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An International Student Asks: Community College or University?

Wednesday | July 3, 2019 | by Deborah Deperio

community college

Deborah Deperio is a WES Ambassador who faced a difficult decision when she immigrated to the United States:

Which type of school should she attend, a community college or a university?

In this blog post, she describes the process of making this important choice—while knowing that it would impact her future as an immigrant in the United States.

She also provides tips that can help you come to your own conclusions when you are choosing a college or university to attend in the U.S.

Find Deborah’s story, and her advice, below.

Starting classes at a new college can be stressful for any student. That is the case whether you are a high school graduate or an adult who is continuing their education. It is definitely true if you happen to be an international student who is studying abroad, or an immigrant who is pursuing higher education in their new home country for the first time.

Choosing the right school is the first step you must complete before you can make any other decisions.

For me, this was one of the most stressful parts. Before I could even pick my school, I needed to choose between attending a two-year community college or a four-year university.

As a new immigrant to the United States, I needed to make a big choice about my future—fast. Here’s how I did.

Compare the Costs

One of the first things I considered was the cost of my college education.

Of course it is a dream to study in a prestigious institution, such as an Ivy League school.

But is it practical to do that, especially if I just immigrated in a new country and I have not gotten a chance to apply for scholarships yet? Am I really willing to shoulder the burden of massive student loans?

If you are like me, a student who wants or needs to pay for their own college education, consider going to a community college.

You should consider the fact that in-state schools (like community colleges) cost less, because they offer discounts for local residents. Here’s an example from my life: As of May 2018, the State Board of Community College in Virginia set the tuition rates to $154 USD per credit for Virginia residents and $351.69 USD per credit for everyone else.

It is the same way for most other schools. Obviously, if I went to a school outside of my state, I would be the one who had to pay the higher fee. That was a big reason for me to go somewhere close to home.

You should also note that universities, even if they are public schools in the state where you live, usually cost more than community colleges.

When I attended Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), the Pell Grant that I was receiving from the government was enough to help me pay for tuition for an entire academic year. However, the same grant would only cover one semester at the nearby university—which means those classes would cost about twice as much as the same type of courses at my community college.

You should gather your information about costs per class at different schools in your area and outside of the state where you will be residing. Consider the potentially huge differences in costs before choosing a community college or university.

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Look for Transfer Partnerships

Community colleges often partner with local universities to create “transfer agreements.” This means that your classes will transfer easily if you decide to pursue a higher degree.

At NVCC, there is a program that offers guaranteed admission to universities for graduates. This program is going to help me transition to George Mason University.

At my community college, there were advisers and counselors available to help streamline my transfer process. They made sure that I met all of the necessary requirements. It is always a good idea to ask for help if you are unsure about the best path to take. You don’t need to wait until you are about to complete your program, either. Find out who to check in with on a regular basis to make sure you are on the right track.

My transfer program helped me realize that some universities actually do support starting your education at community colleges. That is especially true for students who might have financial or transportation concerns that would otherwise prevent them from pursuing higher education at all, or else lead to people dropping out of university part of the way through.

NVCC helped me achieve a degree in two years, with the assurance that I will not have a hard time transferring to a partner university later if that is the choice I still want to make.

It helps to know that both the community college and university are on your side when it comes to these partnerships.

Rely on Flexible Schedules

Just like universities, community colleges offer very flexible classes.

This means that you have control over your own schedule. College does not need to be a burden on your schedule if you have other commitments.

NVCC, for example, offers 8-week, 14-week, and 16-week classes. They operate on different time schedules (with morning, afternoon, and evening classes on most weekdays). My community college even offered night classes until 10:00 p.m. to accommodate students who had day jobs.

This gives students the ability to study while they are working, raising a family, or fulfilling other personal responsibilities. You can create a schedule that condenses or overlaps classes if you have a deadline to graduate—which can be useful for international students who have to graduate at a certain time or those with fixed scholarship requirements.

Just like universities, community colleges also offer in-person, online, and hybrid (in-person and online) classes. There was one class that I needed to complete, but it was only offered at my school’s remote campus in Virginia. Thankfully, I was able to enroll online and get the credit I needed. Often, online classes can be completed on your own time during the week, as long as the work is turned in on time. This flexibility is very convenient for many students.

Many people choose community colleges because they hope to have a degree within two years; having the choice to create a flexible class schedule can ensure that people finish on time.

Explore Support Networks and Social Opportunities

During my two years at a community college, there were advisers, counselors, and mentors who helped me succeed.

You should learn about the resources that will be available to you before you choose your school. Those might include health services, counselors, financial aid advisers, international student officers, and more.

I also joined a few student organizations and honor societies, which provided me with important social and cultural opportunities. These also helped me find out about and qualify for scholarships and community service experiences. I feel much more prepared for life after college because of these connections and experiences.

Before starting, you should browse the different types of student organizations and clubs that are available at your school. It is likely that there is one for international students and immigrants. This will help you meet people who understand your specific experience.

You might be surprised to learn that there is as much diversity in the student body at community college as you would find within the population at major universities. You will encounter students from a range of ages, ethnicities, and more.

This is an advantage, because it gives everyone a chance to meet people from different backgrounds. In the classroom, people draw from unique life experiences and from their own cultural perspectives. This can broaden both social and academic discussions.

My Conclusion

Attending a community college is one of the best decisions that I have made.

Now that I have graduated with a two-year degree, I am ready to continue my journey at a university.

Community college helped me adjust to higher education in the United States. I was able to advance my studies while also exploring my options and interests. It gave me an opportunity to meet amazing people in different walks of life. It gave me a chance to connect with various organizations, as well.

If you are thinking of pursuing a degree in the United States, but you are not entirely confident about the commitment, consider starting at a community college.

A community college will give you a chance to take classes without a four-year commitment.

It is also the most practical way to reduce your student debt (or, better yet, graduate debt-free). I am thankful for my family for the support they have given me throughout my college experience. However, I am proud to say that I did not burden them with my college tuition.

But this decision will be different for everyone. The most important thing is to be realistic about what you can handle. Consider what is right for you at this time.

If you are honest with yourself about the academic, financial, and cultural responsibilities that come along with choosing a school that you like, you will surely make the right decision when deciding between a community college or university in the U.S.

Next: Read the Free E-Guides

Funding Your Education in the U.S.

Financial Aid at Canadian Colleges and Universities


Deborah Deperio

Deborah Deperio, a WES Ambassador, is a student at Northern Virginia Community College.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).