Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Starting at a Community College?

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Media coverage of the high cost of college is leading more students to consider community college as their starting point for life after high school.  The economic side of this argument is hard to deny; tuition at community college is almost always lower than that of a four-year college, and the commuter nature of community colleges means most attendees will live at home, leading to even greater savings through reduced cost on room and board. If you can save that much money now and transfer to a four-year college in two years, why not do it?

The theory of “start local and transfer” is almost too good to pass up, but study after study shows remarkably few community college students go on to earn a four-year degree.  If you’re considering a community college option to start your journey to a four-year degree, keep these important points in mind:

Some four-year colleges don’t take transfer students.  Students often choose a community college start after they’ve been turned down for admission at Dream School U.  This gives them the option of deferring their dream, not denying it; start here, earn strong grades, and get your dream back on track by transferring next year.

If that’s your thinking, do your homework about your next college.  Many colleges only accept transfer students if enough freshmen don’t return for their sophomore year.  Since the return rate is often around 98% at highly selective colleges, they don’t have space for transfer students, so they don’t offer that option.  Be sure to ask your destination college about transfer before you make any plans.

Many classes don’t transfer the right way.  Let’s say you spend a year as a full-time student at a local community college, and get As and Bs in all of your classes. Your next college accepts you based on your high GPA, so that means you only have three years of college to go before you graduate, right?

Usually, no.  Some of the classes you completed at community college may not be accepted for transfer to a four-year college, especially if they were classes that helped you gain a better understanding of some key ideas you didn’t grasp in high school.  Other classes may cover new material, but your next school may only give you elective credit for them, especially if they don’t offer that class.  As a result, you get elective credit for the class—but you still have to take the courses required to get a Bachelor’s Degree.

There are two ways to make sure the community college classes you take will count at your next school.  It’s easy to keep track if your next school has a transfer guide that spells out the classes you should take at your community college that will meet your next school’s graduation requirements.  If you follow that list, you’re sure to land on your feet.  If a transfer guide isn’t available, talk to the transfer counselor at your next school every semester, and give them your schedule.  This is less official, but this approach can help avoid surprises as well.

Campus life is different.  Not every four-year college has a football team, and not every community college has a dead campus on weekends, but if the social side of college is important to you, be sure to tour the community college before you enroll. If the fit isn’t right, look around; there may be a more active community college campus just down the road. 

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