7 Questions to Ask About Community College STEM
Some students start at community college because it is less expensive.
Some want the flexibility or the chance to improve their grades before applying to a four-year institution.
There’s no question community colleges are playing an important role in higher education, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Just over 50 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degree recipients in science, math and health fields completed some of their studies at community college.
But if you are considering community college as a place to begin a bachelor’s degree, there are things to keep in mind.
First, a few basics. Community colleges offer a two-year degree – the associate’s degree – while four-year colleges and universities offer the bachelor’s. Most community college students commute to campus rather than live there, and attending community college is typically much less expensive than attending a four-year institution. Community colleges have an open-door admissions policy, which means that anyone can attend. That said, certain in-demand programs, such as nursing, can be very competitive.
If you are thinking about starting at community college in order to transfer to a four-year institution, what should you consider? Take a hard look at your goals and ask a few questions.
- Is community college really less expensive for your family? While the list price of attending a four-year college or university can cause serious sticker shock, many families do not pay full price because they receive financial aid. It makes sense to fill out a FAFSA, the federal financial aid form, apply to a four-year college that is your best fit, and then see what you are offered in financial aid. Higher education is expensive. But four-year institutions may be more affordable than you think. Don’t decide until you know the cost.
- What support is offered at the community college for students who plan to transfer? Some, like Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Mass., actively support students planning to transfer to a four-year institution. The Pathways program offers focused advising and help navigating the transition. Being able to talk to someone at the community college who can help you select courses and navigate your transfer is very important.
- Does the community college have any articulation agreements with four-year institutions? Articulation agreements are formal agreements that a particular set of courses taken at the community college will count at a particular four-year institution. Such formal agreements between institutions enable you to directly apply credits taken at the community college toward your four-year degree.
- Does the four-year institution you are targeting accept transfer students? If so, what are the qualities admissions staff are looking for? Some four-year colleges and universities, like Mount Holyoke College, have a Transfer Admissions Office that can help you understand how to spend your time in community college to maximize the chances of transfer. Transfer students interested in STEM majors at Mount Holyoke can also receive discipline-specific advising from STEM faculty as soon as they are accepted for transfer.
- Does the community college offer the foundational curriculum for the area of study that interests you? Familiarize yourself with what the first year or two of study would look like at the four-year institution you are targeting and consider those same courses at your community college. Don’t take a hodgepodge of courses. Instead, select courses with the goal of moving toward a degree in a particular field or major. This is particularly crucial if you are interested in a STEM discipline, as those majors tend to be highly structured.
- Should you earn an associate’s degree if you plan to transfer? Your goal should be to take courses that will count toward the first year or two at your next institution, and those may or may not be the courses that enable you to earn an associate’s degree. So if saving money is the goal, be careful about going for a complete associate’s degree. The courses required for your degree may or may not transfer to the four-year institution you want to attend. On the other hand, if you think you might have to take a break in your education, and there is some risk of not attending the four-year institution right away, go ahead and work for the associate’s degree just to have it in your pocket if you need to enter the job market. It is far better to start work with an associate’s than with a high school degree.
- A final tip: If you do decide to start out at a community college, take advantage of the opportunity to get to know your professors. Many community colleges offer small class sizes, and like faculty everywhere, your professors will be thrilled to meet a dedicated and interested student like you. Build these relationships with your professors – they are key to helping you identify opportunities you might not otherwise know about. Moreover, they may be writing letters of recommendation for you when you transfer. Building relationships is a very important part of attending college, wherever you decide to go.