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How to Decide If a Community College Is Right for You

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Nearly 7 million students were enrolled in two-year (community) colleges in 2018 - representing about 41% of all undergraduates in the US, according to the the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).


Now, with the coronavirus throwing many college plans into question, some families who’d planned to attend a 4-year institution are wondering if a local community college might be a good fit.


The nation’s community college system is vast and impressive - community colleges are often powerful engines of mobility, expanding educational access and support to students of all types. In many cases, community colleges have also offered great career value - being more aligned with workforce and training needs than research universities, and partnering with local employers. 


Most community colleges primarily award Associate degrees (AA) or Certificates. Associate degrees typically take 2 years to complete with a full-time courseload (half of a BA). Certificates vary in length but are less. Some community colleges do award BA degrees also -- but it’s a smaller number. 


Here are some of the things you need to know if you’re considering a community college for the first time - and especially if you intend to transfer or continue to a four-year university eventually.


Tuition costs will be lower than at a four-year university

According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing, for community colleges, the average in-state tuition and fees came to $3,730 compared to $10,440 for a public four-year college. (These figures do not include room and board.) The pricing varies widely by state, but will mostly likely be far less than you’d pay at a local four-year college.


Living expenses will be lower if you live at home

Most community colleges do not have dorms - and you may be assuming your student will be living at home anyway. So you will save on room and board and many of the fees that you’d have at a four-year college. But you won’t have no living expenses, as students still have basic needs, like food, to cover regardless of where they are living.


Transfer credits can pay off -- but are not guaranteed

If you play your cards right, starting at a community college can be a huge cost savings because you can pay a lot less for many of the credits you need. Ultimately, your diploma will be granted by the institution that awards your degree at the end of your studies, no matter where you started. But credit transfer rules and processes are notoriously complicated -- and every college does them differently. Pay close attention for articulation agreements, which are agreements that specify which credits will transfer and be accepted between two institutions. If an agreement like that is in place, it means the process will be more transparent and seamless. Typically articulation agreements will exist between public institutions that are near each other, while private institutions will have to review your transcript and make their decisions on a case-by-case basis.


Stick to it

Research shows that the majority of students entering community colleges intend to transfer to a bachelor’s program upon completing their AA, but a much smaller number actually do. There are many reasons that students drop out of the ‘pipeline’ - so it is important to consider your own situation and what challenges you might have to finish. Make sure you’re connecting with an advisor and have the support you’ll need to continue your studies (whatever that means).


You’ll be treated differently in admissions and financial aid

If you will be accumulating college credits before re-applying to your four-year university of choice, you may see less financial aid then you would if you were coming in with no prior college experience. It’s quite common for colleges to consider a student who is coming in with college credits a “transfer student.” This student will have different admissions criteria (for public systems, for instance, there may be GPA minimums or courses you need to have taken), and often the financial aid available is far less than for true ‘first-year’ students.

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