The function of community colleges as higher education institutions in the United States is often misunderstood. As an undergraduate student, I experienced first-hand my dormmates playing mocking tones while describing Kirkwood (Community College) and “DMACC” (Des Moines Area Community College) in Iowa. Later as an educator, my own high school and ESL students made similar comments, the same kind of repulsed and confused faces when referencing these respective schools. For institutions that offer community-tailored education at a fraction of the cost of 4-year university, it is amazing these resources are underutilized at all. Is it that people see junior colleges as somehow “off-brand”? Do community colleges merely have a marketing problem? Even when it might seem that during a pandemic the inflated cost for a “campus experience” would be less appealing, community colleges have seen staggering drops in enrollment.
Why? These institutions provide tremendous value to their students.
Community colleges (or junior colleges) are 2-year, tertiary intuitions that offer undergraduate coursework, typically associate’s degrees, but sometimes also bachelor’s degrees (and in one remarkable instance, a master’s degree). According to the US Department of Education, in 2001, there were 1,462 community colleges across the United States, with 415 private institutions and 1,047 public institutions. In this article, we will discuss the great many benefits for international and domestic students who choose to study at these colleges.
1. Cost and Admission
A large barrier to higher education in the US is the cost. At a community college, students can save thousands, and likely tens of thousands of dollars when compared to tuition at a four-year school. The cost of the first two years of undergraduate education at private institutions and for out-of-state students is astronomical when compared to tuition at a local community college.
If we make a simple comparison for in-state students at University of Iowa versus nearby Kirkwood Community College, we see that it is twice as expensive to attend the state school. Kirkwood offers courses at $186.00 per semester credit hour, while University of Iowa listed their tuition fee for residents in 2021 as $337.00. For out-of-state students, the difference in cost can be even greater. Out-of-state students at Kirkwood can expect to pay $7,470 a year in tuition. Tuition and fees at University of Iowa for nonresident students for one year of study costs $31,905.
International students, who are considered out-of-state, pay maximum tuition fees to attend state schools, who charge more for students that are not residents of the state where they are located. Since international students pay the largest tuition cost when it comes to four-year schools, they are attractive for recruitment. Attending two years of a junior college can consequently result in enormous savings, as well as giving the student a chance to develop language skills before enrolling at an institution where each credit hour is more expensive.
Yes, Harvard has cache (and oodles of funding for students), state flagship schools have famous football teams, and you don’t ever have to explain where the University of Maryland is to someone. But when your time studying is all said and done, the financial reality of tertiary educational decisions makes community colleges look like a wonderful financial.
A common complaint recently among both faculty and students is the use of graduate students to teach lower-division coursework. While this practice allows for graduate students to get hands-on experience in the classroom as well as reduces the staffing burden on departments, faculty contend that it impacts employment for credentialed professionals and students assert that the quality of education is impacted by lack of experience. As these classes tend to be some of the first classes taken in undergraduate programs, the interesting element of these courses is that they are a shared experience among students who do not complete their degrees. With graduate teaching beginning as soon as the second semester in a program, it is possible that neither the instructor nor the student will complete their degree.
One of the most assuring parts of getting your education from a community college: no graduate student instructors. At a community college there are no graduate students by the very nature of the institution, and so the education you will get will come from a professional possessing a completed/conferred credential.
Professors at community colleges also often teach at 4-year colleges and universities, and so there are many instances where you are getting the same faculty members at neighboring institutions.
3. Further Professional Education/Licensure
For many students who have completed degrees but lack certain courses for licensure (such as for teaching and nursing), community colleges can be an excellent way to attain the missing coursework required, such as the RN to BSN upgrading program at Austin Community College. With the litany of professional licensures out there continually updating their requirements, for international professionals and local professionals alike, there are often mandates for additional coursework to meet new academic requirements. In many cases, community colleges will offer this kind of coursework. Dental hygiene, medical imaging, radiologic technology, automotive technology, and welding coursework are offered at many 2-year institutions.
4. Dual Credit and Direct Entry Schemes
Community colleges have a wide variety of programs that allow for transfer between programs and institutions. Direct entry and dual credit schemes can be a great solution for further studies. These programs can streamline the transition from secondary education into tertiary coursework or from lower-division classes into more focused upper-division academic material.
Dual credit classes differ from the sometimes also offered AP coursework (Advanced Placement). AP classes are upper-level high school classes, where upon satisfactory completion of a course examination, a student may receive college credit in addition to their regular high school unit hours. Dual credit courses are high school classes offered at a community college that guarantee college credit hours at that institution upon successful completion of the class. Northeast Community College in Nebraska offers one such program.
Lateral/direct entry schemes exist for universities as well, provide students with an assured path forward once they complete their lower-division studies. Lateral/direct entry schemes and transfer agreements are arrangements between community colleges and allied 4-year institutions that can guarantee entry for continued studies upon completion of a community college program.
Orange Coast College and Green River Community College are two of the most popular choices with international students. Orange Coast College proudly advertises their position as a transfer institution for both the University of California and California State University systems. Green River Community College has pathway agreements with dozens of universities. Green River Community College was one of first to community colleges to recruit internationally, largely because of their strong transfer program to Seattle University.
These kinds of lateral transfer programs exist for many community colleges. They are an incredible opportunity for international students to streamline their entry into advanced, discipline-specific coursework in programs with manageable class sizes, budget-friendly credit hours, and competent professional guidance.
Dual credit classes differ from the sometimes also offered AP coursework (Advanced Placement). AP classes are upper-level high school classes, where upon satisfactory completion of a course examination, a student can receive undetermined college credit in addition to their regular high school unit hours. Dual credit courses are high school classes offered at a community college that guarantee college credit hours at that institution upon successful completion of the class.
5. Open Enrollment
A selling point for the vast majority of community colleges is open enrollment. Colleges in Iowa, Ohio, California, and North Carolina all have their own variation of the open enrollment policy. With a few exceptions, community colleges will accept any student regardless of their prior academic performance provided they possess a benchmark secondary school completion credential, a high school diploma in the United States. Some community colleges even offer high school completion programs for those who lack this benchmark needed for admission. For this reason, many people choose to attend community colleges and, in many cases, can improve their GPA for future academic pursuits.
With the allure of the name-brand and large, recruitment budgets, four-year universities in the US can often cause community colleges to go overlooked. These colleges provide tremendous value to their students. These institutions are historically misunderstood by domestic and international students alike. By comparison these schools offer remarkable opportunity for low-cost, quality education. From transfer programs to licensure requirements, these two-year schools provide a value to their communities with which no other intuitions can compete. For international and domestic students alike, a community college can often be the best value for the time and money.