Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ask the Administrator: Choosing a Good Community College

Via Sherman Dorn, a frustrated young correspondent writes:

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?

I like this question.  How do you recognize a good transfer college when you see one?

I’d start by working backwards.  If you know generally what you want to study, look for some four-year colleges or universities that are particularly strong in that area.  Then call up their transfer admissions counselor -- usually found in the admissions office -- and ask which community colleges are their largest feeders.  That can be helpful, because while colleges have overall reputations, sometimes a particular college is notably strong (or weak) in a particular program.  

The advantage of going this route is that you’ll known from an unbiased source which colleges are likeliest to get you where you want to go.  

Mobility is great, though getting “in-state” (or, in some states, “in-county”) rates sometimes requires being in a location for some time first.  Depending on the jurisdiction, the premium for being a transplant may be considerable.  In many cases, the out-of-area premium applies to online courses as well, so that isn’t necessarily a free pass.

Depending on what you took before leaving, the good news is that much of it may still apply to your new program.  Even science-focused majors -- especially the transfer-oriented ones -- still have “general education” requirements.  In other words, even chemistry majors have to take English and some social sciences.  Since your first go-round focused on arts and humanities, you may be able to apply much of what you’ve already done to the gen ed requirements in your new program.  In other words, you probably won’t have to start from scratch.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few community colleges, I’d contact each one and ask to speak to the transfer counselor.  Ask about “articulation agreements” with the destination schools to which you’d like to go.  “Articulation agreements” are contracts between colleges in which one college agrees to accept certain credits in transfer from the other.  The goal here is to see if they have some sort of written guarantee that all of your credits (usually with a GPA minimum) will carry over.  It would also be a good idea to ask about actual numbers of students who have done what you want to do.  A well-worn path is less likely to have unpleasant surprises than one that one student did, they think, about seven years ago.

Finally, if you’re genuinely motivated, it can be a good idea to reach out to some faculty in the department or program in which you’re interested.  Some may get back to you and some may not, but they can give you the unvarnished truth about what to expect.  Four-year colleges routinely allow prospective students to visit a class, to get a flavor for the climate of the place.  Two-year colleges don’t have a history of that, but I don’t know why it couldn’t be done.  If you take the initiative and comport yourself as a motivated, mature adult, you’ll probably find doors opening for you.  

I wouldn’t rely solely on general reputation in the community.  That’s often a lagging indicator, and it may well reflect people in programs other than your own.  If you want, say, chemistry, then hearing from someone who graduated in early childhood education ten years ago is of limited usefulness.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those who have been in that situation -- what would you recommend?  How can a prospective student distinguish a strong community college from a weak one?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.