Start to Finish: Making the Most of Community College Degree Programs

Start to Finish: Making the Most of Community College Degree Programs
As you plan your community college journey, take advantage of this start to finish guide. Learn about some of the hottest community college degree programs today, the importance of tying the degree into the current industry needs and how to plan your community college degree for preparation into a four-year degree program.

The community college has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and now two-year programs have become an effective way for many to jumpstart a new career or advance their current job to the next level. Whether you are looking for a two-year degree program that gets you into the workforce faster or you are preparing for a four-year degree program with an eventual transfer to a university, community colleges have what you are looking for. However, before signing on with the closest community college, check out these tips to help you make the most of your two years at that institution.

Choosing a Degree Program

The plethora of two-year degree programs is one of the primary reasons more adult students are flocking to community colleges today. These schools offer a bevy of options, from general education degrees to career-specific training in everything from renewable energy to healthcare. However, the growing number of degree choices can also make it difficult for first-year community college students to settle on a program that will offer them both fulfillment and sufficient career openings. It is important to research degree programs carefully before choosing a major to ensure you find a program that will be both personally rewarding and financially lucrative.

According to data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and reported by College Board, the top 10 degrees currently offered by community colleges in terms of job openings include:

While this list is primarily focused on the availability of specific jobs, other lists offer a glimpse into the best areas of study to focus on if you want to make yourself as marketable as possible after college. For example, an article in the New York Times last year offered insight into areas of study to concentrate on if you want the best possible job opportunities. This list, with the best employment rates to the worst, includes:

  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Computer Science/Math
  • Health
  • Physical Science
  • Business
  • Communication
  • Humanities

In addition, this New York Times list offered insight into how much a graduate from one of these programs could expect to make annually, with engineering offering the largest average salary and physical science majors earning the lowest.

The ratings on college degree programs fluctuate somewhat regularly based on the hottest industries and the greatest employment needs at any given time. No matter when you decide to enroll in community college, it is essential to research degree options thoroughly to ensure you end up with a degree or certification you can use in the current workforce.

This video reports on the top 10 Associate Degrees.

Preparing for the Transfer Process

Many students head to community college hoping to eventually transfer to a four-year institution and a bachelor’s degree program. There are many reasons why students might choose this route, including those who cannot afford a four-year university right out of high school or those who might need some remedial assistance before they are ready for the academic rigors of a bachelor’s program. No matter what your reason might be for starting out at a community college, it is important to choose your school and your degree program with the transfer process in mind. Consider these three factors provided by College Board when choosing your community college:

Articulation Agreements

Many community colleges offer programs specifically for students who are planning to transfer. Some of these institutions might even have articulation or transfer agreements with specific universities. These agreements ensure that students who want to transfer will take courses at the community college that will directly apply to their four-year degree program. It also gives transfer students peace of mind knowing that the credits they earn at community college will transfer entirely to the university level.

Credit Transfers

Even when your community college has an articulation agreement with a nearby university, it is important to check the specific classes you take to ensure those credits will transfer. Some transfer agreements also have grade requirements, meaning you must earn a minimum of a certain grade in order for it to be transferrable to the university. Your overall GPA may also determine how many of your credits transfer. Be sure you know all the requirements before starting your community college courses, or you might end up having to repeat some of the classes when you get to the university.

Transfer Advisors

Students planning to transfer at the end of their two years at community college will want to work closely with a faculty advisor or counselor to ensure they remain on track throughout their community college years. These advisors will be sure students take the right courses for their degree programs and work closely with students to be sure all their credits taken at the community college level will transfer.

This video reports on the top Associate Degrees you can earn at community college.

Does Your School Offer Career Counseling?

Just like it is important to enlist the assistance of a counselor to ensure your credits transfer, it is also essential to work with your community college career counselor if you plan to head into the workforce as soon as your two-year degree program is completed. Nearly all community colleges will offer career advisement to their students, from choosing the best career path to nailing the interview and getting the job. According to the website for Pulaski Technical College, some of the responsibilities of a career counselor might include:

  • Creating an environment where students can easily explore career options and research various job descriptions
  • Providing career guidance from the first weeks at community college until graduation
  • Collaborating with other departments at the community college and community associations to offer the best career resources possible
  • Providing career programs and events that help students with their career planning and job search
  • Assisting in career planning development, from course choices to practical experience in the student’s chosen field
  • Teaching students job-hunting strategies and techniques so they are prepared for the job search while still in college
  • Assisting employers in the area in finding qualified candidates for job openings from the pool of community college students preparing for graduation

While these college professionals offer valuable career guidance and information, the resource is only helpful if it is actively sought out and used by community college students. As a student, it is your responsibility to make an appointment with a career counselor as soon as you enroll in school to ensure your course of study is directly applicable to the career of your choice.

The Partnership between College and Business

One of the best features of community colleges is their ability to partner with area businesses and industries to ensure students are properly trained for the currently available jobs. The Center for American Progress refers to this approach to community college education as the “new vocationalism” movement but also laments that few schools are currently set up to accommodate such an educational approach. Fortunately, the times are changing, as community colleges are forced to head out to the community to form those partnerships with local businesses that will make them more attractive to students in search of lucrative career options.

In addition to improving the skills and training of the general workforce, this approach may also resolve one of the biggest problems community colleges grapple with today – the relatively low completion rate. When students sign on for training in a specific industry, and even with a particular company, they are more likely to stick with the training program until completion. Classrooms are enriched through “real world” content, as schools work directly with businesses to offer industry-specific training that will make students much more marketable after graduation.

At the same time, businesses that historically have trouble finding qualified individuals to fill their positions will have more say in how and what community colleges teach. These industries can partner with the schools in their area to ensure students receive the exact skills necessary to become productive members of that industry. The workforce is replenished, and companies actually save money in training costs since the community college is equipped to handle much of that responsibility satisfactorily.

According to the Center for American Progress article, there are five factors that are necessary for partnership success, including:

  • Recognition that there is a need in a community for collaboration between a college and local industry
  • Establishment of shared goals and values between the community college and the business world
  • Assurance that the values are achieved and embraced on both sides of the training spectrum
  • Strong executive leadership from both the community college and area industries to ensure the partnership continues to progress
  • Development of accountability and governance mechanisms that keep the partnership in a flexible, dynamic mode that will continue to address the needs of both the students and area businesses

When these five factors are met, the result is an effective partnership between the worlds of academia and business that significantly benefit everyone involved, including the students pursuing a practical, potentially lucrative degree training program.

Retraining: A Community College Specialty

Another feature unique to community colleges is their ability to retrain adults that have been in the workforce for some time and are looking to change careers completely or take their current jobs to the next level. For those looking to make the most of the community college experience, this ability to provide additional career training is an important service indeed. Whether heading to school for the first time or returning for additional education, community colleges are designed to handle the needs of adult students much more adeptly than other institutions of higher education, as a general rule. One reason retraining is so successful at this level is the partnering that goes on between the schools and local businesses.

“Few people think of a community college as a place to turn, but these schools create relationships with local businesses,” William J. Holstein, author of The Next American Economy: Blueprint for a Real Recovery, stated on the AARP website. “Many potential employers sit on curriculum advisory committees or teach classes, meaning that graduates have a greater chance of getting hired.”

Community colleges can be the right place to turn for those looking for a new career, whether due to displacement in their current job or simply the desire for a job change. These schools often offer more targeted job training for a fraction of the cost of a four-year university. In addition, community college students of all ages may find a wealth of services and programs available through the colleges that are designed just for them.

“We provide a support system of assessment, career counseling, and job placement,” Norma Kent, a senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges, told AARP. “We don’t put you in a position to fail.” The American Association of Community Colleges currently includes more than 1,200 community colleges across the country.

Those returning to community college for additional job training may find lucrative careers in wind and solar energy, teaching in specific subjects like math and science and health care. Others head to government agencies or social services to find the perfect career moves for them.

Community colleges are plentiful across the country, offering a wide range of degree programs and services for students from all walks of life. no matter what your age, background or training needs, it is likely you will find a community college in your area ready and equipped to meet those needs. However, simply enrolling at the closest community college may not be sufficient in ensuring your career progresses in a forward motion. It is important to choose your college carefully, based on the degree programs available and the counseling services provided. Once you have chosen your school, do your homework to find the best degree program for you. Through careful research and information-gathering, you are much more likely to have a community college experience that catapults you into a successful career after graduation.

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