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Expert Advice for Starting Out at a Community College

April 18, 2014
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Community college often carries a stigma, but what it doesn’t carry is a big price tag. On average, the cost of attending a community college is less than half the price of a public university and one-tenth the cost of a private institution, reports Breakthrough Collaborative. Starting out at a community college before transferring to a four-year college can save students a huge chunk of change while still earning them a university degree. And that’s not the only reason why students choose to start at a community college. Some may need to stay close to home or complete technical coursework before heading off to a four-year institution.

But how should students prepare for this unique education path? NerdScholar asked education experts to weigh in about navigating two colleges over four years. They offered the benefits of starting out at a community college, as well as some helpful tips.


1. Starting out at a community college allows students time to mature.

Transitioning from high school to college is a big step, sometimes one that students aren’t prepared for. Community college allows students to stay closer to home and ease into college life.

“Stories abound regarding students who leave for a four-year college in the fall of their freshman year, only to return at winter break because they could not handle some aspect of their new environment,” says Jennifer Hudson Allen, a visiting scholar at Brookhaven College in the Dallas metro area. “Attending a local community college provides an environment where students can retain the safety net of the known while embarking on a new journey.”

Starting out at a community college doesn’t just foster personal maturation, but also academic growth. Allen points out that community colleges give students the opportunity to refine their skills for a four-year university.

“If a student struggles at math, for example, they can take remedial classes that earn credit and shore up skills,” she says. “The basic classes that every student takes in order to achieve a degree are often smaller at a community college.”


2. Have a clear career goal in mind.

Shaindel Beers, an English instructor at Blue Mountain Community College in eastern Oregon, reminds students that community colleges often approach education differently than liberal arts colleges.

“The liberal arts college experience would be much more open-ended, whereas the community college experience might be more career focused,” she says.

At community colleges, students are often expected to map out their education path in the early stages of their college career.

“Student educational plans are now requested from each student upon enrollment [at community colleges],” says Denise Beeson, an adjunct instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College in northern California. “The student really needs to have some idea as to what would be of interest to pursue as a future career.”

Cindy Castaneda, a government faculty member at Eastfield College outside of Dallas, also advises students to pick their major within their first or second semester for transfer purposes.

“You will want to transfer not just with your ‘basics,’ but with the classes you need to be a junior in your major,” she says. “Find out what the freshman and sophomore-level classes you need to take for your major and take those while at community college. As I often tell my students, there is no such thing as an elective; every class should count toward getting you closer to graduation.”


3. Make sure the student life at your prospective community college fits your needs.

When researching prospective community colleges, students shouldn’t underestimate the importance of campus life.

“See what clubs are available, if there are theatre and music performances, and other activities that you are interested in,” says Beers. “Some community colleges are very much just ‘commuter colleges’ and don’t have a lot of activities going on.”

Even if students only think of their community college as a starting point, it is still a place to build formative relationships and connections. Students should make the most of all of their college years, not just the ones spent at a conventional university.


4. Find mentors and take advantage of student services.

As students embark on this education path, it’s important to seek guidance from community college faculty.

“They can serve as great mentors to share tips on how to be successful and can be great champions throughout a student’s college journey at the community college and beyond,” says Shasta Buchanan, director of enrollment services for Portland Community College-Rock Creek.

In addition, Allen says, students should educate themselves on what services the college can offer them.

“There are so many services—tutoring, counseling, testing—that community colleges provide for their students that will greatly ease the transition to college and the enjoyment of the experience,” she says. “Students only need to look around to see how the college can best serve them.”


5. Pay attention to transfer credits.

Finally, it’s important for students to pay attention to the fine print when it comes to credits.

“Students should check, and then double-check, the credit transfer policies at their intended four-year destination,” Allen says. “Ensure that courses taken at community college will transfer and be applied as desired (and not as random elective classes). This can stave off future headaches and financial strain by making sure everything transfers properly.”


[Want more? Read: 4 Indispensable Tips for Surviving Your 1st Semester of Community College]


Shasta Buchanan is the district director of enrollment services/registrar for Portland Community College. She has over 14 years of experience in enrollment management and developing successful strategic enrollment and recruitment plans. 

Jennifer Hudson Allen has taught history since 1999 and currently serves as a visiting scholar for history at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, Texas.  She has been named a Commended Teacher of Texas History by Humanities Texas, and was the Teacher of the Year by the Notre Dame Club of Dallas. 

Cindy Castaneda is a government faculty member at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas. She is the Dallas County Community College District’s 2014 professor of the year.

Denise Beeson is an adjunct professor of business at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif. She also contributes to several publications that specialize in small business and finance.

Shaindel Beers is an English instructor at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon.


Image of students studying courtesy of Shutterstock.