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.

Don't just look at the course catalog, ask how frequently certain courses are taught (the is especially important for small, rural CCs).

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 second the notion of calling the place you want to get your bachelor's from and working backwards to a good school. In my area, transfer counselors at the CC are just terrible for science.

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.)
My first thoughts are about the un-asked questions: Did this student get proper advising? (no mention of math classes) Does the student know how many disengaged students are out there in CC and first-year Uni world? (we reserve the last few rows for them, even in 2nd year classes) Was the instructor a t-t professor or an adjunct? (often impossible to tell at first glance)

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.
Realize that the quality of your experience - and how welcome you feel - can also vary within a college. Community colleges can be large places, and whether you get a good education may depend on the "crowd" you hang out with. While some professors are distant, others might be very friendly. Many students might not care about their education, but some students most assuredly are just like you.

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.
Ivory makes some very good points at 9:04AM, points that are the reason for my comments about a STEM-specific transfer advisor and math sequencing. Students can definitely fall behind because of bad advising or limited course offerings, and they often get bad advice because they are too passive in the process.

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.
I just wanted to add my support for the idea of calling the Admissions office of the place(s) you want to go, then working backwards. I can't think of a more elegant, goal-oriented solution that requires less time.

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.

Agreed with Ivory: If you want to go into STEM, you may be better off to take the lower-division gen-ed courses in a community college but the lower-division core courses for your major at the university. That way you'd still save a little on tuition (maybe...depending on the kind of financial aid you could swing) but be more confident that the math and lower-division science courses would dovetail smoothly into your major course of studies.

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.
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