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Community College: Is It Right for You?

Every college career doesn't begin at a four-year college or university. Many students choose to enroll in community or junior colleges instead. These two-year institutions offer associate's degrees and certificate programs. Some students will continue their education at a four-year school. Some will enter the workforce with a two-year degree. Others will take classes that interest them with no intention of earning a degree.

"Community colleges practice an open admissions policy -- all [people] with a high school diploma, GED or a demonstrated ability to benefit from a college education are accepted -- and are publicly funded," says Jim McCarthy, director of admissions at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania. "Junior colleges may not practice open admissions and can be private," he adds.

"Both community and junior colleges are educational institutions that offer the associate's degree, which is considered a two-year degree," says Lynda Edwards. Edwards is dean of educational partnerships at North Lake College, a community college in Texas. "Differences may occur with the academic programs offered, such as programs that prepare students for a technical career or transfer to a university."

Many of the associate's degrees, specialized diplomas and certificate programs offered at community colleges prepare students to enter certain fields immediately after graduation. McCarthy says the flexibility and versatility that community colleges offer is beneficial to a wide variety of students.

Compared to most universities, the benefits of two-year schools include smaller class sizes (even on large campuses), greater contact with faculty and more affordable prices. In fact, many students choose to attend community college before transferring to a four-year school because it saves them a great deal of money on tuition. Most states have agreements allowing community college credits to transfer seamlessly to most -- if not all -- four-year colleges and universities in the same state.

Almost anyone can feel at home at a community college. "In the community college setting, it's very common for a non-traditional student to be in class with traditional-aged students," says McCarthy. "The experiences that can be shared will also be invaluable."

Community colleges usually involve as much work as four-year schools. "It's just like attending a four-year institution," says Albert Palmer, a student at Richland College in Texas. "You still have to attend class, there is still a heavy workload, and studying is still a must."

In addition to classes, students can expect two to three hours of study for every hour spent in class. Many students also hold full- or part-time jobs while attending community college. However, faculty recommends that full-time students don't work more than 15 hours per week, McCarthy says.

He also encourages students to take advantage of time management workshops, tutoring and other programs their school offers. Most community colleges are full-service schools with the same types of student support services found in four-year institutions.

Community colleges offer one very important thing that four-year schools don't -- a chance for a new academic beginning. Even students who didn't do well in high school or on their SATs have a chance to jump-start their education at a community college and build confidence in their academic abilities.

Developmental courses are offered in reading, writing and math, which gives students a chance to improve their skills in those areas, Edwards says. "An assessment is required for every new college student. The assessment determines if the student needs to enroll in developmental courses before beginning college coursework."

"I'm sure that every community college in the country has an amazing success story about a student who didn't work to his or her potential in high school, but is now a leader in his or her career," McCarthy says. "Attending any college is an opportunity for a student to start fresh, to be challenged academically, to think critically, to communicate effectively, and to prepare for a dynamic world. Ultimately, the responsibility for success rests with each student and the amount of focused effort he or she expends."

Albert Palmer is a testament to all that a bright, motivated student can achieve at community college. He is president of the African American Latino Student Alliance and president of the Richland College Management Club, a club that helps students develop their leadership abilities. He's also a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society and Richland's Student Government Association. He was one of three students selected from 88,000 to attend a legislative summit in Washington, D.C. His involvement in extracurricular activities may be his biggest advantage for the future.

"My experiences at Richland have opened doors that I never could have imagined," Palmer says.

Long before enrolling in a community college, students can maximize their opportunities by taking a proactive approach to their education. They should think about their career plans and decide on an educational path that allows them to achieve their goals.

"I'd advise all students to begin the career preparation process before he or she attends college," McCarthy says. "This should not begin in high school, but in elementary school and originate at home. I believe that establishing mentor programs for young children that involve parents, teachers and students is key. The better prepared students are the more options they will have open to them later."

Convenience, course offerings and cost were all factors in Palmer's decision to attend community college, but his hope for a better future may have been his greatest motivator. As a Hurricane Katrina survivor who was displaced from New Orleans to Dallas, Palmer spent 18 months living in temporary shelters. He was at the point of desperation when he saw an ad for a community college. That ad gave him hope and changed his life.

No matter what life throws at you, dreams can come true as long as you take advantage of opportunities. Palmer says community college can open up doors. "Purpose can be found," he says. "Coalitions can be built. All of that, plus a degree in just two years, that can give you a leg up in the workforce."