Tom Hanks, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Jobs – what's the common thread among these famous Americans?
They all went to community college after high school. If you're considering going from high school to a two-year school – or you're thinking of going back to school to gain new skills – you might benefit from a quick rundown of how community college may fit into your plans.
One way community colleges can be beneficial is by helping students determine which careers might best suit them. That way, they can more accurately nail down a major and evaluate whether a four-year college should be part of their future.
“By design, community colleges are responsive to the needs to their local communities, so they are each unique and different," said Martha Parham, Ed.D., of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). “But most two-year colleges but are uniquely positioned to help students pinpoint a future path, because in most cases, they have a very large career and technical education program."
Two-year colleges are always thinking about all the ways they can advance a student toward their goals, which can include transferring to a university, getting an associate's degree or a certificate or learning a certain trade, Parham said. “All those things are always on the table at community colleges, and the counselors work with them to clearly outline what they need to attain their goals."
That was the path that worked for Chris Tenorio, who went into a two-year college as a part-time student out of high school in 2014 while also working two jobs at the same time. “I wasn't totally sure what I wanted to do right out of high school, so going to community college and getting my general education requirements out of the way was more beneficial for me than spending more money at a four-year college when I wasn't sure what my major should be."
Tenorio slowly navigated through school while also exploring potential careers. “I realized maybe I could make a future in textile marketing or management. With that clear goal in mind, I started going to community college full-time and finished my associate's degree." He then transferred to North Carolina State University, where he's pursuing a bachelor's degree in fashion textile management with a concentration in brand marketing.
Currently, community college students make up 41 percent of all US undergraduates, according to AACC statistics. Whereas the average annual tuition at four-year colleges is $9,970, that number is just $3,570 at community college. Therefore, a student completing the first two years of college at a community college will save an average of $12,800 as compared to a student at the average four-year university. That's in addition to any savings on room and board that a two-year college student would glean from living with family.
But two-year schools can have other benefits beyond financial. “Community college is a lot smaller in general, and it's easier to find your way around, whereas the university is a lot bigger," Tenorio said. “Classes are a little faster-paced at a four-year school, and universities seem to expect students to be a little more independent – the community college was a bit more hands-on with helping me along."
Some states offer guaranteed admission from community college to four-year schools, which means that if you take the right classes and meet certain benchmarks, you are guaranteed admission to specific universities. For instance, the state of Florida guarantees that students who earn an AA degree at a Florida school can finish their bachelor's degrees at a state university or Florida college, while over 30 schools in the state of Virginia participate in the state's Guaranteed Transfer program.
“Many states have that articulated agreement, so if you're on the pathway and take the right classes you'll have that guaranteed transfer," Parham says. “Those guaranteed admissions programs are great concepts and there are several articulation agreements between community colleges and private schools as well. The California Community Colleges have an agreement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities both in and outside of the state – so there are a lot of programs out there for community college students."
As a college junior at a large state university, Tenorio says that if he had it to do over again, he would follow the same path from high school to community college before pursuing his four-year degree. “Community college was a great start for me to prepare for a four-year university because of the amount of help and available resources they had."
He advises aspiring community college students to use those resources as often as possible. “The teachers are there to help you just like at a big university, but you can get more one-on-one attention because they can sit down and give you the time you need if you want to learn something specific. Capitalize on opportunities at community college to figure out what you want to do next and use the resources they offer."
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