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Community College: Backup Plan or Secret Weapon?

The Lowdown on Community College

A group of 1,167 schools across the United States enrolls more than 12.4 million students – almost half of all undergraduate students in the United States – every year. They’re not private universities, and they’re not public 4-year institutions, either. They’re community colleges.

Why community colleges?

There are many reasons why a student may choose to attend community college. They may wish to save money, stay close to home, work full- or part-time while in college, or obtain a specialized degree that does not require four years at a university. Community colleges are also often very racially and economically diverse and have close ties to the community that may help a student network and find a job.

Many students, however, attend community college with the hope of one day transferring their credits to a 4-year university and obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Enter the transfer burn. According to Franklin University, 67% of community college students discover that at least some of the credits they’ve earned after two years don’t successfully transfer to a 4-year university. On average, this amounts to about a semester of study lost. Usually, lost credits also means more semesters spent making them up – which may explain why just 16% of students who began their education at a community college in 2010 had successfully finished their degree at a four-year school by spring 2016. (In comparison, this percentage was 62.4% for students who started at a 4-year public university, and almost 74% for those who started at a 4-year private school.)

So, for a student planning to transfer, what is community college – a straightforward way to reduce college debt, or a money pit masquerading as the ultimate tuition-saving tool?

Paving the way to success

Some states and universities know this question is on students’ minds, and have programs in place to make the transition from a community college to an in-state 4-year university as seamless as possible. These programs, called Transfer Admission Guarantees (TAGs), help a student save money by encouraging them to enroll in a community college, providing a guide or standard curriculum that they can follow to make sure all of their credits will transfer, and guaranteeing their admission to a 4-year university once this curriculum is finished. Check out this article to see if your state offers a TAG or similar program.

If your state or university doesn’t offer one of these programs, they may have an Articulation Agreement or Articulation Guide available. These guides offer a straightforward list of which credits will transfer among the schools listed in the guide, which is updated yearly. Can’t find these either? We recommend you keep your options open by applying to 4-year institutions as well as community colleges. You may be surprised by the amount of financial aid a 4-year university is able to offer, and research shows students are significantly more likely to successfully earn a bachelor’s degree if they start at a four-year rather than a two-year college.

If you’re sure that attending a community college before transferring to a 4-year university is right for you, here are some steps you can take to make sure your credits will transfer:

  • Make sure your community college is accredited. Attending an unaccredited school may be cheaper in the short-term, but few universities will accept credits from an unaccredited institution.
  • Check to see if your state has a TAG (transfer admission guarantee) or Articulation Agreement available.
  • Consider an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree instead of an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree. A.A.S. degree programs generally prepare students for jobs as paralegals, nurses, or electricians, for example, and require job-specific coursework that isn’t likely to transfer to a 4-year college. The courses you’ll take for an A.S. degree are more generalized, and these credits are much more likely to transfer.