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Community College Guide & FAQs

Community College Guide & FAQs
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Noodle Staff March 25, 2024

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Dear Expert, I currently attend community college and plan to transfer to a four-year institution. I know my credits will transfer to a state university degree program in my home state, but what if I attend school in another state? How can I find out whether my credit hours will transfer to my new school? —Credit Where Credit is Due

College hopefuls face increasingly complex challenges in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. According to a study of 3.6 million students by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about 37 percent of students transferred at least once in the six years between 2008 and 2014. Among the transfer students, 45 percent transferred more than once. These students can attest that the transfer process is not always a simple or easy one. If you transfer to a new school, know that you are not alone and there are more resources than ever to help you earn your degree.

Many students attempting to transfer schools understandably wonder about transfer of credits. Many states have articulation agreements between their community colleges and state college systems. These can ease the burden of transferring credits by providing clear policy guidelines on which community college courses transfer, the maximum number of credits that transfer, and the minimum GPA required to transfer credits.

These agreements do not apply, however, to the out-of-state transfer of credits. Community college students should be aware of several key considerations before they attempt to make the switch. That’s true even for those transferring after only one year.

So, what should you do? If you follow these three easy steps, you can (re)start your educational journey on the right foot.

  • Check for accreditation
  • Get your transcripts evaluated
  • Know the transfer credit policy of your target institution

Check for accreditation

When transferring credits from one school to another, it is important to know each institution’s accreditation type to ensure transferability. Accreditation is a process by which independent associations establish educational standards for an academic field. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) list seven different regional accreditation bodies:

Community colleges typically hold regional accreditation based on geographic location. As a first step, you can look up your school’s accreditation on the CHEA website. Typically, regionally accredited institutions accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions; however, to ensure your credits will transfer, you need to get your transcripts evaluated.

Get your transcripts evaluated

Transcripts evaluations are the surest way to find out how many of your credits will transfer. Here’s a list of just a few of the schools that offer this service:

  • Iowa State University
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Maryland – University College
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Virginia
  • The University of West Florida

Programs such as UVA’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program (BIS) will provide a free evaluation before application through a pre-admission form, which gives you a clear understanding of how many of your credits will transfer to UVA’s program. Because this occurs before you submit your application, it could save you a lot of time, effort, and potential heartache. You can also read this article on ways to maximize your potential transfer credits.

Know the transfer credit policy of your target institution

One important reminder: the receiving institution always has the final say on the acceptance of transfer credits. Depending on the type of program, certain college courses may or may not transfer due to coursework relevancy. Most schools accept general education courses (e.g., English composition, sociology, humanities)more than specific courses (e.g., courses in nursing, cyber security, criminal justice, etc.). It is also a good idea to consider the type of program into which you hope to transfer. Like UVA’s BIS program, programs that lean towards the liberal arts cast a much wider net when accepting transfer credits. In contrast, programs that are more focused on specific disciplines have more stringent transfer credit policies.

The pathway from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree is different for each person. By getting educated about higher education, you can ensure that your path from a two-year college to a four-year degree program is as seamless and smooth as possible.

Omar Torrens is a Senior Education Advisor with Education Dynamics, Inc. With over 15 years of experience in higher education, assisting students in finding their next steps on their educational journey has been a passion and continues to be a driving force in helping others. A PhD candidate at Florida Atlantic University, Omar strives to find ways to improve college outcomes for marginalized communities through mentoring programs, community involvement, and awareness of social issues facing students of color. In his free time, Omar enjoys outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, and working on his butterfly garden.

Dear Expert: I am currently completing my first year at a local community college. I’m considering transferring to a four-year college next year. Will my community college credits transfer? Please say yes! —– Chasing That Dream

Community colleges play a vital role in the lives of many students in the United States. We have over 8.2 million students enrolled at the community college level, so naturally the question of transfer credits comes up a lot.

With all the hard work put into completing general education courses to prepare to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program, maximizing your transfer credits is essential. By asking yourself these five questions, you can set the stage for transfer into your next program on your educational journey.

1. Who is my academic advisor at the community college?

Most community colleges have academic advisors on campus who can help you navigate transfer into a four-year university. Make an appointment with your advisor. Prepare questions in advance regarding your current class schedule, articulation agreements with state universities, and general education requirements. Your school may participate in guaranteed admission agreements with universities in your state. Your academic advisor can help you understand what is required and provide you with a plan to ensure you are on track to meet those requirements.

2. Which program is right for me?

Starting with the end in mind, think of the career you want and work backwards. Onetonline.org is an excellent online resource. It provides snapshots of job types, common tasks, and technical skills required.

Additionally, checking job sites for open positions will give you an idea of what employers look for in potential candidates. Make a list of the common skills or qualities among job postings and keep them handy while researching programs. This will help guide your research into four-year degree programs, which can teach you the skills to make you marketable to employers.

3. Which school is right for me?

While many students feel that prestige and reputation matter to employers, research suggests otherwise. Employers are more interested in your qualities as a potential employee—not where you graduated. They value problem-solving skills, communication, the ability to work on a team, and leadership.

Attending a school that offers enriching (and, for the time being, socially distant) activities or clubs can enhance the learning occurring in the classroom. Additionally, career services and alumni networks can help you when it comes to life after graduation by highlighting the new skills you are developing in the program, providing you with potential job postings, and exposing you to potential employers among their alumni.

4. Can I juggle school with work and my life?

Many students returning to school have serious concerns regarding work-life balance. With the COVID pandemic hitting all 50 states, online education has become an increasingly attractive option to students across the country. Know how you work best as there are online programs offering interactive faculty-led sessions and “virtual classroom time” as well as self-paced programs that provide ultimate flexibility. Which is a better fit for you?

Additionally, make sure to identify your support network. Whether they are your family members, friends, co-workers, bosses, or even other students, you do not have to do it alone.

5. Taking the next step and applying

By this point in the process, you will hopefully have a short list of top schools. The key is to have the school review your transcripts for potential transfer of credits. You need to ask questions around the maximum number of transfer credits accepted, typical time to completion for the degree, and financial aid options. Some schools, such as the University of Virginia‘s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), may even offer pre-admission advising for its online Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program. This can provide you with an academic roadmap that lets you know exactly how many credits will transfer. Ascertain that before you apply to avoid any unpleasant surprises later.

The application process itself can seem like a mountain to climb; stick with it, though. The sweetest air is at the top of the mountain.

Community colleges are a great place to start and afford many students a low-cost option when entering or re-entering higher education. Transferring doesn’t need to be a hassle; it is just the next rung on your ladder to success.

Best of luck, Omar

Omar Torrens is a Senior Education Advisor with Education Dynamics, Inc. With over 15 years of experience in higher education, assisting students in finding their next steps on their educational journey has been a passion and continues to be a driving force in helping others. A PhD candidate at Florida Atlantic University, Omar strives to find ways to improve college outcomes for marginalized communities through mentoring programs, community involvement, and awareness of social issues facing students of color. In his free time, Omar enjoys outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, and working on his butterfly garden.

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.

College Email

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.

Forms

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.

Online Classes

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

(Written by Eduardo Vianna)

For more than 100 years, community colleges have made significant contributions to higher education, creating pathways toward degree completion, academic success, and job attainment for students seeking flexibility in their studies. This is true both on a national scale — community colleges educate nearly half of American undergraduates — and on a local one — many such schools provide pre-professional training relevant to regional industries.

Community Colleges on the National Stage

Recently, our nation has focused on these pathways in new and exciting ways, perhaps due to support for the community college system among Washington leadership. Dr. Jill Biden, our nation’s second lady, has taught at several community colleges, and she is currently a faculty member in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College. For years, she has been a vocal advocate for these institutions, and she has worked to raise awareness of the value of community colleges in building our national capacity for innovation and competition. Community colleges make a strong and unique contribution to regional industry by providing skills-based training and competency development, and they do so while boasting tremendously diverse student populations.

Racial Diversity

The most recent figures from the American Association of Community Colleges indicate a 50/50 split between white students and students of color at community colleges. While white students represent half of community college populations, Hispanic students comprise 21 percent, and black students make up 14 percent. Asian and Pacific Islander students, meanwhile, represent 6 percent. Rounding out the list are students who identify as biracial or multiracial (3 percent), and those who did not report or whose ethnic backgrounds are unknown (4 percent).

Community colleges are crucial providers of higher-education opportunities; 46 percent of all undergraduates in the country are enrolled in a community college, and such institutions educate large swaths of historically-marginalized racial groups. In fact, 61 percent of all Native American undergrads, 57 percent of Hispanic undergrads, 52 percent of black undergrads, and 43 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander undergrads attend community colleges.

Regional Diversity

It is also important not to overlook the regional contributions that community colleges lend the country, particularly in the work that they do to prepare students for careers in specialized local industries. Henry Ford Community College’s automotive technology program, for example, provides a formidable pathway to working in Michigan’s automotive industry. Hartnell College’s agriculture and industrial technology program, by contrast, contributes significantly to the nation’s lettuce production. Camden County College’s focus on nursing is a strong contributor to the medical industry in New Jersey and Philadelphia. There are numerous other programs around the country in which diligent students from diverse backgrounds are making significant contributions to a wide range of local industries.

Pathway to a Bachelor’s Degree

While the practical emphasis on job training and skills development within community colleges is strong, such schools continue to make a significant impact on collegiate routes for students, specifically those seeking a pathway to four-year institutions. In fact, with college costs rising dramatically, community college remains a smart option for students responsible for funding their education independently. One example of a strong model is Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. Its articulation agreements with four-year colleges in the state afford students seamless access to bachelor’s degrees.

The future holds tremendous opportunity for the growth and development of community colleges. These institutions will transcend their undeserved reputations as merely accommodating students who could not get into (or were not allowed within) more privileged academic spaces to gain respect as the thriving centers that they are — places where students cultivate marketable skills, industries find competitive job candidates, and families find an affordable way to support their children’s higher-education goals.

If you’re looking to gain the most educational bang for your buck, it is tough to argue against an associate degree.

For two years (or approximately 20 classes) of learning and around $5,000 of tuition, you could graduate and be ready to earn just as much as someone with a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, many four-year schools accept applications from community college graduates looking to complete their bachelor’s degree. It’s not as though an associate degree will close any doors for you.

The advantages of earning “only” an associate degree in terms of job prospects depend on your career goals and location. According to a study by Georgetown University, 28 percent of associate degree holders earn more than the average person with a bachelor’s degree. How can you land in that camp? Programs in certain industries will absolutely qualify you to succeed and find a job whose earning power is comparable to what might be available to a four-year graduate.

Career Prospects for Associate Degree Graduates

Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. has identified several of the careers in which associate degree holders comprise a large percentage of the workforce and earn approximately as much as their colleagues who have pursued four-year degrees.

Top Healthcare Industry Jobs for Graduates with Associate Degrees

Top Technician Jobs for Graduates with Associate Degrees

It’s important to note that job opportunities vary significantly by region.

Sometimes, community colleges partner with regional employers to ensure a well-educated workforce, including Ford, General Motors, and John Deere. It’s a win-win, because it’s in the interest of both the school and the employer for students to be prepared for jobs that are in demand. So if you plan to attend a particular community college or are considering only schools in a certain region, check to see if the school has launched any corporate partnerships or job placement programs. It could help to guide you — and ultimately, land you a good job — as you choose an associate degree program with an eye toward career advancement.

Sources:

Ashford, E. (2011, August 30). Corporate partnerships are the lynchpin for many college programs. Retrieved July 15, 2014, from Community College Daily

Selingo, Jeff. The Diploma’s Vanishing Value. (2013, April 26). The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 15, 2014, from The Wall Street Journal

The College Payoff. (n.d.). Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved July 15, 2014, from Georgetown University

(Written by Leo Brown)

There are community colleges all over the United States, offering a wide range of programs and degrees that are more accessible than those at a private four year university. Students all over the nation attend classes at these colleges, but who are they and where do they come from?

When we think of “going to college,” many people automatically imagine a campus with lots of stone buildings and ivy where 18-year olds will spend the next four years studying, socializing, and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.

While this fantasy is certainly true for many students in the U.S., it overlooks the fact that a lot of college students attend community colleges close to where they live. There are approximately 1000 public community colleges across the country, and they served over seven million students in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Of the 2.5 million students who got degrees at four-year institutions in 2010-2011, 1.1 million of these students started at community colleges. There are some states, like California and Texas, where well over half to three-quarters of the students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 began at public two-year institutions. So, who goes to community colleges?

What Does the Student Body Look Like?

Students at two-year institutions are a diverse group, which is part of what can make these schools such rich resources for their communities.

There are high school students who take classes because they’re interested in a subject which isn’t offered at their secondary school. There are adults who want to pick up a new hobby or who are taking continuing education courses to meet professional requirements. There are students who are enrolled in vocational programs, such as culinary arts or welding. There are others who are enrolled in associate’s degree programs that will allow them to enter a profession as soon as they graduate. Still others begin in a regular or honors program at the community college, with the intention of transferring to a four-year institution once they’ve completed four semesters or gotten their associate’s degree.

As you can see, community college students have many reasons for pursuing their education at these schools. But beyond these goals, what else do we know about the students themselves? Community college students come from all walks of life, from first-in-the-family college goers to international students to people who want an affordable college education.

Many of them are older, and the majority of these students work part- or full-time outside of college. Community college student bodies are racially, ethnically, and generationally diverse. These students are typically focused on specific goals, whether it’s earning credits to transfer to a four-year college or learning how to become a structural auto repair technician.

Community colleges are often criticized for their low graduation rates, which is a real concern. The underlying reasons for these rates may be complicated, but it remains true that community colleges play an important role in broadening access to higher education.

Still, it’s important to be aware of the challenges you can face at community colleges. Some states, such as Virginia and Florida, have well-developed systems with many campuses and a wide range of student supports. Others are much more limited.

Do the Research

There can be little guidance at many of these institutions, so it’s critical that you research schools to learn what they offer, how well they serve students like you, and the requirements for the path you want to pursue.

For example, if you want to enroll in a nursing program that will enable you to become an RN, here are some questions to ask:

  • Are there prerequisites I have to complete before I begin this program?
  • What are the required courses for this program and how often are they offered throughout the year?
  • Will my schedule allow me to take these courses in the semester they’re offered, or will I have to wait an entire year before they come around again?
  • What factors could prevent me from getting into the classes I need?
  • If I can’t enroll in a course the first time, how does this affect my completion timeline and financial aid?
  • If I’m struggling in a course, what academic services does the college provide?
  • Does the college have staff who can help me select my courses and/or apply for financial aid?

These sorts of questions are vitally important because not knowing or misunderstanding can derail a student from completing what’s required, and result in losing financial aid or not being able to complete your program.

You have to investigate and advocate for yourself. Some community colleges have online advising tools that help students figure out if they’re on track for their goals, so check out the school website to see if these are available. And if you’re not sure, find the advising office and make an appointment to see a counselor as soon as possible. You don’t want to let weeks go by without knowing if you’re on the right path. Good luck!

(Written by Catherine Holland)

Every year, roughly seven million students enroll in the approximately 1,100 community colleges across the nation.

In fact, those who attend community college comprise about 44 percent of all college students in the United States, according to the “Encyclopedia of Education Economics and Finance.”

Attending community college is a way to attain a secondary education while saving money and commuting from home. But experts say there are some shortcomings to attending community college, including having fewer academic resources than you might at other U.S. colleges and universities.

While community college is a different experience from that of a state or private university, it could be the right choice for some students. That’s why it’s important to weigh the advantages and shortcomings of taking this route toward your undergraduate degree.

PROS

You’ll save money

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average annual tuition for in-district community colleges across the United States was $3,260 during the 2013-2014 academic year, while the average for four-year, public in-state colleges was $8,890.

Community college also typically allows students to live at home, foregoing the additional costs of housing and dining that come with paying for a state or private institution, said Alicia Dowd, associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the school’s Center for Urban Education.

Gina Scoppino of Long Island attended Nassau Community College in Nassau County. She says the lower tuition of community college — combined with the fact that she was unsure of what she wanted to study — contributed to her decision to apply. “The professors were great,” Scoppino said. “And I liked the overall experience.”

You have flexibility with your schedule

Community colleges attract many low-income students, Dowd said. Given that the majority of students who attend community college also hold at least one job outside of classes, according to the journal “Community College Review,” the range of daytime, evening and online options offered at these schools enables students to pursue their education while keeping up with other responsibilities. You can also select whether you want to attend community college as a full-time or part-time student.

There are smaller class sizes

The sizes of the classes are also usually smaller at community colleges, Dowd said. This could facilitate more one-on-one interaction between the students and the teacher, whereas some classes at larger universities have hundreds of students packed in giant lecture halls.

George Boggs, the former president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and former president of Palomar College, writes on the Brookhaven College website that most classes at community colleges have fewer than 35 students, making faculty members more available.

“Faculty members are accessible and want to help their students be successful,” Boggs writes.

Though this accessibility is true of many community college professors, it isn’t universal. Therefore, it’s important to ask current students and administrators about an instructor’s availability outside of class. And you can get a sense by looking at whether the professor has office hours or responds to questions by email or phone.

The faculty focuses on teaching

Community college teachers are usually dedicated strictly to teaching, Dowd said, whereas at other public and private colleges, professors often balance their courses with research and other academic obligations. “The attention to teaching and learning at community colleges is often greater,” Dowd said.

You have honors programs and “two-plus-two” options

Many community colleges utilize what Dowd described as a “two plus two” model — that is, obtaining an associate degree after two years at community college and then getting a bachelor’s degree elsewhere over the next two years, though in reality these numbers vary.

However, an increasing number of community colleges have started offering bachelor’s degree programs in fields with a high demand for jobs, according to The Hechinger Report, a non-profit education news organization.

Many community colleges also offer honors programs, in which “students can truly develop their own abilities, examine new ideas, and explore their world,” while saving money and living close to home, writes the National Collegiate Honors Council on its website.

CONS

You have fewer academic resources and less coursework

The academic and career resources that other public and private institutions often provide might not be available to as great an extent at a community college, and these schools usually have less coursework and less rigorous classes, Dowd said.

Moreover, students at a community college will often find that guidance counselors serve many other students — sometimes at a ratio of 1,000 students per counselor. This means that students might have less of a chance to meet with a supervisor who can direct them with academic decisions.

“If a student can go directly to a four-year institution and that institution offers them the kind of courses they’re interested in, it’s better to go to a four-year institution because they typically have more resources,” Dowd said. “A student will have more opportunities in the academic pathways available to them.”

If you continue your studies, you’ll have to transfer

After completing community college, you’ll need to adjust to college life for a second time if you choose to continue your education and earn your bachelor’s degree.

Dowd clarified that it takes many students more than two years to earn an associate degree at a community college, just as it often takes students more than four years to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Additionally, in a national survey, 60 percent of students who transferred from community college ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of their transfer. That being said, 72 percent of those students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree had formerly earned a certificate or associate degree at their community colleges, whereas 56 percent of those who earned a bachelor’s degree did not.

In general, Dowd said, those who choose not to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduating from community college receive jobs that offer lower pay, although that isn’t always the case. Still, according to Dowd, an associate degree signals to an employer a shorter duration of study — that is, around 60 course credits rather than 120.

Some credits aren’t transferable

Many community colleges require students to take placement tests to ensure they are taking the right courses, according to the College Board, which also says that entering students often have a variety of different skill levels.

A placement test may cause students to be placed in basic skills or remedial courses that don’t give college credit and therefore won’t be transferable to another public or private college or university, Dowd said. She emphasized that it’s essential to prepare for these assessment tests and take them seriously.

“If you take it and get placed in basic skills classwork that doesn’t give credit, you run a very, very high risk of not receiving your degree,” Dowd said.

Completion is another issue. Many students take out loans without completing their degree, and with less guidance, they may not know which credits are transferable to another institution. This situation can result in students repeating courses at a 4-year college, contributing to more semesters in school. Resources like CollegeTransfer.Net are available for these types of situations.

Sources:

2014 Fact Sheet. (2014, January 1). Retrieved July 10, 2014, from American Association of Community Colleges

Community College Student Success: The Role of Motivation and Self-Empowerment. Community College Review, 42. Retrieved July 12, 2014, from the EBSCOhost database.

Dowd, A. C. (Forthcoming, Fall 2014). Community college finances. In D.J. Brewer and L.O. Picus (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Education Economics and Finance. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Honors Programs at 2-Year Colleges. (2014). National Collegiate Honors Council. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from National Collegiate Honors Council

Marcus, J. (2013, August 6). New figures suggest community college grad rates higher than thought. Hechinger Report. Retrieved July 15, 2014 from Hechinger Report

Marcus, J. (2014, April 10). Community colleges increasingly adding bachelor’s degrees. Hechinger Report. Retrieved July 10, 2014, from Hechinger Report

What are college placement tests? (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2014, from The College Board

(Written by Jordan Friedman)

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.

From Community College to a Four-Year School

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.

Factoring In Financial Aid

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.

From Associate’s Degree to a Four-Year School

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.

Honors Programs in Community Colleges

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.

Articulation Agreements (2+2 Systems)

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.

Avoid the Pitfalls

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.

(Written by Catherine Holland)

On-Campus Housing

Once you are accepted at a university or four-year school, you may have the option of living in campus housing, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your previous circumstances, living on campus either sacrifices or adds freedom. It may also increase your college expenses. Look at your financial aid package, and ask yourself how the housing costs that the college is charging compare with what your expenses would be to live off campus. Weigh all the other pros and cons of campus housing, and if you choose it but have been living independently thus far, inquire about obtaining a single rather than a shared room. Many colleges offer different types of housing, from quiet floors in the dormitories to shared campus apartment options.

Working While in School

If living off campus and paying rent is your choice, ask yourself how many hours you can reasonably work while maintaining your desired GPA. The three part-time jobs plus full-time school I was able to balance while in community college dwindled to only a couple shifts per week once I started at my four-year. I needed to re-balance my commitments in order to prioritize my undergraduate performance at my four-year. My best advice is to look early for on-campus paid internships and job opportunities in your field of interest. Since work-study jobs are often part of financial aid packages, the good ones fill up quick.

A Different Academic Workload?

I’d like to dispel the myth that the workload expected at a four-year school is far greater than what is expected at a community college. Many students transferring from community colleges to four-years enter as juniors and need to fulfill the requirements for their chosen major. As your academic journey ascends, higher expectations of intellectual performance come with it. If you challenged yourself at community college, you will be prepared for the expectations of a four-year. If you didn’t, you are more liable to receive a wake-up call. That said, be prepared for the possibility that some of your credits from community college may not transfer to your four-year. Additional educational experiences that transfer students may have already pursued, such as credited internshipsstudy abroad, or experiential learning programs may or may not count toward your bachelor’s at your transfer institution. Additionally, some four-years have limits on how many transfer credits they will accept. It is best to contact the registrar’s office at your choice schools to inquire about the specifics concerning their transfer credit policies.

Finding Your Academic Niche

Academic and cultural life is different at a four-year. If your community college was like mine, it was small: classes had between 20–30 students, and developing positive relationships with faculty and staff was encouraged. Luckily, my four-year liberal arts college was also small, supportive, and well-run. Although larger universities are wonderfully diverse, offer a range of opportunities, and are more likely to have graduate programs, many community college transfers find it difficult to distinguish themselves in a sea of faces. University courses tend to be populated by hundreds of students, and, often, your work never gets past the teaching assistant to an actual professor. Navigating the operational framework of a larger university can also present its own set of challenges. If a large school is the place for you, be sure to take advantage of your professors’ office hours, discuss their research, ask for help when needed, and be what they call “a self-starter” by asking about opportunities to get involved. If graduate school is your goal, this attitude will make all the difference when seeking academic recommendations.

More Opportunities

Four-year colleges provide a plethora of opportunity. For all the questions you ought to ask yourself when transferring to a four-year, no doubt the most important question is “What do I want to do?” Ask this early on in your transition, and give it significant consideration. Not only will this help in deciding where to go and which major to pursue, but it will be a guide as you explore the opportunities available at your four-year school. Doors will open that you never knew existed: Internships, job opportunities, teaching assistantships, independent studies, research funding, international opportunities — find them. The better you know what you want to do, the better you will be prepared to take full advantage of all that your four-year has to offer. Inquire as to whether you have a choice of an academic advisor, and work closely with the one you have. Upon matriculation, it is likely you have approximately two years until you complete your bachelor’s. You worked hard to get there, make the most of it!

I didn’t know all of this while transitioning to my four year, but my community college professor’s advice stuck with me. Although I know I got that grade because that’s what the work deserved, his response made all the difference. I learned to step up my game and prove I could achieve at a four-year just as well as I had at my community college. As I navigated that world, I needed to prepare for unforeseen challenges and differences. I also learned to take it easy on myself and accept that the grade I got was fine, but that sometimes I would just have to work a little harder.

(Written by Janelle Matrow)

If you want to get an undergraduate degree, there are three common ways you can use a community college education to achieve your goal.

Get the Two-Year Degree

The first is to pursue a specific program that leads to an associate degree. Students can spend two to three years fulfilling required courses and concentrating in an academic or professional area of study. Once they earn their associate degree, there are many professions that they can enter, such as nursing or dental hygiene.

Transfer To a Four-Year School

Alternatively, students can take their first two years of undergraduate coursework at a community college and transfer to a four-year school for the final two years of classes. Typically, these students fulfill basic requirements at the community college and move into more advanced coursework related to their major after transferring. Once they successfully finish all the necessary classes, projects, and exams, these students will graduate with a bachelor degree.

Get the Degree Then Transfer

One other common pathway through community college is to spend two years pursuing a specific course of study that results in a two-year degree, and transfer to a four-year institution with this associate degree. The advantage of this option is that, if anything delays completion of the bachelor’s program, these students still have an undergraduate degree from a community college.

Many community colleges have transfer agreements, also known as articulation agreements or “2+2 systems,” with public universities (and a few private, nonprofit colleges) in their state. These agreements guarantee a spot in one of the participating four-year colleges to students who successfully complete the required courses and meet a specified GPA. Transfer agreements are an effective way for students who want to complete their undergraduate education to make the transition to a four-year school. The community college and the four-year school have agreed on the requirements necessary to make this move, so students know what’s expected at each step. Check with your college to learn more about these programs and how to take advantage of them.

General Guidelines to Help Students Successfully Navigate Community College

  • Ask advisors, professors, and other students which courses are necessary to progress on your path. If you’re planning to move into a career after earning your associate degree, be sure you know what you need to graduate, when each course is offered, and whether there will be any obstacles to enrolling in it when you need to.
  • If you plan to transfer to a four-year college, meet with your community college counselor to plan the classes and schedule that you need to stay on track. Check with the transfer college to confirm that they will accept your community college courses for credit. Transfer agreements make this easier, but it’s always a good idea to confirm.
  • Keep track of the classes and time frame you need to follow to get to your goal. Map out what’s required and when it’s offered, then chart your enrollment and completion of these requirements. Finally, include a section for the courses that you still need to take. It doesn’t matter whether you organize this information on a computer or in a notebook, just that you check it regularly. The most important point is that you lay out your plan and stay on top of it.
  • Complete your financial aid applications as early as possible. Some aid programs administered by colleges are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so applying early ensures that you’ll be considered for these sources if you’re eligible.
  • Nearly all college students have hiccups in the progress towards their goals. If you run into a problem, whether it’s a lower grade than you wanted or not knowing which documents you need in order to apply for financial aid, by all means ask for help. Community colleges have fewer resources than private universities, so you may have to be persistent.

There are many people who work at two-year colleges who want you to succeed. If you don’t find them where you expect to, keep asking around. Check with professors you respect, your friends, or someone in a random office who has been helpful. Often it’s just a matter of finding a person who can point you in the right direction.

(Written by Catherine Holland)

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