Former Vice-President Joe Biden once recently called community colleges the best kept secret in America, and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, has said that she deeply values teaching at one.
Because these two-year institutions typically maintain an open admissions policy and are less expensive than four-year colleges, they offer students the opportunity for a college education regardless of their financial situation or academic preparation.
Today, community colleges attract the most diverse students in terms of age, race and ethnicity, ability, and career aspirations. They help millions of students further their education and achieve their professional dreams. Many community college students successfully transfer to four-year institutions where they complete their bachelor’s degrees, and many do so with great scholarships that are available to promising community college students. Community colleges also offer a high quality education, including accelerated and honors programs, as well as lots of academic, social, and financial services and resources.
Unfortunately, many community college students are unfamiliar with the resources and opportunities available to them at these schools. Depending on your situation and your particular needs, different strategies and services will be important to you.
Here are 10 helpful tips all community college students should know before starting school:
1. Your life will be easier if you learn to navigate the institutional bureaucracy.
Unlike high schools, colleges — like other large institutions — are made up of several divisions (e.g., academic and student affairs) and organized with layers of administration. They have offices that provide a wide range of services and programs, and it is not always easy to locate them — especially since colleges are constantly undergoing reorganization. Your success will often depend on knowing who is in charge of what and where to go for help.
The most important thing to do even before you begin college is to become familiar with how your school is organized by exploring its website and visiting the campus. Browsing a college’s website beforehand pays off — though keep in mind that sometimes the online information is not always up-to-date. Still, knowing which office handles which type of services can save hours in unnecessary waiting lines.
As a freshman, you should make an effort to learn about all the help your college can offer you, which includes financial, academic, health and wellness, and social opportunities — from research grants to extracurricular activities. You can learn about your school’s resources by attending orientation before classes begin.
The most important thing to remember is that you’ll have to take the initiative to find this assistance. It’s hard to put in the effort to get to know an unfamiliar system, but doing so will ensure that you don’t miss out on any opportunities.
2. College happens online as much as it does in person.
Attending class, going to your advisor’s office, and meeting other students are all important parts of community college that happen in person, but there are equally important things happening online that you’ll need to keep track of.
The College Catalog
Before starting at a new college, it is important to understand the institution’s rules and regulations, which can all be found in the school’s — typically online — catalog. This will provide you with essential knowledge that can help you through tough situations.
For instance, if as a student you are faced with a personal challenge, you can get certain kinds of absences excused if you provide the correct documentation. The catalog will explain what you need to compile to make this happen, as well as your options if you need to stop attending class for a prolonged amount of time, such as withdrawing in a way that won’t affect your financial aid, or requesting an incomplete grade or medical leave.
When you start at your community college, you will receive an email account, and it is essential that you check it often. You will get emails about your registration, financial aid, scholarships, internships, research opportunities, campus events, and changes in a class schedule. It is often the email address professors will use to communicate with you. Unfortunately, I find that many of the students I teach face challenges at school because they do not check their college email on a daily basis.
Most of the bureaucratic work you’ll need to complete, such as registering for classes and applying for financial aid, can also be submitted online. Visiting a website for information can help you avoid making a special trip to campus or waiting in long lines.
Community colleges now offer many of their courses online, or provide hybrid classes, in which students meet both online and in a regular classroom (we do this at LaGuardia Community College, where I teach). Considering online options is a great idea for students who need more flexibility in their schedules, though it’s important to note that you’ll spend just as much time studying and completing assignments as you would for a face-to-face class.
3. Most of the time, you don’t need to pay for college all by yourself.
Most community college students are eligible for some type of financial aid, including federal — like the Pell Grant — and state tuition assistance — like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) in New York. For instance, more than 63 percent of LaGuardia students are awarded approximately $73 million in federal, state, and institutional grants annually.
Other forms of financial aid are also available, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study Program, but keep in mind that they work on a first-come, first-served basis and you will need to fill out FAFSA forms to receive them. Eligibility and amount of aid received depend on number of credits attempted, your ability to contribute to your tuition, and strong academic standing (e.g. good grades and test scores). The actual rules vary according to the program, but typically students are required to register full time (i.e., 12 credits per semester, which includes both Fall I and II or Spring I and II semesters) and have a minimum GPA of 2.0. There are some financial aid programs for part-time students, too, so be sure to contact your financial aid office to learn more.
In addition, there may be local programs or other scholarships that can help you finance your education. Those typically target certain populations, so check which ones are available to you. A long list of scholarships is usually available on your college’s financial aid page.
Finally, many colleges have programs that combine financial, academic, and social support, such as the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program in New York. Your campus may offer other types of resources as well, including help with emergency financial situations and offering work opportunities.
4. There are lots free opportunities for academic support.
Community colleges offer an array of services, including tutoring, labs, and writing centers. These programs are usually located in specific departments — for instance, at my college, math tutoring is coordinated by the math department. Most colleges also provide rentals for laptops, tablets, calculators, and so on as part of their media services and may also have computer labs on campus.
Libraries have textbooks on reserve (which means you can just borrow a book instead of buying it for class), and college bookstores offer good deals on used books and sometimes let you sell your books back once you’re done with them. Moreover, textbook companies now make book rentals fairly inexpensive.
5. It’s not about where you start but where you go next.
Despite the stigma still attached to community colleges, you shouldn’t feel ashamed for attending one. The curricula in community colleges can be just as good, and sometimes even better, than those at four-year colleges. Obviously, some departments, programs, and professors are stronger than others, so do your research and find out about them. Today, community college professors conduct research and publish in academic journals. It’s very easy to access their work, which you should do so you know what your professor’s interests are.
Some community colleges also offer honors programs, which provide students the opportunity to take more advanced classes. Honors courses typically have smaller class sizes, which means working closer with faculty. At LaGuardia Community College, the honors programs helps students access scholarships, especially if they want to transfer to prestigious four-year colleges. One of the most coveted is the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which makes it possible for the nation’s top community college students to complete their bachelor’s degrees by transferring to a four-year college or university. I have seen many talented and hard-working LaGuardia students going on to complete their bachelor’s degrees with generous financial support.
If you are interested in transferring, be sure to check if the credits you are taking at your community college can be easily accepted by other institutions. Some community colleges have articulation agreements with other colleges or universities — these are deals that guarantee that the credits from one institution will be accepted by the other.
6. It’s never too late to go back to college.
Some community college students may leave school or drop out for an extended time period before deciding to return. Those who come back and make good use of resources, however, tend to graduate pretty quickly. It can be intimidating to return to campus after a prolonged leave, but the time away can give students the maturity and wisdom they need to succeed.
Community colleges offer flexible schedules that are great for students who have other commitments. For working students, these schools provide the convenience of evening and weekend classes. For those who have small children, many community colleges offer child care. For those who struggle with a certain subject, these schools have developmental skills courses (formerly knowns as remedial courses) — just be sure to take these courses, which can be heavy in content or require many assignments, when you are truly available to spend the time you’ll need on them.
7. Take your time and make connections.
It’s not uncommon for community college students to try and rush their stay. Many do not feel proud and some even feel ashamed of being in a community college. As a result, these students avoid developing ties with the institution and do not attempt to form any sort of lasting bond with peers, faculty, or staff.
These students often end up taking longer to graduate, since their disengagement prevents them from learning their more advanced peers, professionals in their field, or support staff. Advisers are key players in helping students achieve success. Regrettably, many students do not understand their advisers’ roles and do not take advantage of their expertise.
Advisers not only understand the requirements of different majors, but they also stay up-to-date on how the programs have changed. They know which courses are taught when, which ones fill up quickly, and which ones are difficult to register for.
Your professors can also help you stay on track to graduate. Sometimes, certain courses have prerequisites or co-requisites, and talking to a professor will ensure that you are taking your classes in the right sequence.
Advisers and professors can even provide guidance when you do not know which major to pick. This can feel like a daunting decision, but they may be able to give you tips on how to move forward. For instance, I often suggest that undecided students consider a liberal arts major, since it offers a structured opportunity to explore related fields in a broad area.
8. Make time to learn outside of class.
There is much more to college than what happens in the classroom, and developing social and emotional skills can be just as important to your success as completing your coursework. In fact, it will be beneficial for you to engage with college on a holistic level and become involved with curricular and extracurricular activities, like clubs, undergraduate research, student conferences, student government, music ensembles, athletics, campus publications, theatre productions, debates, and so on.
By joining your peers and faculty in these activities, you’ll become a full participant in the campus community, which will make your journey through college more meaningful. These activities also let you put the skills you learn in class into practice and provide you with an opportunity to be a leader.
9. Spend time with your professors.
As I mentioned above, undergraduate research is one of the most beneficial and rewarding experiences in college. If you work with a professor in your major, this can be a great opportunity to start building your professional journey (and your resume) in your field and obtain faculty advice about your discipline. It is also an opportunity for a professor to get to know you well, which is key for a strong letter of recommendation for scholarships and transferring colleges.
More generally, students should try to get to know their professors anyway. Go see them during their office hours and you will have an opportunity to talk to them in a different context, probably in a more relaxed way. You can get a better sense of what they expect from students, clarification on assignments, advice on how to study, and all kinds of supplemental knowledge. According to my students, professors are often very approachable and do want to help their students succeed, so make sure you are in constant communication.
10. Take advantage of student discounts.
One thing I loved about being a student was all the discounts I would get to go visit cultural institutions. These discounts gave me the opportunity to explore New York, and I could have never experienced everything I did without them.
Community college has many services and resources that will help students in their transition to this new learning environment. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help; many students struggle when they begin this new path, but by communicating with faculty and staff, who are eager to help you succeed, you’ll be able to make the most of your time at community college.
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