Community Colleges: Cheaper but Not Necessarily Better

7 steps to taking advantage of the savings of community college without suffering the downsides

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As the economy sours and tuition at four-year schools rises, more and more students are considering low-cost public community colleges. Counselors across the country warn, however, that sometimes students get what they pay for.

Choosing a two-year college could actually harm students' long-term prospects. Research has shown that community colleges, overall, do a poor job of getting students into four-year schools. In a 2008 paper, Harvard professor Bridget Terry Long found that, among similar students, those who chose two-year colleges were less likely to get a bachelor's degree than those who went straight to a four-year college. Since employers tend to pay those who actually earn a degree more than those who've had only a few years of college, saving a few thousand dollars on tuition when you are 18 might end up costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime if you get discouraged in community college and don't persevere to a bachelor's.

Community college counselors say, however, that by doing a little research upfront, students can take advantage of the low-cost classes at community colleges and still make it through to a prestigious degree.

There can be surprising variations in the quality of community colleges. So instead of simply choosing the closest school, students might be better served to opt for those that provide the best education and transfer chances. Here are seven steps to maximizing your chances of getting an affordable, good education at a community college.

  • Call your target: Call your target four-year colleges and ask which community colleges they accept the most students from. It is worth driving a few extra miles to attend a school that has a better transfer track record.
  • Ask for transfer records: Call the community colleges in your area and ask how many students transfer each year to four-year universities. The ones that transfer the most probably have better counseling and classes to help you on your way.
  • Go for honors: Ask about "honors" programs or other efforts to find out which community colleges offer rigorous courses that prepare students to handle upper-class assignments at universities.
  • Apply early. Just because community colleges accept almost all students doesn't mean students should apply late. Students who apply early generally enjoy better course selections.
  • Study up: Many students don't realize that most community colleges require applicants to take English and mathematics placement tests. Flunk those, and you'll have to spend a couple of semesters in high school-like remediation courses before you can start real college-level classes. That can delay your transfer by a year or more.
  • Check in with counselors every semester: Students in community college who get advice on their course selections from counselors and professors at their community college and at their target four-year schools are more likely to take courses that transfer easily.
  • Get ready to grind: "Community college is still college," says Esther Hugo, an outreach counselor at Santa Monica College. And universities prefer transfer students who've gotten good grades in their freshman and sophomore years.

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