The open-door policy at community colleges gives students who may not qualify for, or fit in at, four-year universities an opportunity to continue their education in a small and diverse learning environment.
Students often go to community college to start an undergraduate degree before transferring to a four-year institution, to save money or to improve their transcripts and develop skills that they missed in high school. But officials say there is a broader range of students who can benefit from what community colleges have to offer.
Below are four additional types of learners who may also gain from starting or completing their education at a community college.
1. Students who aren't prepared to leave the nest: Community college can be a great way for students who want to earn a degree but are concerned about venturing beyond their comfort zones to continue their education, school officials say.
"A university is a tough place to start. It can be big and it can be quite intimidating," says Debi Gaitan, vice president for student success at Northwest Vista College, a community college in Texas.
The close-knit environment, small classes and proximity to home can help students succeed, and the success that students build at the community college level can prepare them to take on more challenges, she says.
"Community college can really build confidence in students that aren't 100 percent sure when they start, that they can do it," she says.
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2. Nontraditional students: Community college can be a great starting point for adults who want to change career paths or need to take classes that fit their schedule, officials say.
"The traditional four-year schools – both public and private – aren't organized to take care of adults," says Thomas Snyder, president of Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College.
Community colleges are made up of students from a variety of backgrounds, academic histories and ages, and are often more diverse than four-year institutions and more accurately represent the world, officials say. That diverse student body at community colleges can help nontraditional students make a smoother transition into a formal learning environment again.
Wesley Doran, a 46-year-old veteran, agrees. Doran started attending Ohio's Columbus State Community College in 2010 – 12 years after leaving the army.
After a period of introspection, Doran came to the conclusion that it's never too late to learn.
"That's when I made the decision to go back to school," he says.
After earning his associate degree at community college, Doran enrolled in Ohio Dominican University, a four-year university. He plans to finish his bachelor's in graphic design next spring. Doran learns a lot from his younger classmates and they learn from him, but he says community college can be a great way for older students to get rid of some of the anxiety that may come with studying alongside younger generations.
3. Students who need additional training or certifications: Students who don't need a four-year degree for their profession, like some mechanics or dental assistants, can benefit from the short-term nature of community colleges, experts say.
Community colleges are also in a position to connect with businesses in the community and develop certification programs that help current professionals acquire more skills without getting another degree, says Bonike Odegbami, vice chancellor of international programs at Wayne County Community College district in Michigan.
"Community colleges can come in and we can meet these people where they are, identify the skills that the companies need and prepare a package that we can deliver – in terms of providing instruction and certification – and let these people go back to their business," Odegbami says.
4. Lifelong learners: "Education isn't a 12- or 16 -year experience, it's a lifetime," Ivy Tech's Snyder says.