December 2013 issue

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US Community Colleges

Offering the first two years of a bachelor degree and associate degrees, community colleges have several benefits for overseas students beyond cost savings, writes Matthew Knott.

Community colleges – sometimes referred to as technical, junior or associate colleges – were first established over 100 years ago to provide cost-effective access to higher education for rural communities in the USA. These two-year colleges provide the freshman and sophomore years of a bachelor degree which articulate into year three at a full degree-awarding institution. Many institutions have specialised within technical fields, while offering established support networks for international students.

“Since the community colleges’ historical development emphasises the need to provide access to all students seeking higher education, they have become experts in a multitude of services to students in remedial, academic and vocational studies,” says Arlene Spencer, Director of International Student & ESL Programs at Fulton-Montgomery Community College (FMCC), NY. As well as specialised courses, there is an array of more general study paths for students yet to decide the full major routes, she explains.

Community colleges are also an access point for students not yet meeting the requirements of a full degree. “It is an opportunity to revitalise a student academic profile to the point where the student can be admitted to institutions they would not have qualified for otherwise,” says Nathan Jensen, International Center Director at Orange Coast College (OCC) Coast Mesa, CA.

With the typical four-year degree system in the USA constituting a substantial investment of time and money, community colleges can play a significant role. The credits of a two-year associate degree transfer into almost all four-year institutions, according to the international brochure by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) – the so-called ‘2+2’ model. “US community college tuition fees are approximately 50 per cent lower than those at four-year colleges and universities,” says AACC.

Nonetheless, community colleges need to meet the same accreditation standards as four-year colleges and universities, thus facilitating the credit transfers. Another option is that after a two-year associate degree, international students are eligible for the Optical Practical Training (OPT) route, a one-year post-study period in which work in their field of study is permitted.

Spencer argues that at community colleges the focus is on teaching, unlike many research universities. She says, “This gives the freshman and sophomore student much more direct contact with his or her college professor, resulting in a much more personalised approach to learning.”

FMCC is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) network of 30 community colleges, and Spencer enthuses, “The benefit of FMCC is that we take a personal interest in every one of our students. We are a smaller campus and with less than 3,000 students, we know every student by name. We have excellent campus facilities and services, including on-campus housing, meal plans and a strong residential life programme.” Spencer adds, “We have an excellent reputation and many transfer agreements to four-year partner universities.”

Jensen, meanwhile, adds, “International students receive many benefits by attending OCC, including dedicated support, quality programs that lead to associate degrees and/or transfer to many prestigious universities, and a very low cost at only US$3,180 per semester tuition for 12 units.”

In terms of enrolments, “We are seeing a steady increase overall, particularly from Asia and the Middle East,” says Jensen. “I think we will see significant growth in Chinese student enrolment.” Spencer, meanwhile, reports, “This year we are welcoming many Brazilian students to our Intensive English Language Program, and we are very excited about them joining our campus; they will bring a nice diversity.” She adds Chinese enrolments are continuing to grow, although some other Asian markets are flat.

As for sector challenges, Spencer says, “Visa issues continue to pose challenges, particularly for some regions of the world. We have had limited success for our Indian and Bangladeshi students, but we still need to work on this.” Jensen is optimistic about future trends. “The market is always becoming more and more competitive, but I think we have actually seen improvements in the economy, US competitiveness and in visa processing, so it is a good time for growth.”

Agents are part of the recruitment process at community colleges. Spencer advises, “We work with the SUNY Office of Global Affairs on a unified recruitment strategy for all State University of New York campuses. We are always looking for new markets and qualified agent contacts.” At Orange Coast College, Jensen says, “We advertise, use a small number of agents, and travel to fairs, but we receive many students through word-of-mouth from friends or relatives.” matthew@hothousemedia.com

The American Association of Community Colleges

Founded in 1920, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is an advocacy organisation representing over 1,100 two-year, associate degree-awarding institutions, which between them host some 13 million students. Indeed, 45 per cent of all US undergraduate students were at an AACC member in the 2012 autumn cohort, according to association data. In terms of international engagement, AACC has a specialist website, Study in America, which lists accredited community colleges and offers a range of information for potential students, with translation available in Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Italian. AACC also engages in international conferences and partnership activities.

Around 94,000 international students were studying at community colleges in 2010/11, according to AACC, around seven per cent of the total community college student body. International cohorts range from a handful at some rural colleges to thousands: the Open Doors report for 2011/12 listed Houston Community College as the highest ranking associate college by international student volume, with 5,829 students.

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