I have always been an active advocate for better public education at the K-12 and college level. But too often I hear the words “they can always go to community college” as a solution for the next level of education, as if the four-year college is an unrealistic or unattainable option.

However, starting a college education at a community college has several drawbacks that are rarely publicized.

Advocates for the community college will tell you that:

  • The community college is an excellent place to get an idea for your major in a four-year college;
  • The community college offers introductory courses equal in quality to those offered by four-year colleges: and,
  • Students may transfer easily from community college to a four-year college.

From experience I found that the opposite points were more true.

A community college education, presuming a student pursues an Associates degree, does more for the student who is sure of what they want than for the student who is uncertain.

This is because:

  • More and more community colleges are offering honors programs linked to transfer agreements with four-year schools. In New Jersey, for example, students who attend community college under the merit and need-based NJ STARS program receive scholarships for their last two years to attend a state-supported public college, including Rutgers-New Brunswick and The College of New Jersey, as long at they maintain a 3.25 GPA or higher. In California, a select group of community colleges have honors programs that are tied to transfer to UC-Berkeley or to UCLA.
  • The students who know what they want can follow the guidelines of articulation agreements between the community college and its four-year college partners so that they may transfer into the Bachelors degree program that they want.
  • More often then not the community college will have public colleges as articulation partners as well as private colleges. A good community college will offer the transfer options to a public or a private school for most any Bachelors degree program a college student might want to pursue.

But the full-time students who do honors at a community college are a very small subset of the student body at a community college. So are the full-time students who choose the Associates degree programs that can lead directly to employment.

Yet most of the news coverage that I have read about community college students mentions that fewer than a fifth of those who begin their education at a community college go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

I have some thoughts as to why this happens:

Too few credits combined with too few high school credentials.

Often I hear of community college students who want to transfer into a four-year college after a year, instead of pursuing the Associates degree before they pursue a Bachelors degree.

The problem, however, is that too many community college courses are not always “valued” as highly as courses taken at a four-year college. The community college faculty might be able to make the case that the credits should be transferrable, but the four-year college has all the say.┬áIt is quite discouraging for a community college student to have completed 30 to 36 credits at a community college to find out that up to a semester’s worth of those credits will not be transferable to a four-year degree.

In these cases the four-year college will also ask for high school grades as well as standardized test scores. They will count towards assessing the student’s chances for success.

A college admissions officer is less likely to doubt that a student who has followed an articulation agreement and completed 60 credits as well as The Associates degree will succeed at their institution.

Community colleges lead students into remedial coursework

Community colleges require placement tests for reading as well as mathematics. Those students who score poorly are assigned to remedial instruction. This is understandable for reading and English Composition. Virtually every college course requires students to read and write. For mathematics course completion depends not only on skills, but also desire. The community college student who did poorly in high school math does not want to hear that s/he has to take one or two high school-level math classes in order to graduate. Yet it is possible to attend a four-year college and never set foot in a math class if you choose a major in the humanities or the social sciences. Four-year colleges also have their versions of remedial courses. But their faculty also have the option of releasing students from them.

Academic advising is not the same as it is at a four-year college

Community colleges have more majors than four-year colleges. This is because they offer the Associates degree as a terminal (last professional) degree in several programs as well as the Associates degree that is meant for the transfer student. There is more information for an academic advisor to know, and more for that person to confuse. It is too easy, for example, to advise a student into an Associates program in Nursing than the transfer program that leads into the Bachelor’s degree, especially if that student did poorly on the placement tests.

Associates degrees have their own distribution requirements, just like Bachelor’s degrees do.

When students begin their education at a four-year college they are told that they will need to satisfy a set of distribution requirements. Most often the requirements include a year each of Humanities, Science, Social Sciences and Mathematics. The smart student at a four-year college tries to have the option to choose between two or three subjects to be their major by the end of the second semester of their sophomore year. That student will also complete the distribution requirements that go along with those majors.

A student interested in Psychology, for example, will likely have a year of Biology as well as Statistics completed, and have the option of also declaring in other majors such as Sociology. A student interested in Political Science, as another example, will have completed the Math and Statistics requirements as well as the introductory courses to have the option of declaring an Economics major. However, in both cases, the distribution requirements that are less related to the major are often bumped into the junior and senior years.

Community colleges also have distribution requirements. They are the same is those for a four-year college, only the student has two years to fulfill them if s/he wants to go full time and move on to a four-year college. These degree requirements cannot be bumped on to the four-year college. They must be completed to earn the Associates degree. An Associates degree candidate in Economics or Political Science, as one example, will likely have the Math and Statistics courses they need to transfer, but s/he also needs to complete the science requirement. Same with the science major who is required to complete the Humanities or Social Science requirements for the Associates.

Why did I go through this discussion?

Because the student who goes for the Associates degree before transferring to a four-year degree program might have a lower GPA during their first two years in college than the student who completed their first two years at a four-year school.

The faculty for the community college can make legitimate arguments for their approach to higher education. They want to ensure the value and rigor of their degree, to provide that a transfer student could succeed at a four-year school. They cannot predict the percentage of Associates degree holders who move right into a Bachelors degree program and arrive in a position to complete that program in two years. Facilitating a transfer to a four-year college is not their primary job. Guiding the students to their degree is.


One Comment on “The Drawbacks of Starting at Community College

  1. This was a very informative article. As a school counselor, I tell my students (particularly those that plan to transfer to a 4 year school) to meet with their advisor in order to strategize their departure from the institution. Your article provide some solid point thats I can now better articulate to my students. Thanks for the read and it was great meeting at you at the PCPR Conference a few weeks ago!

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