Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ultimate Safety School?

With the Great Recession wreaking havoc on parental jobs, we've had an influx of students this year who normally would have started at a four-year college. For the most part, they still intend to get there, but they're starting at the cc to save money on transferable credits. Some of them have been quite upfront about the economic motivation for starting at a cc, and about fully intending not to stop here.

Although you wouldn't know it from media accounts, which focus obsessively on job training, this has actually been the fastest-growing demographic for us lately. But in a conversation with an anxious parent this week, I realized that many people don't really know how to navigate this maneuver. So, as a public service, a few pieces of advice to consider if you're considering using a cc as your safety school:

1. Don't hide your strategy. It works best if you identify very early, sometimes in ways you wouldn't anticipate. Concretely, that means arranging a meeting with the cc's 'transfer counselor' (or someone with a very similar title) before you even enroll. This person will usually be found in the Admissions office, though I've seen them in Counseling and in the Registrar's office, too. When you meet with the transfer person, ask about the numbers of students who have successfully transferred to specific four-year schools over the last few years. Most cc's with any kind of transfer record usually have a few schools to which they 'feed' the most students. (If there's little to no record of successful transfer, try a different cc.) That means the counselors are likely to have very well-developed senses of which courses will transfer where, and in which majors. If you have a specific destination school in mind, ask about it by name. If you have a specific program or major in mind, say so. It's not unusual for transferability to vary from program to program within the same college, since destination schools often allow individual departments to decide which courses they'll take.

2. In many places, "dual enrollment" are the magic words. Dual enrollment programs involve applying directly to the destination school at the same time as applying to the cc. The best ones offer guaranteed admission to the destination program in two years, contingent upon successful completion of a designated program with a certain GPA. Make sure to ask about this.

3. Go to the financial aid office -- even if you don't need it yet -- and ask about the availability of transfer scholarships. They exist, and they're often quite nifty. I've seen students take two years on the cheap at the cc, then transfer to some pretty impressive places with a full ride based on outstanding performance at the cc. Knowing the application deadlines and criteria well in advance can help you with course scheduling while there's still time.

4. If available, make your course-selection decisions at the cc based on transferability to the college you want. This is easy if you're aiming for a public college or university, and you're in a state with a mandated transfer policy. Private colleges usually aren't bound by those, though, nor are out-of-state publics. Even within the same state, some publics are pretty good at interpreting the rules in, well, idiosyncratic ways. I've seen cases in which the same major at two different destination schools has subtly, but stubbornly, different requirements for the elective courses they'll take in transfer. Knowing those quirks early will allow you to pick the "right" courses at the right time.

5. Once enrolled at the cc, make yourself visible to the faculty. The students who form bonds with faculty advisors, lead clubs, and get involved in the life of the college do better at the transfer game. I know that the cc wasn't what you envisioned for yourself, but holding yourself apart from it will only make matters worse. Nothing succeeds like success, so if you want to show the destination schools what a great student you are, prove it here. Even if you intend to leave the cc in your rear-view mirror, throw yourself into it while you're here. The students who do that get the scholarships, the best letters of recommendation, the most inside dirt, and the best relationships. They also do best in their coursework. It's a win-win.

6. Don't buy the stigma. Yes, cc's get a bad rap; sometimes deserved, sometimes not. But if you let that sap your motivation, it will only hurt you. Think of it as the minor leagues; the best players get called up, and often do quite well. You just have to prove it on the field.

7. If you can, attend full-time. I know this isn't always an option for economic reasons, but some foregone income now can result in a higher GPA and therefore a nice scholarship later.

8. Boutique programs. Look for "Honors" programs, "Learning Communities," "Service Learning," and the like. Many cc's have some or all of these, and you'll often find that the faculty in these areas are remarkably excited to have the chance to work with strong students. If you go in as a strong and motivated student, you will get one of the best bargains in American higher education.

I know this isn't for everyone. If getting geographic distance from home is part of the point of college for you, this doesn't make sense. You'll miss out on dorm life, which is both good and bad. But if economics or life issues push you in this direction, it's possible to play this hand really well.

Wise and worldly readers -- anything you'd add?