Is Community College Transfer Right for You?

Not all students can or should go straight to a four-year college after high school graduation. Maybe cost is a concern, or you’re uncertain about moving away from home, or you just aren’t ready to choose a college yet. For kids who want to begin college but find the timing isn’t right for a “traditional” college experience, following a transfer path at a community college can be a smart choice.

How Does It Work?

Increasing numbers of kids attend community college as a pathway to transfer to a four-year college or university. State community college systems are designed to enable students to complete the first two years of general education and prerequisites required to transfer to a state college or university; by offering courses that are “articulated” to specifically fulfill the lower division requirements of a four-year university, they offer a straight “pipeline” into earning a four-year degree. Many state colleges and universities even guarantee a spot to community college students who successfully complete a transfer program and meet a minimum GPA requirement.

Many private and out-of-state public colleges and universities also welcome transfer students. While some, like Stanford, accept only low single-digit numbers of transfers, others, like USC, accept close to a quarter of those who apply. Some private colleges have “articulation agreements” with state community colleges that are similar to those shared between community colleges and state public four-year institutions, which facilitate a smooth transfer of credits.

While students traditionally choose to transfer to a four-year college as juniors, some colleges do accept students as freshman or sophomore transfers after they have completed a semester or year of community college courses. This is more common at private colleges; at some public colleges, like the University of California and CSU system, it is very rare that a student will be accepted as a transfer with fewer than 60 credits (junior standing).

Working with an on-campus transfer counselor is crucial for students planning a transfer to four-year college; it’s essential that kids take the right classes to fulfill the requirements of their future college or university, and the path can often be challenging to navigate on their own.

The Benefits of Community College Transfer Path

Lower Investment

Community college can save thousands of dollars off the cost of the first two years at a four-year college. Completing two years of lower division coursework at a community college is inexpensive (and, in some states, may even be free). In California, the cost of one year is around 11% of the cost of attending a University of California campus and 20% of attending a California State campus. At a state college where the cost of four years of attendance is $100,000, for example, spending two years at a community college before transferring would bring the cost to nearly half. Because students typically attend community colleges near their homes, many choose to live at home while they complete their degrees, lower overall costs even further.

Support & Connection

While community colleges are bustling places, class sizes are generally small and afford students close contact with professors and peers. This is great for kids who value teacher support and the chance to build connections that can result in outside opportunities and strong letters of recommendation that can be useful when applying to four-year colleges.

Growing Room

Some kids need more time to mature before moving straight to college, and community college can be a great “stepping stone.” Kids build academic and personal independence, but generally still live at home and have the benefit of family support as they prepare to launch. Just as a gap year can be a great way for kids to mature and find their feet before heading off to college, community college provides the same opportunities in a more academic, structured (and less expensive) way. For kids who have faced mental or physical health challenges in high school, this interim educational phase can be even more important, as it affords additional time to adjust after high school and make sure everything is in place to meet a student’s needs before she moves on to the independence of a four-year college experience.

A Fresh Start

In addition to providing a slower transition to college, community college can also give a student who has had academic challenges a “clean slate”. In most cases, once a student begins community college classes and has earned a certain number of credits (which varies by college) they are no longer required to submit high school transcripts or SAT/ACT scores when applying for admission to a four-year college. This means that regardless of what happened in high school, a kid who does well at community college can end up being accepted to many great four-year colleges that would have denied him admission as a freshman.

Improving Your Odds

In states like California, where admission to top-tier public four-year universities is increasingly competitive and out of reach to even the most highly qualified high school students, spending two years at community college can greatly improve the likelihood of acceptance. In fact, the UC recently announced that it will now guarantee a spot at a UC to all qualified transfer students. Currently, this benefit is extended to some California community college transfers through the Transfer Admission Guarantee program (TAG). Several UC campuses participate in TAG, which guarantees students a spot at a single campus of their choice provided they meet all general education requirements and achieve a minimum GPA. Students can “tag” one campus and still apply to other UCs in the system. UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego don’t participate in TAG, but it’s an option at the other six campuses.

If you are shooting for a top-tier school like UC Berkeley or UCLA, attending a community college can also make admission to these campuses much more attainable; a student who wasn’t eligible for admission to these UCs as a high school senior will find it easier admitted as a junior transfer as long as his or her grades are very strong.

No matter what path you choose to get your undergraduate degree, there will be pros and cons. Community college transfer students do miss out on some things, like the experience of living in a dorm and the sense of pride that can come with attending a prestigious college as a freshman. But for many students, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Community college can be a smart choice for kids in a variety of situations and who have a wide range of goals and ambitions. In college, as in life, there are countless ways to get where you want to go; community college might be the right one for you.

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