As the coronavirus emergency continues to turn the college admissions season upside-down, many students have written to College Confidential with questions about community college and online classes. To address those queries, we hosted a webinar on April 17 entitled "Community College and Online Programs, Evaluating your Options for Post-COVID."
During the event, moderated by Martha Parham, EdD, senior vice president of public relations with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the following panelists offered their perspectives on the issue:
- Melina Martinez, current student at Miracosta Community College
- Kate Smith, president of Rio Salado Community College in Arizona
- Kevyn Miller, Rio Salado graduate and current student at Arizona State University
- Kai Drekmeier, president of InsideTrack
Read on for insights that the group provided about community college and whether it might be the right choice for students today.
Community College Enrollments Could Look Different
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there's been a fair amount of uncertainty from students who are unsure about what the future holds, and that could alter what community college enrollments look like this fall.
"We're seeing a lot of students in holding patterns that are uncertain," Drekmeier said. "Frankly, colleges are uncertain." He pointed to three possible options that are under consideration for many schools: delaying the fall semester, opening back up completely like a normal year, or offering distance learning and online courses.
Drekmeier predicts that we could see more students at community colleges in the fall, centered around three main groups:
- Traditional-age students who would normally pursue an associate's degree — this number might be up slightly due to fewer job opportunities for part- and full-time employment for recent high school graduates, Drekmeier notes.
- Adult learners who were laid off or had work hours reduced and want to get an associate's degree. "In a bad economy or higher unemployment, we do see an increase in enrollments from that group," he said.
- Traditional-age students who might normally start at a four-year college or university. "The fact that the traditional residential experience is in question might make some of our viewers today wonder 'Should I go?,' and there's a lot of economic uncertainty," he noted.
Smith echoed those sentiments, saying that Rio Salado is experiencing enrollment trends that she hasn't seen in the past. "What we think is potentially happening right now, which would make sense, is a lot of students are in a holding pattern." They're not quite ready to enroll and they aren't sure what life will look like post-coronavirus. "There's the potential that enrollments will decrease in the short term while people wait to see how life unfolds, there's also the possibility, though, that enrollments might begin to spike as the economy begins to open back up and people are working again," she said.
Students Cite Advantages of Community Colleges
Both Miller and Martinez shared their unique paths to community college, as well as the pros and cons of working toward their associate's degrees before pursuing their bachelor's degrees. Miller graduated high school in 2006 and knew she always wanted to go to Arizona State University, but didn't know what she wanted to do, so she started at community college. She was working full-time, taking night classes, but began to get burnt out and took a few years off. In 2010, she started taking some online classes at community college and decided it worked best with her schedule. She loved the diversity and the small class sizes that community college offered, as well as the opportunity to explore what she wanted to do with her life.
Martinez is an undocumented student who became part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) community at 16 and had a job throughout high school. "I was just kind of scared of what a four-year college would look like for me, and it seemed like it would be very expensive. Obviously, every DACA student wants to go to a four-year university, but community college was a lot cheaper and it was less intimidating to explore my interests in terms of taking a lot of classes without being super expensive." She also loved the flexible schedule, the support system at community college and the small class sizes.
Cost is a strong driver for many students to start out at community college. Parham noted that AACC data indicate that tuition and fees at community college typically come out about 65 percent lower than the cost of public, state-supported, four-year colleges. In addition, community colleges offer a lot of opportunities for students to connect with each other, including extracurriculars, sports teams, career counseling offices, health services, academic teams and other opportunities that many students don't realize.
Employment opportunities are also more broad for students who go to community colleges. "With an associate's degree, there are a ton of jobs that are in high demand, even in a down economy, particularly in health care," Drekmeier noted. In addition, he said, career and technical education opportunities often allow you to get a certificate instead of an associate's degree, and these can lead to lucrative job options. "These are mid- and high-skill level jobs that pay extremely well, but you need certifications and training and those are offered mostly by our community colleges," he said. "You can do a lot with an associate's and you can be paid very well."
Work With Counselors to Ensure Credits Transfer
If your plan is to eventually transfer from community college to a four-year school, keep in mind that you should ensure that all the credits you take are transferable, and do your very best work, Drekmeier says. "In the California state system, transfer students are doing just as well or better in many cases as students who have come up through that system — no question in my mind that the huge majority of our community colleges are preparing students to succeed in their last couple years at a four-year school."
Most community colleges are able to work out pathways for students depending on their areas of interest, and advisors can ensure that they take the most transferable credits possible, Smith says.
File for Financial Aid, Ask About Scholarships
Although some students believe that financial aid isn't an option at community college, the reality is that almost 60 percent of community college students do get some type of aid, Parham said.
Smith advises students to apply for financial aid via the FAFSA, and to also ask about grants and scholarships at the community college they plan to attend. Always ask counselors for help with financial aid if it seems confusing, because you don't want to miss out on any opportunities for aid, the panelists noted.
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