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Should I Go to a Community College First, Then Transfer?

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It’s easy to get so caught up in hearing about everyone else’s college plans that students might fail to consider what works best for their goals. For many students, that will mean a four-year institution. However, this might not be the right choice for everyone.


There are a few main considerations to make while trying to decide if community college is the right move for you, including finances and professional goals. Read on to find out if you should consider attending a community college and then transfer to a four-year school. 


What is the Difference Between a Community College and a Four-Year University?


Community colleges are two-year public institutions that offer associate degrees and certificates. Some programs are designed to be self-contained in those two years, but most students transfer to a four-year school to get their bachelor’s degree after. 


One of the biggest differences between community college and a four-year school is the cost. According to the US News and World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2018-2019 school year was $35,676 for private colleges, $9,716 for in-state tuition at public colleges, and $21,629 or out-of-state tuition at public colleges. This number doesn’t include room and board, books, or other living costs—that’s a lot of money! This is especially true when compared to community colleges, which charge an average of about $3,660 per year for in-state tuition. Going to community college, then transferring to a four-year school, could save you around $64,000 over two years.


What to Know if You Plan to Start at a Community College


While the costs can be a major benefit to enrolling in community college, there are some potential limitations and drawbacks you should consider as well. One of the biggest considerations is what you want from your post-secondary education after your first two years. 


There are two ways you can transfer to a four-year program after community college. This depends on whether your community college has an articulation agreement in place. An articulation agreement is a formal agreement between a community college and a four-year college that grants automatic transfer admission to students who take certain classes and maintain a certain GPA.


Transferring with an Articulation Agreement


Some states have wide-ranging agreements that apply to multiple community colleges and four-year campuses, allowing students to start at one of the community colleges and transfer into any of the colleges. For instance, in Massachusetts’ MassTransfer program, students can start at any of 15 community college campuses and transfer into one of the 13 public four-year state colleges.


If there’s an articulation agreement in place between your local community college and four-year school, this is generally a good option. You’ll save a couple years of tuition and the requirements for matriculation to the four-year schools are usually reasonable. However, if you want to attend your state’s flagship public campus (think UMass Amherst or UC Berkeley), the requirements can be more stringent. If that’s your goal, find out the matriculation requirements early to make sure your grades stay up to par. 


One of the biggest drawbacks to transferring with an articulation agreement is a loss of flexibility in your education. This can happen if the articulation agreement has specific course requirements that lock you into a particular course of study at the four-year partner school. Changing your mind or simply not knowing what you want to major in at first can make the cost-savings on tuition negligible if you have to take an extra year at the four-year school to make up for it—or if you aren’t able to study your intended major at all.


Transferring with an articulation agreement also means you lose some flexibility if you change your mind about where you want to transfer. This is where programs like MassTransfer can offer additional options. If those programs don’t exist where you live though, you may have to transfer without an articulation agreement.


Transferring Without an Articulation Agreement


Transferring from community college to a four-year school with an articulation agreement in place is pretty risk-free as long as you know the matriculation requirements (and stick to them). Transferring to a four-year institution without an articulation agreement, however, is much riskier.


This is for a couple of reasons; the first is that the transfer process is extremely difficult, especially if you have your eye on a top 40 college. There are only a small number of transfer spots each year, and your application will be considered against other students transferring from community colleges as well as students transferring from one four-year school to another. Acceptance rates for transfers are, for the most part, lower than regular acceptance rates. (This is true for everyone, no matter where they’re transferring from.)


Even if you aren’t looking at a top 40 school, transferring can still be difficult. For instance, transfers looking at flagship public colleges can expect acceptance rates to be around 10%. If you don’t have an articulation agreement, you should aim for a higher GPA than that expected for students with articulation agreements, no matter where you hope to transfer. You should also try to get involved in your community college like you did in high school to help your application stand out.


Because transferring is so difficult, using community college to springboard into a higher-ranked college rarely works. Instead, if you are looking to save money on tuition but want to attend a higher-ranked (compared to your profile) school, look into lower-ranked four-year colleges that you can try to transfer out of after a year. Often, these lower-ranked schools offer merit aid to students whose profiles are particularly strong, which can make the cost comparable to that of community college. Still, you’ll face a risky transfer process, so make sure you pick a school you’ll be happy with if you don’t get the transfer results you want.



Other Tradeoffs of Community College


Beyond the loss of flexibility and risk of transferring, there are other potential drawbacks to consider with attending community college and then transferring to a four-year school. Here are a few:


1. By themselves, associate degrees don’t offer as much of a benefit as a bachelor’s.


This might seem obvious, but it’s good to keep in mind, especially if you plan to use your associate degree as a fallback if transferring doesn’t work out. An associate degree is better than no degree at all, but for many career paths, not continuing on to get your bachelor’s will create significant roadblocks. 


2. Most community colleges have limited curriculums, with less rigorous entry-level classes than typical four-year institutions.


Think about it as the difference between an honors class and an AP course; while both can be challenging, this difference can create a bit of a shock when you transfer into a four-year school and enroll in upper-level courses. If your introductory courses were less challenging than those of your peers who have attended the four-year school since freshman year, you might struggle to keep up with the material or level of work.


3. Community colleges, despite the name, tend not to have strong campus communities or culture.


With many students commuting or taking classes part-time while working, it can be hard to feel like you have a place, or even make friends. This can also mean there are fewer opportunities to join clubs or get involved with research–these things are often valuable on a resume while job searching or applying to grad school.


4. A limited curriculum combined with a lack of strong campus culture means that your classes will likely have students who are less engaged with the material and in the classroom.


If you rely on collaborative learning like study groups or class discussions to absorb material, you might struggle in this environment.


Students for Whom Community College is a Good Fit


While there are tradeoffs to going to community college before transferring to a bachelor’s program, some students will find it is truly the best fit for their needs. How do you know if it’s the best fit for yours?


Not Academically Ready


Some students aren’t academically ready for a four-year college after high school. If your transcript is mostly made up of Cs and Ds, attending community college can help bridge the rigor gap between high school and college courses so you can make the most of all four years of your education. In a community college environment, you’ll have the time and space to work on your study and time management skills without the risks (or costs) of going directly into a four-year program. This can also apply to you if your SAT score is below 750 or your ACT score is below 13.


Close to Home


Another reason community college might be a good fit for you is if you need to stay close to home. Oftentimes, this is because a student cares for a loved one or contributes to the family income. If you live near your ideal four-year school, that’s great! But if you need to be close to home and that’s not an option, community colleges exist within 10 miles of most urban and even suburban areas. Attending one for your first two years can allow you to make progress on your education. An additional benefit is that community college course schedules often offer flexibility, allowing you to take classes part-time if needed (tuition is usually by credit, not by semester).


Healthcare Aspirations


If your goal is to work in a healthcare profession like nursing, physical therapy, or occupational therapy and you have a lower GPA and/or test scores, then community college is a good option to consider. After two years, you’ll have an associate degree that will allow you to work in the industry. Though it won’t be at as high a level as a bachelor’s degree, you would be able to gain hands-on experience in the industry while continuing on with your four-year degree, or until you’re able to return for it. More and more colleges are offering accelerated RN to BS programs, so it could be faster than you think.


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Short Bio
Anna Ravenelle is a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied English with a concentration in Creative Writing. After spending two application cycles in the CollegeVine applications division, she now uses her admissions experience to help a greater number of students. She resides in New York but her heart has never left New Hampshire, where she grew up.