Students have many choices when they make the decision to go to college. With a number of different opportunities, including both on-campus and distance learning, a college degree program can be customized to be as rigid or flexible as a student needs. As one option, many students choose to begin their education at a two-year college rather than heading straight off to the dorms at the four-year universities.
There are several key things to keep in mind when starting your college journey. If you know you will definitely be pursuing your education past the associate degree level, this preparation for your long-term goals will be important. A good option is to start at a community (or junior) college. Here's why:
Two-Year Colleges Aid the Planning Process
While there is some flexibility and time to declare a bachelor degree major, you will want to try to plan accordingly so you do not end up starting over once you transfer. Starting off at a two-year school is the perfect way to accomplish this goal.
Proper planning ensures all the right courses are taken at your community college so you do not have to take many extra courses to meet the four-year degree requirements. Courses taken at a community college are typically highly transferable (especially if they are "general education" courses - which is what you should probably focus on anyway at this point until you are 110 percent sure what your major will be. Even students who think they are sure often change their minds once taking the degree-specific classes).
However, there are usually a handful of courses that do not transfer well, so while registering for your courses, be selective. There is no worse feeling than taking 60+ credits during your first two years of school only to learn many of those credits will not be accepted towards the bachelor degree. If you talk to your academic counselor at your college, he or she can help you construct a plan.
If you already know which four-year university you plan to attend, it is still a good idea to speak with a counselor or admissions representative at that school to ensure the credits you plan to take will be accepted by that institution. It is important to carve your path as one that will enable you to transfer smoothly. Understanding the ins and outs of transfer will also help you prepare better.
Improve a GPA
Not all students excel in high school and, as a result, they struggle to get into highly competitive four-year schools. Most applications are accepted by community colleges due to open admission policies, and this gives a student the opportunity to boost his or her GPA better preparing for his or her transfer.1 Additionally, community colleges often have "handshake" agreements with for their graduates to transfer to either a specific university or an open-ended number of four-year schools.
If you are unsure of what your bachelor major will be, that's OK. Most academic counselors usually recommend a liberal arts or general studies degree to allow exploration in a variety of disciplines. This guideline also allows you to focus on the aforementioned general education courses, which is what you'll need to take anyway; the majority of four-year degrees will require basic courses, such as math, comp and lit, science, humanities and social sciences.
Taking required comp & lit courses (or related courses) are often good classes to include in early semesters.
This doesn't mean you can't take any specialized courses. If there is room in your schedule, take an exploratory course or two that you find of interest. If you aren't sure what you ultimately want to pursue, just be careful not to jump into too many of these types of classes initially because they may not apply to your four-year goals once you finalize your degree decision. The main objective should be to try and bring as many credits as you can with you to the next level of your education so you aren't spending excess money and taking unnecessary courses.
If you opt to go the liberal arts or general studies route, there will be enough room for electives which will allow you to explore a few different areas to help you decide on a major. However, if you do have a definitive career goal and already know what bachelors degree you'll be pursuing, carefully choose classes that will apply to your future studies so you don't waste time and money on non-transferable classes.
Real-life Experience Included in the Classroom
Another benefit to attending a community college is you will likely have professors who are working full-time in their area of expertise and teach college courses as a second job. In these cases, you truly get the best of both worlds because you receive classroom knowledge and gain the benefits of learning it from someone currently working in the industry. In today's competitive job environment, this "inside" information can prove to be invaluable as adjunct professors can share first-hand what the real-life experience will be working in your chosen field. Often this is very different than what you'll learn in textbooks. You can use this knowledge to further make your education and career decisions.
Equitable Education at an Affordable Cost
Sometimes people worry they won't receive a high quality education at a two-year university, but this is an untruth; community colleges typically offer excellence in education at a significantly lower cost. U.S. News refers to starting a degree at a community college as the 2+2 plan, noting this route can save thousands of dollars.2 If finances are an issue, or if you want to avoid accumulating high debt, you'll undoubtedly save a lot of money starting at a two-year school and still receive a high standard of learning that is equitable to the same type of courses you'd have to take at a four-year school anyway.
Often the less rigid decision making and lower costs of a two-year school relieve some of the pressures a student starting out has to deal with. As a result, more focus can be placed on constructing long-term goals; this also helps with making the transition of moving to a four-year university.
According to College Board, in the U.S., over 40 percent of undergraduate students first attend a community college.3 These schools are an excellent jumping point when beginning the higher education journey. I took this route myself and then subsequently worked in a community college for a number of years. During that time I saw many students pave a clear path to their bachelor degrees and beyond.
Community colleges prepare students well for the transition to a four-year university.