Considering Community College? Here’s How to Choose the Best One

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two year program completion map of US
If you’re looking to pursue a college education without accumulating an Everest of student debt, you might want to look at a community college. Whereas 20 years ago community college was primarily considered as a place for adult learners to brush up on skills in basic classes, that’s no longer the case. Data published by…

If you’re looking to pursue a college education without accumulating an Everest of student debt, you might want to look at a community college.

Whereas 20 years ago community college was primarily considered as a place for adult learners to brush up on skills in basic classes, that’s no longer the case.

Data published by Statista indicates that in 2015, 51% of community college students were 21 years or younger, followed by 22 to 39-year-olds, who comprise 39% of the student body, with learners 40 years or older trailing at 10%.

Community colleges are teeming with recent high school grads seeking degrees and young professionals looking to advance their careers.

The stigma of community college has faded significantly, and parents and students are recognizing how community college makes earning a degree infinitely cheaper than the traditional route.

Intrigued yet?

Read on to see why community college is a promising prospect and learn how to pick the best one.

Setting the Record Straight: Community College 101

Quite a bit of misinformation surrounds community college. To combat it, we’re giving  you a crash course in community college education.

5 Misconceptions About Community College

Lie #1  The professors aren’t qualified.

Almost all community colleges require instructors to hold at least a master’s degree in their field and heavily prefer candidates with teaching experience.

Parents often assume attending a four-year college or university ensures their student will take all of their courses from tenured, PhD-holding professors. Not so.

In fact, many university courses are taught by masters-level lecturers, and even more commonly, by graduate students still in pursuit of their masters.

Lie #2 You don’t get the same kind of advising you would at a four-year college or university.

These instructors are trained in advising students and spend copious amounts of time mapping out their advisees’ future coursework and career track.

They’re on call for office hours and schedule regular advising appointments.

With generally smaller student bodies than many colleges and universities, advisors have more time to spend advising their students, an added benefit.

Lie #3 Major colleges and universities won’t accept your transfer credits.

There’s a bit of truth mingled in with this myth. Some colleges don’t accept transfer credits from community and technical colleges.

The key to transferring easily is doing your research.

If you’re planning to transfer to a specific school, talk with their admissions office, as well as the community college.

They’re equipped to answer these questions and will typically be upfront with you about what will and won’t transfer.

As a general rule, you may find transferring credits to be more challenging at private institutions as their requirements for transfer credits tend to be pickier than public universities’ standards.

Lie #4 You’ll miss out on the college experience.

Like we said earlier, community colleges have come a long way over the last few decades.

Many of them host frequent guest lecturers, workshops, and cultural events. They also offer clubs and organizations to match your interests.

Most school websites will have a student life section.

Scroll through to see all the opportunities for involvement. It just might surprise you.

Lie #5  Community college is a breeze.

It’s more complicated than that.

You can attend a four-year college and consider your courses to be easy.

Conversely, you can get an Associate’s degree from a technical college and take some of the most challenging classes of your life.

You can’t categorize all community colleges as easy, or all universities as hard.

Again, the key is to do your research.

Talk to students, teachers, or graduates who will tell you how the schools actually are.

You can also find online reviews from sources like ratemyprofessors, which allows you to read anonymous reviews of institutions and their instructors.

Now that you know the truth about community college, let’s look at how you can educate yourself to make the best choice, get your dream degree, and save tuition money while you do it.

How to Choose the Best Community College

Even though nearly every community boasts a community college, not all of these institutions are created equal.

Depending on what you are hoping to achieve through your community college education, you may want to drive a little to get to the right school.

According to Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University:

Somebody who is choosing a community college should be as careful as they are in choosing a four-year college.

Here’s what you need to know:

If You Want to Transfer to a Four-Year College or University

  1. Start by checking your community college’s success rate

The Chronicle of Higher Education produces interactive data showing nationwide community college completion rates and breaking down schools individually by state.

two year program completion map of US

While the success rate of a school cannot predict how any particular student will do, it can give you a good idea if the school is well equipped to help students complete their education.

  1. Find out about guaranteed transfer programs. Some schools are set up so you can take the credits you earn at community college and use them at a local four-year college or university.

These programs generally have certain credit and grade point average requirements, which you will want to know ahead of time.

  1. Look into remedial programs if applicable. If you are starting at community college because you need some remedial courses before you start thinking about transferring, be sure to ask how those courses are taught.

Unfortunately, many community colleges have a high failure rate in remedial courses.

Determine what the college’s success rate is in the particular courses you need, and ask questions about what kind of support is available (such as tutoring) for students in those courses.

If You Plan to Get Your Degree From Your Community College

  1. Research specific programs at each school. If you know you want to go into nursing or education, for example, talk to a professional in your chosen field to find out what community colleges offer the best programs in your chosen field.

It’s also important to remember that a specific program in a community college may have a higher (or lower) success rate than the college as a whole, so be sure to do thorough research.

  1. Look into honors programs. Community colleges with low graduation and transfer numbers may offer an honors track program for students who plan to complete their degree there (or transfer to another school).

These programs can be geared more toward the traditional college student, while the college overall has a higher age demographic.

The National Collegiate Honors Council provides a directory of all colleges with honors programs, and you can search by institution or region.

  1. Audit a class. One of the best ways to determine if a school will meet your needs (particularly if you plan to stay there for the long haul), is to sit in on a class in your field.

There is no better way to find out if the teaching philosophy, class size, and classroom atmosphere will fit in with your learning goals and needs.

The Bottom Line

Finding the right college is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, and community college can be an incredibly enriching experience.

Whether you’re getting a specialized technical degree there or hoping to transfer to a 4-year institution, community college can get you there affordably.

When it comes to your education, you deserve a school which is a good fit where you will learn and grow.

So go forth with this guide in hand, do your research, and find that perfect fit.

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About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a freelance writer and mother who loves to share tips on managing the family budget and other personal finance tips. You can find her musings on parenting and life at The SAHMnambulist.

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  1. Manette @ Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance says

    Great tips! We all know that most high school students would often choose a university than a community college. But if they will check their community college before scouting a university outside their city or state, they will definitely be saving a lot of money while in college.

  2. Debt Free Teen says

    My community college has an honors program which gets me priority registration. This almost guarantees that I can get the schedule and teachers I want. They also have the highest transfer rate in the state. I got lucky that it’s close to where I live. And at $50 a unit , it’s a steal!

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