Exploring the Community College Transfer Route

My "visit" to Frederick Community College (FCC) consisted primarily of a one-on-one interview with Mary Fran McShea, an academic advisor at FCC. A huge proponent of the community college route, Mary Fran offered me an insider's view of this increasingly popular option. We spoke on August 7, 2015.

Because I anticipate that my audience for this blog is primarily high school students and their parents, I'll focus on the traditional community college transfer route that I discussed with Mary Fran. If you're unfamiliar with this idea, it is basically that a student matriculates to a community college and attends that school for one or two academic years before transferring to a four-year college or university. This option has economics on its side. Community college is by far less expensive than a traditional, residential, four-year college, not only from a tuition standpoint but also from a room-and-board perspective (Hello, Mom and Dad! Don't convert my room to a home gym yet!).

To get a sense of the difference in tuition alone, see the below table from 2014:

Now that you're thinking about what you're going to do with all that extra money, here's something else that sweetens the pot: many states have articulation agreements between community colleges and those states' public, four-year colleges which guarantee transfer admission to those four-year schools. Virginia, for example, guarantees admission to state schools such as the illustrious University of Virginia (biased alum here!) if the student earns an associate degree with a certain GPA at a Virginia community college (check specific requirements here). Policies such as this mean that qualified transfer students don't have to sweat all the rigmarole of admissions to excellent state schools. What a deal!

With all of these very enticing pros, why in the world do more students not go this route??

Most students already know the answer: social aspects. Let's face the facts. In educated circles, there is a stigma attached to going the community college route when all of your friends are headed away from home to four-year schools. People come up with all sorts of assumptions about why a student is opting for a two-year school. We live in a judgy (not a word, but I'm using it), superficial world.  That's life.  Students who are easily affected by the opinions of others or who put a high value on prestige or brand name schools may find the community college route difficult to explain.  I think that, as the price of higher ed continues to sky-rocket, more and more people are recognizing the wisdom of this path for some students. If the community college route is best for you, own it!  You're doing the best thing for yourself; be proud of having the wisdom to recognize that fact.

Some community colleges are better than others at encouraging actual community on campus. If you're considering this route, visit the campus common areas (student center, if there is one; library; any eateries) at different times of day while school is in session to see if people are congregating and chatting with each other. Check out any student groups: are there things you can get involved in? Do students participate in activities? Don't neglect your social health for two years! These are important considerations. Also, remember that students who transfer to four-year schools will be two years behind their university peers when it comes to establishing social networks.  You have to be ready to throw yourself into university life after you transfer in order to make the most of the two years you have there.

One of the other aspects to be aware of is that not all courses transfer to four-year schools. Some of the courses that will transfer also may not count toward core requirements at the university-level.  Be sure to keep close tabs on how your community college courses will transfer onto your four-year college transcript.  Many schools have transfer equivalency databases you can check.  Also, if you want to transfer into a particularly competitive program at a four-year school, note that many articulation agreements promise admission to a university, not to a particular program.

My overall impression is that the community college route is great for students in the following categories:

  1. Students who are savvy shoppers. This option is hands down the winner in finances.
  2. Students who need to mature a bit academically, socially, or emotionally before striking out independently at a four-year institution.  Students who desire to attend more selective four-year schools but who don't have the high school grades recommended for admission to those schools might do well to show they can earn a 4.0 for a year in community college, making them stronger applicants than they otherwise might have been.
  3. Students who have career desires that do not require bachelor's degrees. Students should always think about why they want to go to college and consider whether or not their goals line up with the goals of a traditional, four-year college education.

It will be interesting to see how community colleges are faring in the next several years, as there has been some dialogue at the federal level about making community colleges free, just like public elementary and secondary schools. Some states have taken it upon themselves to declare this educational tier free.

Mary Fran mentioned to me that the high school seniors she advises often come to her office carting around ideas like, "I'm going to FCC for a year, and then I'm going to a real college." Therein lies the problem of perception. Community college is real college. Community colleges have faculty who love to teach and who are good at doing so, faculty who are not wrapped up in research. Courses are real courses: calculus is calculus whether you take it from a community college professor who is a native English speaker or from a grad student who barely speaks English at a large four-year institution (hmm, something to think about?). The important thing is that your education continues in the best way for you!