An In-Depth Guide to Choosing the Right Community College

An In-Depth Guide to Choosing the Right Community College
Students considering a community college should start first with this guide to ensure they choose a school that will meet their educational and professional goals.
Community college has become a viable option for many who want to expand their educational experience, but don’t feel that a four-year university is the right fit for them. As President Obama continues to make community college a focus of his presidency, most potential students are giving these two-year schools a second look as well. There is a wealth of community colleges available today, and the broad spectrum of schools can make it difficult to know which institution will meet the specific needs of a student best. If you are about to embark on a journey into the world of higher education, we have the information you need to ensure you select the best school for you.

Reasons to Choose Community College
 
For those who are still in the process of choosing between a community college and four-year university, it is important to weigh the advantages of a community college before making your selection. Some of the reasons to opt for a community college include:
 
Cost
 
The average cost of tuition at a community college is significantly less than that at a four-year institution, even with recent tuition rate increases at many two-year schools across the country. Students who want a four-year degree can choose to begin their adventure into higher education at a community or junior college, where they can earn credits for a lot less money. If all the credits transfer to a four-year school after the first two years, students enjoy the same bachelor degree as their peers, but pay less for it overall.

Time
 
Certainly getting a two-year degree is much faster than a four-year education, but there are other features of community college that make this option more time-efficient. First, class schedules are often more flexible at community colleges, so you might be able to sneak in extra credit hours or take a class or two over the summer. Community colleges also allow you to explore a broad range of subjects through transferrable credit hours, so when you decide what you want to major in, you can head to a four-year institution with a more direct focus.

Admission Requirements
 
Most community colleges around the country have much more flexible admission requirements than four-year universities. If you want to go to college, but your high school transcript is less than stellar, a community college might be the place to hone your academic skills before switching to the university level. In addition, you save time in the admission process, since community colleges generally offer much faster enrollment than other schools.

Transfer Priority
 
Many community colleges work directly with the universities in the area to ensure a smooth transfer process for students. Some four-year schools even offer priority to students transferring from a local community college, even over those who are transferring from another four-year institution.

Once you have decided that community college is the right choice for your individual situation, the next question becomes, which school will meet your needs the best? To find the answer, you must first explore all the options available within the community college environment.
 
Types of Community Colleges
 
There are a wide range of community colleges today, designed to meet the specific needs, interests and goals of all students seeking a higher education. Some of the options to consider when selecting a community college include:
 
Vocational Schools
 
According to College Board, career and vocational schools allow students to move right into their area of interest, without a lot of general course requirements to prolong the training process. Some examples of vocation schools include those that teach culinary arts, dental hygiene or automobile repair and maintenance. Students typically graduate with professional certification or an associate degree in the field of their choice.

Four-Year Degree Programs
 
Recently, some community colleges have begun offering four-year bachelor’s degrees right on their campuses. For example, a New York Times article reports on Miami Dade College, formerly Miami Dade Community College, which now offers a limited number of bachelor degree programs to students at community college prices.
 

Online Community Colleges
 
Many community colleges now offer full degree programs online, allowing students who live a significant distance from the school the opportunity to earn a degree from the comfort of home. Some online programs are completely handled on the Internet, while others combine classroom work with online studies. If online schooling is the best choice for you, choose a college that also has a reputable physical presence to ensure the school you earn your degree at carries clout in the professional world.

For-Profit Community Colleges
 
Another recent trend on the community college front is the for-profit, two-year college. These schools have become especially popular in recent years as many community colleges have been unable to handle a larger student load from displaced workers and high school graduates who cannot afford university tuition rates. However, for-profit schools are not all created equal, and many have been accused of promising career opportunities and other benefits that are simply not realized by the time graduation arrives.

Transfer Schools
 
Some community colleges are now working directly with four-year universities in the area to make the transfer process as smooth as possible for community college students wanting to expand their education at a four-year university. These transfer colleges will ensure the credits earned by students will follow them to the four-year college, making their pursuit of a bachelor degree more efficient and affordable.

Community colleges all feature their own unique advantages that cater to students looking for a specific type of education on the college level. By understanding the various features available with community colleges, it becomes much easier to select a school customized to your specific education and career goals.
 
Programs Available
 
One of the complaints with many community colleges today is that they don’t offer as many degree programs as a four-year college. However, if you select the college that features the field of study you are looking for, the lack of additional program options will hardly make a difference. According to a recent report in the Atlanta Post, some of the highest paying jobs requiring two-year degrees today include:
 
       ·         Radiation Therapists
       ·         Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
       ·         Nuclear Technicians
       ·         Aerospace Operating Technicians
       ·         Registered Nurses
       ·         Commercial Pilots
       ·         Dental Hygienists
 
No matter what field you are interested in pursuing, there is probably a community college in your area that offers a program for you. It is important to weigh the type of program you want into your choice of school to ensure you get the education and training you want, at a price you can afford.
 
Features to Look for in a College
 
Once you have narrowed your search to a few enticing community colleges in your area, it is time to delve into these schools further to determine which institution will offer you the greatest value for your money. There are a number of features to look at when considering a community college, including:
 
Accreditation
 
According to CollegeAnswer.com, accreditation is a good indicator of a quality community college. Schools that are accredited by nationally recognized agencies have agreed to comply with the standards set by that agency. Read our article specifically on accreditation to learn about how you can validate each institution. 

Requirements for Admission
 
Different community college may have varying admission requirements, so get the specifics before applying to the community college in your area. Although most have an “open door” policy, meaning they are prepared to admit all applicants, the testing process and forms required for admission may vary. A meeting with an advisement counselor is a good option to learn more about the admission process, as well as financial aid options for which you may qualify.

Degree or Certificate Programs
 
Community colleges offer both associate degree and certificate programs in various fields, so make sure the college you choose provides the degree or certificate you need to move into your professional industry of choice. As mentioned earlier, some schools are also now offering bachelor degrees in a limited number of study fields, giving students an even broader range of career qualifications to choose from.

Transfer Options
 
If your goal at community college is to eventually transfer to a four-year university and earn a bachelor degree, find out if the community college you choose has a transfer agreement with any of the universities in your area. A transfer program ensures the credits you take in community college move with you to the university. It also provides you with access to an advisor who will help you create a course of study between the two schools that will help you earn your bachelor degree in the shortest possible time.

Flexibility in Scheduling
 
Community colleges usually offer greater flexibility in course schedules to ensure students can work college around a job or family life. Evening and weekend courses are not unusual with many of these schools to allow students from all walks of life the chance to earn a degree. Some also provide online studies that can be completed at home around a student’s busy schedule.

Cost of the Program
 
Community colleges on average charge much less for their credits than four-year colleges. While tuition rates are often set by the state or community college district, other expenses like fees may vary from school to school. Know how much your college experience will cost before you officially enroll so you can plan your budget accordingly.

Advising Services
 
Since community college is generally used as a springboard for a career or additional education, sufficient advising services are essential to ensure students stay on the right track throughout their community college experience. Students who need additional academic or financial help also benefit from the knowledge and experience of advisors on campus. Look for a community college that provides ample advisors who are readily available to answers student needs as they arise.

Job Placement Services
 
If your goal at community college is to land a good job after graduation, job placement services are an essential feature to look for. Many community colleges work directly with the industries in their community to ensure the training they provide is customized to the needs of local companies. These schools usually work directly with companies as well to place students into internships or entry-level positions right after graduation.

Steps to Finding a Good School
 
Locating a school that offers all of the features listed above is a process to be sure.  Consider the following steps to take to ensure the college you choose has all the necessary features you are looking for:
 
Think about What You Want to Be
 
Your professional pathway is an important start to choosing a community college that will meet your needs. Determine what your short and long-term professional goals might be, so you can choose a degree program to keep you on the right path and help you meet your professional goals as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Check Out Industry Opportunities
 
Once you know where you want your professional pathway to go, find out what might be waiting for you at the end of your academic journey. Are there career opportunities available in the industry you choose? You may also find as you research your chosen profession that those already working in the field have an idea of the best school for your needs.

Sit In On Some Classes
 
Most community colleges allow interested potential students to audit a class or two while they are in the decision-making process. Get a course schedule and find one or two classes in your field of interest. Next contact the school advisor or professor to get permission to sit in on a class or lecture. There is no better way to get a feel for the student body, instructors and overall college environment than by experiencing it first-hand.

For more guidance, read our 5-step article on choosing a community college.  The bottom line is that the more time you spend researching community colleges, the more likely you will be to choose the best school for your personal and professional needs.

Additional Resources [+]
Seniors Planning for Community College
Seniors Planning for Community College
A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing to Attend Community Colleges
A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing to Attend Community Colleges
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This section provides an in depth look at choosing the right community college. We’ll cover the reasons why community college is a good choice and the best steps to take when making your decision. Find tips and resources to aid in your search for the perfect school.