What can community colleges in the United States offer international students?

What is the common thread in the lives of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, Tom Hanks, actor, and George Lucas from the ‘Star Wars’ movies? They are all former students of American community colleges.

While Indian students have only recently become aware of community colleges, American students frequently choose the community college route. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 10.3 million students were enrolled in American community colleges in 2019, representing almost half of all American undergraduate students. 2 In recent years, American community colleges have also been attracting more and more international students. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) Open Doors report, 60,170 international students were enrolled in community colleges in the 2020-2021 school year.

What exactly are community colleges? Community colleges are public educational institutions that students attend after they graduate from high school (their twelfth grade). They mainly offer two-year programs leading to an associate degree. These can be technical or professional programs. Alternatively, to obtain a bachelor’s degree, students transfer after the first two years to a four-year institution where they complete the last two years of a US undergraduate degree. It is the second institution that issues the baccalaureate.

Community colleges offer several advantages to international students. For one, attending a community college can significantly lower the cost of education in the first two years. For international students, the average cost of attending community college, including living expenses, can be around $19,000 per year. This is much more modest than most four-year establishments. On the other hand, community colleges provide a nurturing academic environment that can ease the transition to American college life. Community colleges typically have small class sizes and faculty prioritize teaching over research. As Catherine Sweeting, associate professor at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey, says, “You’re not going to fall through the cracks. You won’t get lost. You are going to be supported in a community college. Additionally, community colleges provide opportunities for students to enhance their academic performance and campus involvement. They are often admitted to a more competitive university with greater ease as a transfer student than they would be in the first year. Arushi Sharma from Gurgaon says she chose to attend community college “to give a second chance to get into my dream university!” This strategy paid off for her. She transferred from De Anza Community College in California to the University of California, Berkeley in 2021, where she is currently studying data science and computer science.

How does the transfer process work? Community colleges work out transfer agreements with universities inside and outside their state. These agreements provide a roadmap that allows students to move on to the next institution in the most seamless way possible. Some agreements even guarantee admission if the student meets prescribed academic requirements. Others describe how credits can be transferred between institutions. Students may also consider transferring to universities that do not have these agreements. Colleges usually offer counseling to facilitate credit transfer. Sharma reports that she received academic counseling to help her with the transfer process: “There are counselors specifically assigned to international students who are familiar with the educational models followed in the student’s home country. De Anza also has a dedicated team of tutors who work alongside professors to ensure students succeed in their majors. Some students, like Sahil Luthra from Mumbai, choose not to go for the transfer route. Sahil is studying business at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and will enter the workforce directly after earning his associate degree.

Concerns about community colleges occasionally circulate, but they are often easily resolved. Students and parents worry that academics are not as rigorous as those at four-year institutions. In reality, community college professors are often highly qualified. Catherine Sweeting, who taught at both community colleges and a private four-year university, said she taught “the same content, rigor and level in both.” She adds that since community college credits must be transferred, they must meet the same standards as a four-year institution. Some community colleges also offer academic enrichment through honors programs which can open up opportunities such as independent study, small group seminars, service learning, study abroad, travel opportunities , etc.

Also, contrary to common misconceptions about it, community college facilities and support services can be quite extensive. Many community colleges offer career counseling and counseling services. Some offer international student services, a writing center, an LGBTQ center, and sports opportunities. Many colleges have an array of student clubs. At De Anza College, Sharma explored her passions and developed leadership skills as Vice Chair of the De Anza Student Government Finance Committee and as President of the Women in Computer Science Club.

Some students are also concerned that on-campus housing is not available at community colleges. In 2016, 28% of community colleges were equipped with on-campus housing. 4 Yet even without on-campus housing, students are not on their own. Colleges usually recommend resources such as listings of apartments or homestays near the college. Community colleges often go the extra mile by working to foster a sense of community among international students. For example, Saint Paul’s College in Minnesota offers to pair international students with host families for Thanksgiving celebrations and has an International Student Club that brings students together for events year-round.

When selecting community colleges, it is essential to conduct research to identify those that best suit an applicant’s interests and needs. Deepali Shah, assistant director of international student recruitment at Foothill and De Anza colleges, suggests considering criteria such as “dedicated international support, faculty, on-campus student services, diversity, study options, etc. program, housing support, alumni testimonials and transfer rate/university list [that students transfer to from the college].”

To conclude, community colleges can be a great stepping stone to an American degree. As an affordable route with strong academic support, community colleges can make a solid choice for international students.

Deborah Rosario is currently an EducationUSA Advisor at USIEF Mumbai where she has worked for over six years. Prior to this, Deborah worked in college events, college preparation, research and teaching. She holds a PhD in English Literature from Oxford University.

Posted: Saturday May 14th 2022, 00:24 IST

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