near impossible with a college athlete's schedule.
Junior college, according to a CNBC article published in 2019, can cost an average of $3,660 per year, which is significantly lower than the $25,362 annual average cost of four year schools. That cost/savings benefit analysis will be even more closely examined by athletes and parents this year if breadwinners have lost their jobs in 2020.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong path to academic enrichment and athletic success. If the road to a four year university is there for a young prospect, and checks off the scholastic, financial, and sports development boxes, there’s no good reason to pass that up.
But if a young athlete finds themselves needing a little extra time to mature emotionally, sure up their finances, or re-dedicate themselves in the classroom, there is no shame in attending a junior college for two years to get things in order.