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Consider a Community College

When Studying in the United States

International students who are planning to study in the United States should consider studying at a community college when they begin their undergraduate studies. Many educational choices are available in the United States, including private colleges, state colleges, major universities, technical/trade schools, and community colleges; however, international students may be unfamiliar with the concept of a “community college” since they are not often found in many countries of the world. In fact, community colleges have their origin in the U.S., where they are both numerous and successful. Drawing upon my 35 years of working at a community college with international students, I’ll try to provide a brief history and overview as well as outline some of the advantages of studying at a community college.

A Brief History
Community colleges are celebrating 100 years of history this year in the United States. Early community colleges were usually located near or next to high schools and were considered to be part and property of a local school district. Their primary purpose was to provide the first two years of undergraduate course work, so students could continue to live at home and thus save money. The main objective for students was to transfer to four-year schools after two years at a community college, in order to complete a bachelor’s degree. In addition, technical education was also available through the high school district or combinations of districts. In the 1960s, interest in and a serious dedication to the community college model were enhanced by the opening of many new community colleges. At the same time, President Kennedy helped them to grow by recommending there be community colleges within driving distance of all homes in the United States.

Over the past 40 years, community colleges in nearly all states have developed into “comprehensive” colleges in that they provide the first two years of a bachelor’s degree (leading to transfer to four-year colleges or universities) and one or two years of a technical training program (leading to employment).

One confusing aspect is that not all community colleges have the word “community” in their official name. Some are simply referred to as colleges, others as community colleges, and still others as community and technical colleges. Prospective students should clarify the status of a two-year college by visiting its web site or reviewing the college catalog.

Current Status
Currently, there are 1,151 community colleges in the United States; 1,004 of these are public institutions controlled by the state or local districts, and the remaining number are private. 10.4 million students were enrolled in community colleges in 2002. As a matter of fact, nearly half (44% in 2001) of all undergraduates in the United States attend community colleges. Student population statistics indicate that 58% of community college students are female, and the average age (regardless of gender) is 29. According to a study by the American Association of Community Colleges, over 170,000 international students and immigrants enrolled in community colleges. The 2000 edition of Open Doors, published by the Institute of International Education, reported that international student enrollment had significantly increased in the past year, and by an overwhelming 40% since 1993.

Most international students attending a community college are planning to complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree or to study a technical program and then return home. Most community colleges will have a transfer program in place, but all students need to be sure to indicate their major early so they may be appropriately advised. If students choose uncommon majors (e.g. Home Economics), it may be in their best interest to transfer after one year. Not every community college has all the various technical programs either. To find out which colleges have specific technical programs or major programs of study, students should view college web sites and/or catalogs.

Advantages of Attending a Community College
Following are the significant advantages of attending a community college (in no particular order of importance):

  1. Cost of Tuition
    The cost for a student to study full-time in a community college is less than the cost for a four-year college or university. Generally the difference is about half as much, but that will vary from state to state and college to college. Many U.S. students attend community colleges to save money so they have more personal financial resources available when they transfer to a four-year college or university.
  2. Transfer Program
    Transfer programs give students the opportunity to earn credits that are fully transferable to a four-year college or university. A student earns an associate degree, which is generally equal to 50% of the required credits for a bachelor’s degree; therefore, and in most cases, students should be able to complete the four-year degree in two additional years. Each community college should have articulation agreements; students should verify that the colleges they are considering have such agreements in place. Transfer programs are one of the most important reasons why many American students choose to study at community colleges.
  3. Quality of Instruction
    Generally, all instructors who teach in the transfer program must have earned a master’s degree in order to be employed. Many instructors continue to study in their field of teaching and remain in the community college because they appreciate the learning environment and smaller class size. Over 16% of the full-time faculty have earned doctorate degrees.
  4. Small Class Size
    Community colleges attempt to maintain small class sizes, ensuring good interaction with, and individual attention from, instructors. Many classes boast a capacity of 25-30 students per class or less. Other services such as counseling and advising are readily available for international students.
  5. Open Door Admission
    Community colleges have an open door policy for general admission whereby they accept all students who apply. Nevertheless, many colleges have implemented testing to assess students’ skills in math, English, and reading so that those who may need improvement in these areas are able to take the additional classes they need to succeed. Certain programs within the college, however, may have selected admission in which admissions policies are more specific and/or competitive.

Items of Interest for International Students
Many, but not all, community colleges have some form of English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Generally, students applying from their home country will need to meet specific English requirements such as TOEFL yet may still need to take a English course or two following skills testing at the college. Some international students enter the U.S. to specifically study English in intensive ESL programs and then transfer afterwards to a community college for other academic programs.

One disadvantage some see about community colleges is that many do not have dormitories or any kind of student housing on campus. Historically, this was due to the commuter nature of a community college. In recent years, however, private companies have begun increasingly involved in funding and building facilities either on or within short walking distance of the campus. Without dorms, students can live in apartments or with friends or relatives; in some cases, colleges can assist students in locating host families.

Once a community college has been selected (a student can inquire and correspond with more than one college), it is necessary to communicate with admissions offices by email or mail to find out what the colleges require. A student must complete all requirements including the application form and financial certificates. If colleges respond in a timely and courteous manner, this may provide an insight into how they deal with international students in general.

Obtain a VisaOnce the acceptance is complete, the college will send the student an I-20 form. The student is then ready to go the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to meet with an Officer to request a student visa to enter the United States.

Once the visa is stamped in a student’s passport, he or she is ready to come to the United States to study. It is advantageous for international students to arrive in the States well before classes actually begin to assist with the various adjustments they will encounter. In addition, students should inform the college of their arrival date and begin to work with them on orientation and registration times to eliminate any possible confusion.

I am hopeful international students will find their time at U.S. community colleges to be challenging, exciting, educational, and fulfilling.

Provided by Thomas E. Carey, Advisor/Counselor at North Hennepin Community College in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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