What is a community college?

International students can study at community colleges

Licensed under Creative Commons. Courtesy of dave_mcmt.

Community colleges in America represent an option to earn a quality education at a more affordable price than most four year universities, and studying at one usually leads international students to continuing to earn a bachelor’s degree from a traditional four year university.  If studying in America seems out of reach today due to budget constraints or competitive admissions standards, consider community college options.

In the US, you might hear the terms “Community College” and “Junior College” used to describe these two year institutions.  For international students, these terms should be considered interchangeable. The difference is that usually a “Community College” is a public institution, while a “Junior College” is often a private institution. The quality of education is not affected by the title, which brings me to the next topic: Accreditation.

Community college accreditation

Community colleges go through accreditation processes to ensure they offer high quality education and the accreditation organizations are the same ones that accredit four year institutions.  Stanford University, for example, is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).  Fullerton College, established in 1913, is the oldest community college in California and is accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which is a corporate entity under WASC.

Transferring from community colleges

The quality of education at community colleges is well illustrated by the accreditation as well as transfer arrangements. Community colleges typically have “articulation” agreements that establish procedures and requirements for acceptance into specific four-year institutions. That means that students taking the correct courses will be able to transfer into another institution and their prior coursework will count as credit toward the bachelor’s degree.  These agreements are widespread and very common.  Northern Virginia Community College has agreements with over 220 institutions to accept their credits. On the four year university side, Cornell University (an Ivy League university) reportedly has over 195 articulation agreements to accept credits from community colleges while the University of California – Berkeley has over 100.  If you are curious about the quality of a specific community college, look at what four year schools accept their credits via articulation agreements for a little insight.

How to apply to community colleges

The international student application process for community colleges is similar to four year universities in that they both look at grades, test scores (usually), references, and extracurricular activities (usually). That said, the admissions requirements in these areas are typically lower at community colleges than at four year institutions. The SAT test may not be required and the TOEFL score requirements are frequently lower as well. The application deadlines are usually much later at community colleges, and you can usually apply there after receiving results of applications and scholarship offers from four year institutions you applied to.

How to find community colleges

  • Use the American Association of Community Colleges Community College Finder to search among the more than 1,700 community colleges in the United States.
  • Visit CollegeTransfer.net to determine what community colleges and four year universities have articulation agreements with each other.
  • Contact us to discuss your own educational goals and needs. American Advisors offers comprehensive admissions coaching for universities in the US, from community college and English language programs all the way through PhD programs.

Can you graduate from community college?

Yes, absolutely. Community colleges offer “Associate Degrees”, which usually take two years to complete.  They are usually an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree.  In addition to the “transfer” programs discussed above, some of these programs are considered “terminal” programs and lead to specific careers upon graduation. An Associate’s degree or “terminal” program could be useful if you are trying to learn specific skills that were not part of your previous education (in a bachelor’s degree, for example) and also if you are trying to expand your expertise in a field that has changed since your original study at university. They are especially useful for people changing careers when additional formal education is required.