Community college has never been bigger or more important than it is today. Almost half – 45%, to be exact – of all college students are enrolled in a community college, numbers that reflect how much of an impact community college has on the higher education landscape. (AACC Fact Sheet) Many students who would never have a shot at college, whether because of cost, high school grades, or other reasons have a chance because of community college.
Tuition costs have been steadily rising at a faster rate than inflation, according to the College Board, with costs at public college and universities going up shockingly fast as state budgets all over the US tighten their belts and make sharp cuts to public education funding. Student loan debt and default rates are also dangerously high as new college graduates find it difficult to get a job; a Time magazine analysis suggests that more than a quarter of college graduates are carrying more debt than they can pay off. (Time Magazine, Student Loan Crisis)
Because of these financial and economic challenges, many students are choosing to begin their college careers in community college before transferring to 4-year colleges and universities. It’s easier today than ever before to take basic and foundational college courses – the first two years of a bachelor’s degree – at a cheaper community college and then move on to the last two years or even to a master’s degree.
The Community College’s Role in Higher Education
Community colleges are crucial for rural regions, remote communities, and post-industrial areas like the Rust Belt.
While junior colleges and technical/trade schools have existed since the beginning of the 20th century, the community college as we know it began to take shape in the 1960s, featuring characteristics we take for granted today like open admissions, transfer agreements, and a mix of technical and professional programs. Many of these choices were made to provide expanded educational options for the Baby Boomers, whose numbers were enough to cause overcrowding in traditional colleges and universities. (AACC, Past to Present)
Community colleges were also key to providing educational access to underrepresented and marginalized groups beginning in the 1960s, especially Latino, African-American, and economically disadvantaged students. The open admissions process provided an opportunity for those who had come from underperforming schools or challenging home lives to get into the classroom and prove themselves.
Today, community college is still a major force for social mobility, with more than half of all Latino and Native American students, and nearly half of all African-American and Asian-American students, enrolled in community college. (AACC Fact Sheet) Community colleges are crucial for rural regions, remote communities, and post-industrial areas like the Rust Belt.
Why Community College?
There are plenty of reasons a transfer student may choose community college. One of the primary considerations is money – community college is a lot cheaper than pretty much any four-year college or university, even public institutions. On average, a year of community college is $5000 less than a year at a 4-year public college (AACC Fact Sheet). Students who are planning to transfer to a college or university after getting their basic courses at a community college can save a tremendous amount of money.
Community colleges can also be a helpful place for students who need to catch up on courses before moving on to a traditional college or university. Plenty of young people begin to realize in their senior year that they have not made the grades they needed, or aren’t ready for the academic demands of a university. Since almost all community colleges are open-enrollment, community colleges often provide high levels of academic support such as tutoring and developmental courses that can get students back on track for college.
In other cases, you may be relocating from one state to another and find that college credits you earned in one place do not transfer to your new home. If that’s the case, you can take care of those non-transferable credits for a lot less at a local community college before transferring fully into another 4-year institution.
On-Campus or Online: What is right for you?
Whether an on-campus or online program fits your needs better depends a lot on why you’re choosing community college. New high-school graduates who are planning to transfer may find that an on-campus program better prepares them for a 4-year experience than an online degree would.
Community colleges today have come a long way from the cold, industrial buildings on the outskirts of town that many people still associate with the traditional technical colleges. Many community colleges proudly feature a vibrant on-campus life, with student interest groups, clubs, and organizations that are expected to be a part of college life: community colleges may have dozens of offerings, such as hobby clubs for gamers, crafters, or hikers; advocacy groups for minority, international, or LGBT students; and nationally-recognized honor societies.
In many areas, community colleges also provide much-needed cultural and social activities that are lacking. Especially in areas that do not have 4-year colleges nearby, community colleges often offer cultural amenities like theater and musical performances, museums, festivals, and competitive sports. Community colleges are also significant forces for community service, with faculty and students taking part in activities that feed, clothe, and provide medical treatment for citizens in need. Getting involved in these kinds of activities help community college students find their way into the non-academic life of traditional college after they transfer.
On the other hand, for transfer students who just need to clear out a few required courses before moving on – such as those coming from an institution with a few credits that won’t transfer, or who just need one remedial math course to get into a public university – online may be the way to go. The convenience and flexibility of an online course that allows you to work on your own time and around your present schedule makes knocking out a few credits much simpler.
Articulation Agreements: Making a Smooth Transition
Many, if not most, community colleges have articulation agreements with public (and sometimes private) 4-year colleges and universities in their region. An articulation agreement is an official arrangement made between the community college and a partner institution that outlines what courses or degree programs the partner institution will accept.
An articulation agreement can be key to a smooth transition between community college and 4-year university. It’s a guarantee, simply put, that the university will accept transfer credits without any hassle. Students will not need to re-take courses, and they can be sure that they will learn the same things in the community college that they would have learned at the university.
If you know from the beginning of your college career that you plan to transfer from community college to a 4-year school, it’s definitely in your best interest to make sure the community college you are attending has an agreement with the college you want to transfer to. It’ll make your life a lot easier a few years down the road, and a lot less expensive when you don’t have to retake courses at a university tuition cost.
The Financial Transition
If you’ve taken full advantage of the academic and non-academic opportunities that community college has to offer, the biggest difference you’ll see when you transfer to a 4-year institution will be the cost – it’s going to be a lot more expensive than community college. You’ll need to be sure your financial profile is solid.
FAFSA: Remember, you have to fill out FAFSA every year, and the awards for a 4-year college or university are going to be different from what you were offered as a community college student. Don’t assume that you’ve got the process down. FAFSA determines your eligibility for free funding like Pell Grants, as well as Work-Study opportunities.
Scholarships for Transferring Students: Believe it or not, there are some scholarship funds set up specifically for community college students transferring to 4-year schools. The best-known is the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, but there are in fact many funds, including those offered by honor societies like Phi Theta Kappa, those set aside for low-income and minority students, and special region-specific programs. Your community college may have financial arrangements or awards with the schools they feed, for instance. (Time, Community College Scholarships)
Loans: As a bachelor’s student, you will probably be qualified for more money in student loans, but beware: loans are loans, and the more you take out, the more you’ll have to pay back. If you have to take out a loan, stick with subsidized federal loans; avoid private loans at all costs.
Savings: Hopefully you’ve been making good decisions with the money you saved by going to community college. Americans are notoriously bad at saving, but if you can set aside just a portion of the money you would have spent on a 4-year program, it can make the transition (and higher bills) a little softer.
Community college has been the springboard into a bachelor’s degree for millions of students over the decades, and it’s more important now than ever, as middle-class wages stagnate and upward mobility gets more challenging for lower-income families. A bachelor’s degree is still one of the basic requirements for most entry-level and mid-level professional careers, but a lifetime of student loan debt is not.
By taking your foundational courses at a community college, you give yourself a leg up on your job market competition in one simple way – less financial pressure means more freedom in the long run: freedom to make your own decisions and make your own way, without a big, ugly loan payment hovering over your head. Make the most of it.
AACC Fact Sheet
AAC article, Community Colleges Past and Present
College Board article, Trends in Higher Education
Time Magazine article, Student Loan Crisis
Time Magazine article, Community College Scholarships