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The Ins & Outs of Community College: Is It Right For You?

From “big (wo)man on campus” to the campus “fresh meat,” the transition to college can be difficult. Adjusting to a new town with new friends and no parents hovering over your shoulder to finish homework presents collegiettes with a slew of challenges we haven’t previously had to face. And with a price tag of tens of thousands of dollars (or more!), there’s a lot of pressure to succeed.

But with less expensive, community colleges sprinkled across the country, some pre-collegiettes decide to spend the first one or two years after high school studying in a more local environment.

“I didn’t feel prepared to take college full-on right out of high school, so community college was a great way to ease into the experience,” says Kelsey Walid, a junior at The College of William and Mary who transferred from Tidewater Community College. “It helped save a lot of money and was a great way to get all of my general education requirements out of the way.”  

Opting to enroll in a community college gives collegiettes an opportunity to receive an associate’s degree before entering the job market or transferring to a 4-year institution to complete a Bachelor of Arts or Sciences. For others, though, community college is simply a chance to continue learning beyond high school without the pressure of a huge price tag.

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Community college, often a 2-year institution, offers students – who either can’t afford or aren’t ready for a 4-year institution – an opportunity for higher education closer to home.

“I always referred to community college being a combination of high school and college,” Kelsey says. “It felt like high school in that I would drive there, go to class, then leave. There’s no living on campus, no dining halls, and nearly non-existent extra-curriculars. I will say, though, that my classes were great and I loved every professor I had.”  

Since the recession hit the U.S. economy several years ago, enrolling in a community college has become a more popular option, attracting applications from many high school graduates, high school seniors, and adults of all ages who lost their jobs.

“Community college traditionally is a less expensive educational route, so in times of tightened budgets, people often look for comparable service at reduced rates,” says Erin Devlin, retention and graduation coordinator at The College of Southern Idaho. “Lower tuition paired with scholarship and financial aid opportunities allow students to get a quality 2-year education at a fraction of the price of a 4-year university.”

On average, tuition for public two-year colleges costs $2,963, about a fourth the price of a public four-year institution and a fourteenth of the tuition to attend a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. And, the price of each spikes even more when you factor in other necessary expenses like room and board, books and a meal plan. Yikes!

As a result, the escalating price of higher education has driven a larger body of students to the more attractive, lower cost of community colleges. From 2000 to 2006, for example, community colleges noticed a 10 percent increase in the number of students who enrolled, according to data from the Department of Education.

“We want to see […] more students leave their current institution entering directly into the workforce or transferring to a university,” Devlin says. “Students need to understand that by setting a goal, working hard and attaining that goal, they are laying the groundwork for a great life.”

While the application process and acceptance rates among community colleges differ, most require potential students to fill out an online application, similar to the Common Application, which their admissions team will review. For most schools acceptance to the college isn’t guaranteed, but admittance rates are higher than those at most 4-year institutions.

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Options after Associate’s 

Often, students who graduate from a community college will continue their education to receive a Bachelor of Arts or Science at a 4-year institution that accepts credits from their first two years of study. Although community colleges try to make the logistics of transferring simple – like establishing guaranteed admissions programs to the state university and setting up programs that allow credits to easily transfer – collegiettes will have to readjust to a new environment, just as they did their first year of college.

“Jumping from a smaller, slower-paced community school to a 4-year university has forced me to go beyond my comfort zone by becoming involved in on-campus activities,” says Lindsay Shoemake, a junior at Georgia College & State University. “It was a little difficult acclimating to a larger campus after being at such a small, familiar school. I now strive to be the best at all that I do each and every day.”

Lindsay, who transferred to a 4-year university as a sophomore, says that she began her higher education at a community college in order to save money and maintain a high GPA while working at her job. Although she sometimes regrets her decision to go to community college first, the amount of money she saved by attending for a year makes it worthwhile, she says.

“I definitely had to deal with a little ridicule and confused looks when I told my friends I would be living at home and commuting to a community school,” Shoemake says. “I dealt with the reactions accordingly, usually brushing them off and reminding myself that the money they would be spending during their freshman year away would be money in my pocket.”

While choosing where to go to college is always difficult, junior Dana Isernio says it’s important to make the decision for yourself, without factoring in how others perceive the institution.

“At first I thought I was going to regret it, as far as the social experience and meeting great friends,” Dana says. “But, if you dive right in, you can catch up and it doesn’t feel like I have missed a thing. Education-wise, the community college got me prepared for the great classes here. So, I have no regrets!”

About half of students who graduate from community colleges, though, will directly enter the job market. By receiving an associate’s degree beforehand, these young adults will be more competitive job candidates next to peers who bypassed their higher education entirely.

“I think it is very important for young women, and all students, in today’s world to understand the importance of a college education,” Devlin says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree, but a college credential of any kind can open so many doors.”

Is community college right for you?

  • If you aren’t ready to make the transition to a 4-year institution, sticking with community college will ease the transition. Who knows? You may be ready to move away from home after you get your associate’s degree!
  • Talk to your high school’s guidance counselors about the programs your local community colleges offer. The opportunities they offer may work better with your goals than other institutions.
  • Email the admissions office at your local community colleges and set up an informational interview. The more information you have, the better decision you’ll make!
Stephanie Haven is a freshman at Tufts University where she plans to major in Sociology with a minor in Communication and Media Studies. She enjoys making terrible puns about her Tufts of hair and Jumbo supply of stockpiled food. After college she plans to live in New York City where she hopes to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. You can find her trying to figure out Twitter @stephaniehaven.