Community colleges play a much larger role in undergraduate education than many people realize.
In 2011, 45 percent of students who got a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. had previously enrolled in a community college. In Texas, 78 percent of students followed this route to a bachelor’s degree, according to a National Student Clearinghouse study.
In 13 states, more than half of their undergraduates pursued this pathway. Collectively, 1.1 million of the 2.5 million graduates from four-year colleges began their post-secondary education at a community college.
Given how common this practice is, it’s worth exploring how these students make a successful transition from community college to a four-year institution. In general, there are several routes students take.
Many begin their studies at a two-year college by completing four semesters of undergraduate courses and applying to a four-year college to complete their final four (or sometimes six) semesters of coursework. For some, it can take longer at the four-year college if the courses you took at community college aren’t the ones you’ll need to meet the four-year college’s requirements or if the transfer school won’t accept all the classes you took. In this case, you may have to repeat some courses or take additional ones to catch up, which can lengthen the time you have to spend in (and pay for!) college.
For students who receive financial aid, it’s especially important that you stay on track so your aid doesn’t run out before you’ve gotten your degree. One of the worst positions to be in is for your financial aid to run out before you’re able to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
We know that students who earn a degree make more money on average than those who don’t, so making it to graduation can mean the difference between earning enough to make your loan payments and struggling to do so.
A second pathway that many students follow is to get an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year institution. The advantage of this choice is that you’ll have an undergraduate degree at the end of two years, which increases your employment and salary prospects if you decide not to pursue a bachelor’s program.
It’s also the case that 72 percent of students who transferred to a four-year college with a certificate or associate’s degree successfully completed their bachelor’s degree, compared with 56 percent of those who transferred without any community college credentials.
According to a 2013 report by the National Student Clearinghouse, one possible explanation for these different completion rates is that students who earn an associate’s degree have taken more courses that will transfer to their new school. By meeting freshman and sophomore requirements at the community college, these students don’t lose time fulfilling them at the four-year college and are less vulnerable to pressures that may lead them to drop out.
Many community colleges now offer honors programs for high-achieving students. These programs are competitive to get into and offer a rigorous education for students whose high school GPA and test scores establish their ability to succeed with this course load. Many honors programs have small class sizes, demanding professors, and accelerated courses.
Typically, honors students follow a sequence of core courses that meet general education or distribution requirements and finish with a culminating project. They are a great option for students who want a strong foundation at the community college level, but who may not yet want to or be able to enroll in a four-year institution. Because courses in honors programs are commonly laid out sequentially, students don’t run the risk of taking random classes that will not meet requirements if they transfer to a four-year college.
Many community colleges have transfer agreements, sometimes called articulation agreements or 2+2 systems, with state universities or colleges that guarantee a spot in one of these public, four-year schools to students who have the required GPA and completed coursework. A few private, non-profit colleges also participate. California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have some of the most extensive systems for these partnerships, and significant percentages of undergraduates in these states use them to earn their bachelor’s degrees.
Community colleges can be a great starting point towards a bachelor’s degree, but students need to understand clearly what the common pitfalls are and how to successfully navigate each step to meet the necessary requirements. Because guidance at community colleges can be limited and entail long waits, students must do much of this research themselves.
Ask as many questions as you can of administrators at both the two- and four-year colleges, as well as of other students. Make sure you know which classes you need to take, the grades you need to get, and when you need to apply. Understand the financial aid implications at every stage of your process, and advocate for yourself whenever you have questions.