Sunday, August 11, 2013
Ask the Administrator: Choosing a Good Community College
I'm a 26-year-old community college dropout who would like to go back, but I'm not sure how to make sure a specific community college fits my needs. In my one year in college, I earned 27 credits, mostly in humanities and arts, but I'm really interested in sciences. I think I need to find a community college that has two qualities I couldn't find before I quit a few years ago:
1) A community college that really sees the transfer mission as important;
2) A community college where the faculty and students are much more engaged in classes than the last one I attended. My classmates there were largely disinterested, the professors boring and disengaged, and I couldn't see that either group really wanted to be there. I don't want to repeat that experience.
Friends tell me that there has to be a community college that is better than my last one, but I'm not sure how to find it. I'm fortunate enough to be mobile, but there is no such thing as a Princeton Review guide to community colleges. How do I find out what a community college is good at before I enroll? How do I look for one that meets my needs?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
My CC used to run calc 1 as part of a 2 semester rotation of courses and so it ran in springs. Calc 2 ran in falls, infrequently, and calc 3 never ran.
More than just transfer agreements, try to get a syllabus from specific courses that are known to be critical in STEM trajectories: Physics 1, Org Chem, Calc 1... Compare them with similar syllabi from big-name public schools like Michigan, Maryland... (Not MIT or Harvard as their courses are a bit weird)
I would also consider skipping the CC altogether if you are really serious about science. You will have more opportunities for undergrad research and less "transfer pain" - losing classes that don't articulate, adjusting to a new level of grading - if you just go to one school. It's not that CC's are bad (and if you gotta go then you've gotta go) but you will usually spend an additional year getting your terminal degree if you go the CC route so it's worthwhile to think about tuition costs, cost of living and what kind of an academic load you can carry. You may find that saving 20-30K in living costs offsets the higher tuition at a 4 year college. Depending on the college, you may find that the 4-year college students have the drive and ambition that you are looking for in your cohort (but choose carefully as this will not always be the case.)
Excellent advice, particularly about starting with the destination school. Several universities in my state have close ties to a nearby CC. This can be helpful even in states that have a solid state-wide agreement on a common gen ed core that will be accepted (with an AA) at state universities regardless of the details used at a particular CC, and can be particularly important in STEM where the "majors" courses also need to be articulated.
One strength of my CC for STEM is that we teach multiple sections of the entire calculus sequence and have multiple sequences (different start semesters) for everything through organic chemistry.
One sign that it is a transfer school is that there isn't "a" transfer advisor. Ask if they have a transfer advisor (or professor) who specializes in (particular) STEM majors, and don't be afraid to seek out another if the first person you talk to doesn't, say, lay out a multi-year plan for your math and science classes.
I sort-of like the advice about comparing syllabi, but this can be very difficult for a student to do. It is, however, an excellent question to ask the advisor.
The one thing DD didn't mention was asking if there are Honors classes and how to get in them.
Regardless of the school you're at, you need to seek out the right set of people to surround you - friends, mentors, advisors. The school's Student Activities Office is often a good place to start. Not surprisingly, students who are involved tend to be a more motivated peer group. Talk to a few professors in the science field(s) you're interested in. If you hit it off with one of them, ask them to give you advising - both academic & professional.
Though certain CCs are assuredly better than others, you can find both a good experience and a bad experience in any institution. The trick is to make sure you're actively looking for the good one.
But they also fall behind because they start ut behind. My experience (at a school with excellent articulation agreements) is that the main reason for an extra year is where you start in math. If you aren't ready to earn a solid passing grade in Calc I in your very first semester, you may end up a year behind no matter where you start. My insight is mostly from advising "reverse transfers" to my CC from an R1, lots of whom started behind our better native CC students.
Alternatively, if you by some miracle live in northern San Diego, go to Mira Costa College, because my little brother goes there and it is amazing.
A young friend here took her lower-division courses at a (pretty decent) community college and then transferred to Texas A & M, where she finished with an engineering degree. And in fact, her experience seems to confirm CCPhysicist's remarks: she did OK, but just OK. The man she met there and ultimately married was in the same engineering program. He did outpaced her academically. Also, he performed better after they graduated and they sought their first jobs, where prospective employers tested applicants, apparently because his academics were stronger. Since they're both very bright, about on a par with each other, the implication is that she indeed started out slightly behind and never fully caught up.