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12 questions answered for parents of students considering community colleges

As a parent, you may have a lot of questions about whether the community college path is right for your young adult.
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The community college path is beneficial for many students. Community college students make up 45% of all U.S. undergraduates, but as a parent, you may have a lot of questions about whether the community college path is right for your young adult. Just like four-year institutions, community colleges differ greatly from school to school.

1. Does my student need to apply for admissions to a community college?

Most community colleges have open admissions policies, which generally means that the admission process is non-competitive. The only criterion for community college is that your student have a high school diploma or GED certificate. Your student may still have to submit an application, but almost anyone who applies to a school with open admissions policies is accepted. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to apply early. Students who do so are more likely to find space in the courses they need or want. It is important to note that certain programs within the community college may be more selective and require a separate application. For example, if a student wants to go into medical sonography, they may have to apply to this program separately in order to get their associate degree in medical sonography. Louisiana-based high school counselor Wendy Rock says many of her students don’t realize this when applying to open admission community colleges.

2. What are some of the benefits of attending a community college?

Cost is perhaps the greatest benefit for many families, as the price tag on tuition for community colleges is significantly less than most four-year institutions. The average annual tuition and fees for public community college was about a third of the average annual tuition for four-year colleges for the 2015-2016 school year.

Class sizes tend to be much smaller at community colleges, allowing more one-on-one time between your student and their professor. In addition, the faculty may be more focused on teaching than faculty at larger, four-year institutions where many professors spend a lot of time on research and have teaching assistants who lead smaller discussions.

Community colleges are also flexible. Students can take several classes at a time, go back to school later in life, earn professional certification, and much more. The lower cost and faculty-to-student ratio contribute to this flexibility.

3. Can my child earn credentials at a community college?

Your student can earn an associate degree and post-secondary certificates at community colleges. Associate degrees are typically 60 credits and take two years to complete. Certificates can take anywhere from a few months to several years. A growing number of community colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees, but not all.

4. What qualifications do community college professors have?

Most community colleges require the professors to have a master’s degree in the subject they are teaching. Professors at community colleges also focus entirely on teaching their courses. At some four-year universities, professors are busy researching or writing grants and do not offer as much face time with students. Bon Crowder, math teacher and blogger, says community college professors have a great teaching attitude and can have more time one-on-one with students. “They like being there [in the classroom] because teaching students is their main focus,” Crowder says.

5. Can my student take just one or two courses at a community college?

Taking just one or two courses at a community college is extremely common. In fact, 62% of students enrolled in community colleges attend part time, according to the 2016 American Association of Community College Fact Sheet. However, some experts, like Stephen J. Handel, executive director of higher education at The College Board, recommend students enroll full time. Handel says community colleges are great because of their flexibility, but if possible, enrolling as a full-time student is best. “Students who go full-time can immerse fully in the experience, complete requirements more quickly, and potentially go on to earn a bachelor’s degree more quickly if that’s what they want to do,” Handel says.

6. Will my student have to take placement tests at their community college?

Depending on the school, your student will likely take some sort of placement test to check their academic skill level. These tests usually evaluate skills in math, reading, and writing. Your student’s test results may mean that they can skip some introductory courses or that they need a little more preparation before enrolling in certain courses. If students need more preparation before taking college-level courses, some students may be placed in a remedial course. These courses allow your student to improve their skills so they are better prepared for college-level academics.

7. Should I be worried if my kid is placed in a remedial course?

Remedial courses are a good way for students to get to the level they need to be academically before taking courses that require specific background knowledge and concepts. Rock says she doesn’t think parents should worry if their kids take remedial classes. However, it is important to recognize the financial implication of them. Remedial courses cost money, but your student will not earn credits for these courses. “The unfortunate part is they cost money and they don’t count towards your degree,” Rock says. “But I’ve known a lot of students who had to do remedial courses that then went on to complete four-year and graduate programs.”

8. How can my student transfer from a community college to a four-year college?

Many students transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year college. The first step is making a plan and talking to an academic advisor about transfer requirements. Rock says a common misconception among students is that you complete your two-year degree at a community college and then go on for an additional four years at the four-year college. “They don’t realize it can be a seamless process where their credits transfer and they only spend an additional two years to get their degree,” Rock says. “Community colleges are so great and so accommodating,” Handel says. “There are a variety of choices. Examine your options and find out what the transfer rate is. Investigate and visit community colleges in the same way you would four-year institutions.”

9. Do community colleges offer dorms?

Some community colleges offer on-campus housing. 26 percent of community colleges offer student housing, according to the American Association of Community Colleges Fact Sheet. Despite the increase of on-campus housing at community colleges over the last decade, only one percent of two-year college students live on campus. Ask the community college if they have on-campus housing. If your student wants to live in campus housing, have them ask admissions advisors or do some online research about specific community colleges that have this option before your child applies.

10. Will my kid have an opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities in community college?

Most community colleges offer many student clubs and organizations. Some even have sports. This will vary greatly from school-to-school. Handel says many parents and students underestimate the vibrant student life community colleges offer. Take a look at your student’s college website which usually lists the organizations and resources available.

11. Can my student apply for financial aid at community colleges?

Yes. For students who apply, 58% of community college students receive some financial aid. This aid includes federal loans, state aid, and federal grants. Your student should apply for financial aid. Some families may be surprised if they qualify for aid, so it never hurts to apply.

12. Is community college worth it?

Absolutely! Handel stresses that parents and students should not underestimate the rigor and value of community colleges, as they are excellent educational paths for students after high school. On average, community college students earn significantly more over their lifetime than those who earn only a high school diploma, according to a Community College Review study in 2011. “It’s a serious commitment,” Handel says. “That’s the thing I try to instill. I went to community college a million years ago. I had some extraordinary college professors and experiences. Embrace it fully!”

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Bon Crowder, Math Teacher and Blogger,; Stephen Handel, Executive Director, Higher Education, The College Board; Scott Allen, Former President, Washington State PTA; and Wendy Rock, Assistant Professor of Counseling, Southeastern Louisiana University.