Education in the United States can be very competitive and expensive, but it does not have to be! In the early 1900s, the U.S. established a system of community colleges or “junior colleges” that offer associate degree programs. They were designed to give more people access to a higher education. Many of these schools started with a focus on technical education — and some still focus on technical and hands-on degrees — but many have also expanded to include a variety of degrees in diverse academic fields.
For international students, community colleges are a great option because they usually have smaller class sizes than many universities, making it easier to adjust to the American education system, form friendships, and meet instructors. Professors and instructors at community colleges do not have to produce as many research papers as university professors do, which then gives them more time to focus on individual student support and guidance.
Community colleges often have a free-application process and an “open-access admission” policy, which allows all qualified students to enroll. They receive funding from federal and local taxes, grants, and donations, and as a result the tuition is usually more affordable than most four-year universities. For international students, community colleges are a great way to lower overall costs of earning a bachelor’s degree.
Starting with an associate’s degree creates one more level of education and an additional opportunity for international students to apply for optional practical training (OPT), which, if accepted, allows a student to work for one year in the U.S. in a field related to their degree. OPT gives international students a temporary employment authorization in a job or volunteer work directly related to the student’s area of study.
Community colleges have two-year degrees that prepare students directly for jobs in the work-force and also two-year degrees that are designed to then transfer to complete an undergraduate bachelor’s degree at a university. Most community colleges have partnerships with nearby universities to create an easy academic transfer pathway for students who plan to continue their education. This is often referred to as the “2+2 process,” where students study for two years at a community college and then complete their bachelor’s degree with two more years at a university. Having an experience in two different schools can give an international student the opportunity to study in two different locations in the U.S. and form two networks of connections that they can leverage when looking for a job after graduation.
In the United States, many degrees and colleges require introductory courses in a variety of subjects — these courses are general education classes (also known as “gen eds”). Students are usually required to complete these general education classes before they can begin their specific degree studies or concentration. Beginning the first two year of a bachelor’s degree at a community college, students can save money on tuition by taking these “gen eds” at a lower cost.
Community colleges offer some flexibility in the admission’s process, many do not require SAT testing, and if an international student's language skills are not academic ready, there are options for taking English as a Second Language courses or English-language training before beginning a degree program. In many cases, international students who transfer after their associate’s degree will have an easier admission process to a four-year college than they would have had as an incoming first-year student.
You won’t find community colleges at the top of a “Best National Universities” list, but you will find a welcoming environment to study, learn American culture, and save money!