Why community colleges?

What's the best path for your child?

Community colleges were developed, and still exist, for two major purposes. The first is to serve as a bridge from high school to college by providing courses for transfer toward a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.). Four out of 10 college-bound high-school graduates start their college education this way.

The second function of community colleges is to prepare students for the job market by offering entry-level career training, as well as courses for adult students who want to upgrade their skills for workforce re-entry or advancement.

Why attend a community college?

1. Your family is tight on funds.

Community colleges cost significantly less (particularly for state residents) than state or private colleges and universities. This means that they can be a cost-effective way for your child to complete the first two years of college. The money saved by living at home and going to a local community college can help pay for the last two years at a four-year college or university.

2. Your child isn't sure about going to college.

Maybe your child would like to begin by aiming for a two-year associate's degree and decide later whether he'd like to pursue a bachelor's degree. Taking classes toward an Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree, for example, would give him a feel for the type of education he would get at a liberal arts college.

3. Your child isn't sure what kind of program she wants to pursue.

Many people enter college without a clear idea of what they want to focus on. At a community college, your child can explore different subject areas before committing to a program, without having to be so concerned about his finances. To assist with the career decision-making process, many community colleges offer intensive guidance counseling that can help your child assess his abilities, interests, and educational options. Plus, your child may actually be able to take a wider array of courses (including both liberal arts and career-oriented) than at a four-year institution, making it easier to check out many different options in one place.

4. Your child has been out of school or his GPA isn't so great, and he wants to build his skills before transferring to a four-year college or university.

Whereas many four-year colleges and universities have selection criteria for attendance, such as a minimum required GPA, community colleges are open to everyone. If your child wants to pursue college-level coursework but isn't academically ready, community colleges offer classes and one-on-one tutoring to help students strengthen their basic skills. Keep in mind that the average class size at most community colleges is significantly smaller than at public four-year universities.

5. Your child would like to undertake a career-oriented degree, such as a fashion design or computer certification program.

Programs like these are often not available at four-year institutions. If your child is thinking of seeking employment after finishing up at community college, there are several possible routes to take.

Your child can earn an associate's degree-an Associate of Arts or Science (A.A. or A.S.) or an Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.). An A.A.S. usually requires specialized courses in fields such as construction technology, computer repair, or electronics, as well as several general education courses in subjects like English and math. These degrees take about two years to complete.

However, if your child wants to take courses in a specialized area of study but doesn't want to spend the time necessary to earn an associate's degree, many community colleges have certificate options that provide intensive training in a specialized field like computer-assisted drafting, food service technology, or paralegal studies. These certificates usually take six months to a year to complete.

6. Your child works and needs a flexible schedule.

At four-year colleges, course schedules are geared primarily toward full-time, traditional students who take classes during the day. At community colleges, the student population tends to be highly diverse with regard to age, experience, family background, socioeconomic level, and employment status. Course schedules are developed with attention to the variable needs of both part-time and full-time students, so classes are usually offered throughout the day and evening, and sometimes on weekends. Many of these colleges offer online courses.

Thinking through the decision

Your child will have a more satisfying experience at a community college if he researches the program in advance. Find out which programs are strongest, what the student transfer rates are, and what student support services are available. There are many ways your child can pursue his education, but the programs vary among colleges, and it's up to him to find the right match. He should make an appointment with his counselor if he's not sure. His counselor can be a helpful resource in deciding if a community college is the right place for your child to begin his college career.