Key Factors You Should Look for When Choosing a Community College in the U.S.

Location of the community college from their place of residence or work, program selection, courses offered, cost of education, graduation and transfer rates of community colleges, quality of faculty, student-to-faculty ratio, and student support offered by the community colleges are the key factors that students look for when choosing a community college.

1) Location

  • The first consideration that students typically make when choosing a community college is the location of the college. Depending on where the student lives, they may either have a variety of community colleges to choose from or just one or two options.
  • Since most community college students work part-time to support their education or they already have a professional working career when they decide to pursue the course, they should ideally choose a community college that is close to their home or work so that they do not have to spend a lot of time commuting.
  • However, students should not choose a community college based on just its proximity to them. They should make sure that the college offers them the type of program that they desire.

2) Program Selection and Courses Offered

  • Students also look at the type of programs offered by the community colleges they are interested in attending, depending on the career field they want to go into after graduation.
  • Several community colleges offer students the option of transferring their credits to a four-year traditional college to enable them to earn their bachelor’s degree. Interested students should carefully study the articulation agreements that these community colleges have with traditional colleges before enrolling.
  • Such students should always read the documentation of the traditional college they want to go to instead of the community college since the traditional college will have the final say when students go to transfer their credits from the community college.
  • If students have more than one community college that meets their needs in terms of programs offered or articulation agreements, they should conduct research into the various courses offered by the community colleges.

3) Cost

  • Since community colleges are significantly more affordable than traditional colleges, the cost is already a major factor and one of the main reasons for choosing a community college over a traditional four-year college.
  • However, students should keep a few things regarding cost in mind while choosing a community college. One is the variance in tuition fees between community colleges of different states. Second is the variance in tuition fees between public community colleges and private community colleges.
  • Even though the variance in tuition fees between public community colleges within the same state is minimal, the cost varies according to where the student comes from. In-district students always pay lesser tuition fees than in-state but out-of-district students. However, compared to these two categories, out-of-state students always pay significantly higher tuition fees.

4) Graduation and Transfer Rates

  • Once students find community colleges that are close to their location and offer the programs and courses of their choice, they research the graduation and transfer rates of these colleges. This research gives them a better idea of the strength of the college and the program they are enrolling in and enables them to gauge the level of ease in transferring to a traditional four-year college.
  • Students have several resources to conduct the above research, like the website of ‘Launch My Career‘ that allows students to search for specific community colleges and provides information on their graduation and transfer rates. The database of ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education‘ provides interactive data of the graduation rates of community colleges across the country and also breaks down colleges individually by state.
  • Students often talk to academic advisers at the community college they want to enroll in to understand the prospects of transferring their credits from the community college to a four-year college.

5) Quality of Faculty and the Student-to-faculty Ratio

  • The quality of faculty at a community college is an important consideration for students since it will eventually determine their academic results. Students often have to research about different professors at different community colleges. If they have campus visits scheduled, they should meet with the faculty members personally to understand more about their capabilities and teaching experience.
  • The student-to-faculty ratio is a related factor that determines the level of personalized attention that students might receive from their teachers in class.
  • Since learning is an individual aspect, students that prefer having one-on-one discussions with their teachers and instructors often prefer community colleges with a smaller student-to-faculty ratio.
  • The NCES College Navigator website is a powerful tool for students to measure the student-to-faculty ratios of community colleges.

6) Student Support

  • Unlike traditional four-year colleges that have a lot of campus activities or sponsored events that students can participate in, community colleges offer limited scope to students in this regard.
  • However, community colleges largely offer exceptional student support, such as career and academic counseling, remedial tutoring, day-care, financial support, and employment services. This is because the main purpose of community colleges is to bridge the gap between students who go to traditional colleges and those who cannot (hence opt for community colleges).
  • Students often look for the spectrum of student support offered in the community colleges before choosing one. The NCES College Navigator website enables students to understand the student support offered by various community colleges.

Ways In Which COVID-19 Has Affected Consumer Behavior Towards the Higher Education Sector and Community Colleges in the U.S.

When it comes to the higher education sector in the US as a whole, the COVID-19 pandemic has had little impact on the enrollment status of students already enrolled in colleges and higher institutions. However, there has been increased leaves of absence among students and a significant decrease in new enrollments. Economic stresses arising out of the pandemic might also affect the return of students during the Fall session, particularly those under ethnically diverse and low-income groups. When it comes to consumer behavior towards community colleges in the US, the overall mood is concerned but engaged. While the withdrawal rate is unchanged, the withdrawal peak has shifted, and more community college students are likely to change their class loads. Even though there remains an overwhelming appreciation among students regarding the support given to them by the community colleges, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of stress among students, particularly those belonging to African-American and Hispanic backgrounds.

Consumer Behavior Towards the Higher Education Sector as a Whole

1) Little or No Change in Enrollment Status of Students Already Enrolled

  • According to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there has been little or no change in the enrollment status of students already enrolled in higher education from the pre-pandemic years of 2018 and 2019. Most of the students already enrolled have stayed until the end of the spring term.
  • Even though the vast majority of higher education institutions in the US have transitioned to an online mode of education effective March 2020, there has been no apparent impact on the enrollment status of students that are already enrolled with their institutions.
  • Even the intra-term changes in enrollment status in spring 2020 has remained consistent with 2018 and 2019. In 2020, 12% of all higher education students increased their enrollment intensity and changed from part-time courses to full-time courses or a higher number of classes. The corresponding figure for 2018 and 2019 was 13%.
  • The increased enrollment activity mostly occurred in January 2020. However, the peak time for the other status changes, such as reduced enrollment, leave of absence, and withdrawal has shifted in 2020.

2) Increased Leaves of Absence Among Students

  • Considering the COVID-19 lockdown period and the extraordinary circumstances, considerably more students took leaves of absence approved by their colleges and universities in 2020 than in the pre-pandemic years of 2018 and 2019.
  • While the leave of absence by students was 0.026% in 2018 and 2019, it increased to 0.045% in 2020. The months of March and April 2020, saw the highest rise from the corresponding months in 2019, by 233.2% and 238.2% respectively.
  • There were variations in leaves of absence on racial and ethnic lines as well. While leaves of absence among Hispanic and African-American students across colleges and higher education institutions in the US were 287% and 206% respectively, the corresponding figures for whites and Asians were 70% and 59% respectively.Leaves of absence on racial and ethnic lines

3) Significant Decrease in New Enrollments

  • There has been a significant decrease in new enrollments in colleges and universities in the US owing to COVID-19. While there were 90,000 new enrollments in higher education institutions in 2018 and 2019 with their start dates in April, there were only 17,000 new enrollments in 2020.
  • Even the reduced enrollment intensity has peaked in April 2020, much later than in the previous two years. Across public institutions in the country, reduced enrollment intensity peaked for all races and ethnicities except whites.

4) Economic Factors Might Affect the Return of Students During the Fall Session

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has created several economic and other stressors that may affect the return of students to college during the Fall session. According to the Understanding America Survey, 23% of students enrolled in postsecondary degrees stated that increased family care responsibilities due to the pandemic might affect their ability to return to college. 23% of students mentioned the changed employment status of their parent(s) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 28% of students mentioned their desire to be closer to home as factors that may affect their return to college.
  • Several students earlier employed in part-time jobs may find themselves out of work due to the pandemic. Also, the changed economic scenario of families may affect the ability of students to purchase textbooks. Students would have to depend on financial assistance from their colleges to return during the Fall session.
  • The above economic factors would mostly impact ethnically diverse and low-income groups, rather than whites and affluents. According to the Understanding America Survey, only 3% of white students and 5% of students belonging to upper-middle-income households (annual income between $75,000 and $149,000) stated that they would take fewer classes after returning to college. However, 29% of Asian students, 24% of Hispanic students, and 18% of students belonging to low-income households (annual income less than $25,000) stated that they would decrease their classes on return. This decision indicates that these students would need financial assistance from their college.

Consumer Behavior Towards Community Colleges

1) Overall Mood Concerned But Engaged

  • As per the ‘Community College COVID-19 Impact Study’ conducted by TargetX in which community college staff across the US were surveyed over two weeks, enrollment trends in community colleges varied with geography. While the Northeast states exhibited pessimism towards COVID-19 and the future of community colleges, Midwest states exhibited optimism.
  • 67% of the respondents in the northeast states said that the community colleges in those regions were still determining whether to reopen their campuses for Fall 2020. In contrast, 40% of the respondents from the southern states and 50% of the respondents from the western states said that the community colleges in those regions were actively planning to reopen their campuses for Fall 2020.
  • In the above survey, while 45% of the respondents were uncertain regarding the future of community colleges, only 30% of the respondents believed that community colleges would witness an increase in enrollment rates, similar to what happened during the Great Recession of 2008.
  • However, as per the results of the survey, the overall mood and culture at community colleges remained positive, with 93% of the respondents stating that the mood was “concerned but engaged.”

2) Withdrawal Rate Unchanged but Withdrawal Peak Shifted

  • According to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, even though the withdrawal rate from community colleges across the US has remained unchanged from the pre-pandemic rate, the withdrawal peak has shifted from March to April in 2020.
  • As per the above source, 10% of all community college students in the US decreased their enrollment intensity in spring 2020. The figure for previous years is 6%.

3) Community College Students More Likely to Change Their Class Loads

  • As per the results of the Understanding America Survey, students in community colleges are more likely to change their class loads in response to COVID-19 than the students attending traditional four-year colleges.
  • While 15% of the students in community colleges stated that they would take more classes, 20% of the respondents said that they would decrease their classes. In contrast, 7% of the students in four-year undergraduate courses and 8% of the students in graduate degree programs said that they would take more classes. The figures for the students who said that they would take fewer classes are 8% for both the above categories.

4) Overall Appreciation of the Support Given by Community Colleges

  • According to the results of a survey conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement in which students from 25 community colleges across 10 states were interviewed, 88% of the students were appreciative of the support given by their respective community colleges.
  • With almost all community colleges shifting to an online mode of instruction due to the COVID-19 induced lockdown, more than 80% of the students said that their college had adequately helped them to adapt to the changes in instruction.
  • About 80% of the students were happy with the quality of support services provided to them by their colleges. These support services included academic advising, career counseling, financial aid advising, and access to tutoring and online library resources.

5) Economic Stresses Mostly Affecting Ethnically Diverse Students

  • The above survey made it clear that ethnically diverse students were most at the economic risk of dropping out or not returning to their colleges. Whereas only 14% of white students stated that accessing a reliable laptop or desktop computer was a challenge, 36% of African-American students and 24% of Hispanic students stated the same.
  • When it came to sharing a laptop or desktop computer with other family members, 46% of African-American students and 37% of Hispanic students stated in the affirmative, compared to 23% of white students.
  • However, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all students in more ways than one, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. In the above survey, 67% of African-American students, 60% of Hispanic students, and 44% of white students expressed concern about not having sufficient food for themselves or their families. Also, 70% of African-American students, 65% of Hispanic students, and 50% of white students expressed concern about their ability to pay rent, mortgage, or utility bills. The above situation indicates that a vast majority of students need financial support from the community colleges.

6) The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Caused Concerns for Students

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of concerns for students attending community colleges. In the above survey, 76% of the students stated that finding a job after completing their education was their biggest concern.
  • The other major concerns were feelings of isolation (stated by 75% of the respondents), paying their tuition fees (73%), access to healthcare (65%), and access to mental health services (58%).
  • A majority of the students who simultaneously worked and attended college before the COVID-19 pandemic stated that their work hours have been impacted. Out of 74% of the respondents who worked and attended college, 61% stated that the pandemic has reduced their work hours. Out of these students, 7% have lost their jobs. Of the remaining students who did not lose their job or have their work hours reduced, 52% stated that their work hours had increased since the pandemic.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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