Who Goes to Community College?

Students all over the nation attend classes at these colleges, but who are they and where do they come from?

There are community colleges all over the United States, offering a wide range of programs and degrees that are more accessible than those at a private four year university. Students all over the nation attend classes at these colleges, but who are they and where do they come from?

When we think of “going to college,” many people automatically imagine a campus with lots of stone buildings and ivy where 18-year olds will spend the next four years studying, socializing, and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.

While this fantasy is certainly true for many students in the U.S., it overlooks the fact that a lot of college students attend community colleges close to where they live. There are approximately 1000 public community colleges across the country, and they served over seven million students in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Of the 2.5 million students who got degrees at four-year institutions in 2010-2011, 1.1 million of these students started at community colleges. There are some states, like California and Texas, where well over half to three-quarters of the students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 began at public two-year institutions. So, who goes to community colleges?

What Does the Student Body Look Like?

Students at two-year institutions are a diverse group, which is part of what can make these schools such rich resources for their communities.

There are high school students who take classes because they’re interested in a subject which isn’t offered at their secondary school. There are adults who want to pick up a new hobby or who are taking continuing education courses to meet professional requirements. There are students who are enrolled in vocational programs, such as culinary arts or welding. There are others who are enrolled in associate’s degree programs that will allow them to enter a profession as soon as they graduate. Still others begin in a regular or honors program at the community college, with the intention of transferring to a four-year institution once they’ve completed four semesters or gotten their associate’s degree.

As you can see, community college students have many reasons for pursuing their education at these schools. But beyond these goals, what else do we know about the students themselves? Community college students come from all walks of life, from first-in-the-family college goers to international students to people who want an affordable college education.

Many of them are older, and the majority of these students work part- or full-time outside of college. Community college student bodies are racially, ethnically, and generationally diverse. These students are typically focused on specific goals, whether it’s earning credits to transfer to a four-year college or learning how to become a structural auto repair technician.

Community colleges are often criticized for their low graduation rates, which is a real concern. The underlying reasons for these rates may be complicated, but it remains true that community colleges play an important role in broadening access to higher education.

Still, it’s important to be aware of the challenges you can face at community colleges. Some states, such as Virginia and Florida, have well-developed systems with many campuses and a wide range of student supports. Others are much more limited.

Do the Research

There can be little guidance at many of these institutions, so it’s critical that you research schools to learn what they offer, how well they serve students like you, and the requirements for the path you want to pursue.

For example, if you want to enroll in a nursing program that will enable you to become an RN, here are some questions to ask:

  • Are there prerequisites I have to complete before I begin this program?
  • What are the required courses for this program and how often are they offered throughout the year?
  • Will my schedule allow me to take these courses in the semester they’re offered, or will I have to wait an entire year before they come around again?
  • What factors could prevent me from getting into the classes I need?
  • If I can’t enroll in a course the first time, how does this affect my completion timeline and financial aid?
  • If I’m struggling in a course, what academic services does the college provide?
  • Does the college have staff who can help me select my courses and/or apply for financial aid?

These sorts of questions are vitally important because not knowing or misunderstanding can derail a student from completing what’s required, and result in losing financial aid or not being able to complete your program.

You have to investigate and advocate for yourself. Some community colleges have online advising tools that help students figure out if they’re on track for their goals, so check out the school website to see if these are available. And if you’re not sure, find the advising office and make an appointment to see a counselor as soon as possible. You don’t want to let weeks go by without knowing if you’re on the right path. Good luck!

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