Finances, bad high school grades and family obligations are just a few of the many reasons students decide to start their undergraduate degree at a community college. Students who plan to finish their degree at a four-year university need to be diligent, focused and engaged to increase their chances of transferring successfully, experts say.
Wilberth Barrera got good grades throughout high school, but he didn't have the money to go to college. And as an undocumented immigrant, Barrera didn't qualify for many scholarships and loans when he graduated in 2006.
Despite these challenges, Barrera earned an associate degree from Brookhaven Community College in Dallas in 2011, while balancing work and classes. But he still didn't have the money to finish his education.
Barrera continued taking classes at Brookhaven until he earned a full academic scholarship to Paul Quinn College in Texas, thanks to the help he received from a mentor at the former and the president of the latter. He majors in elementary education and plans to finish classes this spring.
Barrera attributes most of his success to the connections he made at Brookhaven, but says that his work ethic and determination helped him stay focused when times got hard.
"I had the mentality that I don't care how long it takes me, I have to finish," Barrera says.
Like Barrera, many students don't take a full course load in community college because they are juggling academics with work and other responsibilities. It often takes longer for students to transfer, community college officials say.
To help students stay on track, experts encourage students to organize their educational goals, engage with colleges, build connections and take the initiative to find programs and opportunities that will help them complete a degree.
To start, students should map out their transfer plans before they graduate from high school, experts say. Through articulation agreements – a partnership between community colleges and four-year institutions that outlines a clear pathway to college – many states make it easier for students to understand transfer guidelines.
These pathway programs give students a foundation to find information on credit transferability, GPA requirements, transition programs and scholarship initiatives for transfer students.
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Community colleges and universities work to make information about pathway programs readily available to students, but experts say that students will have to take the initiative.
"We want them to be able to come to us, but we want to get them to a point that they can reach out themselves and take some of these opportunities that are out there," says Veronica Alford, manager of transfer services at Prince George's Community College in Maryland.
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As with Barrera, developing the right connections can be a vital part to student success.
"If their goal is to transfer, then everything that they do they ought to do in concert with the university that they want to transfer to or complete at – of course, with the community college as well," says Danny Green, the associate provost for enrollment at Meredith College in North Carolina.
Contact with college admissions offices is important, but Green says students can also build relationships with universities by reaching out to faculty members, internship programs or other offices at a university if they find programs that interest them. Those relationships help admissions offices put a face with the application, which can benefit students, Green says.
[Get more tips on transferring from community college.]
Going to community college can make it easier for students to balance classes with other responsibilities, like work or family obligations, but it's important for students to create a schedule they can handle.
"The more the student can plan a program that fits with their life circumstances the more likely they are to be successful," says Jack Cooley, senior vice president for academic affairs at Columbus State Community College.