4 Things You Should Know About Community College

It might sound like an easy path to a new job or a four-year school, but consider these tips first.

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At LaGuardia Community College, a school of 65,000 students in Queens, N.Y., just a stone's throw from Manhattan, President Gail Mellow did something this year she had never done before: She closed admissions and stopped taking applications from some 1,000 applicants.

The economic downturn has helped to spark a surge of interest in low-cost, two-year community colleges, which give students the option to transfer their credits to a four-year school. Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics say the number of associate degrees and vocational certificates awarded by postsecondary institutions reached 1.5 million in 2007, which represents a 28 percent increase over the previous decade. But there are still academic and financial challenges that are unique to community colleges. Research shows that most of the students who attend community college still do not transfer to four-year institutions or earn a credential or degree.

Here are four things to keep in mind when considering community college:

1. How to Pay: Community college might be cheaper than a private four-year school, but the average yearly total cost, including textbooks and transportation, can be as high as $10,000. Paying the price is not always easy. Many of the people who attend community college tend to be low-income, first-generation college students with outside responsibilities such as families and jobs. Financial aid can be a big help, but many community college students have a harder time paying for college than their peers at four-year schools.

Access is a big issue. Because the majority of them are state funded and they have limited resources, "it tends to be harder to get financial aid at community colleges than at four-year colleges," says Deborah Cochrane, program director at the Institute for College Access and Success. But plenty of aid opportunities are available if you know where to look.

The first thing you should do is fill out the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is the major application for any form of federal aid but also for most forms of state and institutional aid. The next step—which is equally important—is to talk to an adviser or counselor in the financial aid office of the school you wish to attend as early as possible, because the financial aid officers will have the best knowledge about the types of aid, including grants, scholarships, and loans, that their students can receive, and how to get them.

[Read more on Paying for College.]

Lower-income students are often reluctant to borrow for college, but federal Stafford loans, which are safer and more affordable than private loans, are a form of aid that is definitely worth considering. They range from $5,500 to $12,500, any student regardless of income can qualify for them, and they allow students to cap their payments at below 15 percent of their income after they graduate. There also are private, independent foundations, such as the Kaplan Education Foundation and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provide scholarships of up to $30,000 to talented community college students who wish to transfer to selective four-year universities.

2. Going for the Bachelor's: Transferring from community college to a four-year school is a process that should be planned well in advance. The best strategy is to identify an adviser at the community college and stay with that person to ensure that you sign up for the best courses to match your interests and that will be transferable to the institution(s) you're interested in attending. Being in regular contact with both the community college and the four-year college you hope to attend is a must.

Most community colleges have what are called articulation agreements with both private and public four-year schools, which describe the types of courses one must take to guarantee a smooth transfer. Experts call Florida the poster child for community college transfer, because under state law, anyone who earns an associate's degree is guaranteed admission, as a junior, into a public university degree program in the state. But many universities, especially state schools, change their transfer requirements on a regular basis, so staying up to date on the changes is important.