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Why international students should consider community college

interstride logo by Interstride
November 10, 2023

Studying in the US is a dream that many international students aspire to, but the reality is that this can come with a hefty price tag. The total cost of a bachelor’s degree in the US, including tuition and living expenses, can total anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000. That’s why more and more international students are choosing to study at community colleges in the US.

68% of community colleges reported an increase in the number of international student applications for the 2022-2023 academic year.  Affordability is a top consideration, but it’s not the only benefit of choosing a community college. In this article, we will explore the top reasons why community college is a great option for international students.

What is a community college?

A community college, junior college, or city college, is an institution that offers two-year programs to earn certificates or associate degrees. These colleges typically cater to both domestic and international students who want to learn skills that can help them get a job or prepare them for further studies at a university. Community colleges often offer various courses, including practical skills, language courses, and general education requirements that can transfer to a four-year university.

Differences between a university and community college

So what’s the difference between a community college and a university? The most notable difference between community colleges and universities is the level of degrees offered.

Community collegesUniversities
Associate degrees and certificatesBachelor’s degrees and postgraduate degrees (e.g. master’s, PhD)

Benefits of community colleges for international students

Community colleges are quickly becoming more popular with international students, who choose to attend these smaller schools before going on to full-time universities. There are lots of reasons why international students are making the shift. Attending a community college allows international students to ease into the US academically, culturally, and financially.

1. Affordability

Community colleges offer international students an affordable option to study in the US. You can save up to $61,000 when you attend community college for two years and then transfer compared to the expense of attending a private university for four years. Here’s a cost breakdown of average tuition for different types of US colleges:

Community college$8,210 per year for out-of-state students
Public 4-year college or university$27,091 per year for out-of-state students
Private 4-year college or university$38,768 per year for all students

Source: Education Data Initiative

Application fees may also be lower at community colleges. The average application fee for a four-year school is $45, according to US News, with many top universities charging $75-90 per application. When you apply to multiple schools, that adds up. On the other hand, community college application fees are often $30 or less, and many schools charge no application fees at all. Be sure to check the school’s international student admissions webpage for details on the international applicant fee and whether you may be eligible for a fee waiver.

2. Transfer opportunities

As an international student, community colleges offer you the opportunity to take higher education classes in the US at a more affordable rate. You can take classes at a community college, and then transfer the academic credits you earned to a four-year college or university. The number of credits you need to transfer varies depending on the university and program you plan to attend, but, generally, you will need to have completed at least 60 credits (two years of college) to be considered for transfer.

Almost all colleges and universities in the US accept transfer international students. Many community colleges even have transfer agreements with four-year schools to make the transfer process easier. International students may not have initially met the requirements for admission to the student’s university of choice while in high school, so starting at a community college can improve the student’s chances of getting accepted in addition to saving money on tuition costs.

3. Open access enrollment and rolling admissions

Some community colleges in the US use open-access enrollment/open admissions. This means they accept all students who have a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent certification as long as they have not reached capacity. You do not have to meet specific GPA requirements or submit a personal statement.

Many community colleges in the US also use rolling admissions, which means you can apply at any time rather than at just one or two points throughout the year as is the case at most four-year schools (usually November and January). Rolling admissions lets you complete your college application on your own schedule and gives you more flexibility in how much time you have to prepare for your travels to the US after acceptance.

This could also be helpful if your country’s academic schedule differs from the US. For example, if your school year ends in the winter rather than the spring, with rolling admission, you do not have to wait until the next year to begin college classes. Deadlines and enrollment terms vary by the school, so make sure to check each college’s admissions website for exact details.

4. Greater flexibility with language requirements

Community colleges tend to have less stringent language requirements for international students than four-year institutions. Exact requirements vary among community colleges. In some cases, you may have to submit an official TOEFL test score, but in many, you do not.

For example, at Westchester Community College in New York, international students can take an English language evaluation at the college. If they pass, they will be enrolled in their program. If they do not pass, they will be enrolled in the school’s Language Training Program to improve their English skills before enrolling in a degree program. In some cases, 2-year colleges offer language classes to help international students learn and improve their English skills at their own pace.

5. Smaller class sizes

Community colleges tend to offer smaller class sizes, which can provide a more personalized educational experience for international students. Smaller class sizes allow students to ask questions, speak up in discussions, and receive individualized attention when they need it. This could be especially advantageous for international students looking to improve their English skills and learn in a more intimate setting. At large universities, some students feel lost in the crowd and struggle to make connections. Small classes give international students an important space to connect with their peers.

6. Variety in program offerings

Community colleges offer a variety of programs just like four-year universities, giving international students more opportunities to explore their interests. Contrary to popular belief, community colleges do not have limited course options. Whether you’re interested in studying engineering or nursing, there’s a community college program out there for you. International students who are unsure what they want to study can make the most out of community college by exploring courses in a more affordable, less stressful way than if they were committing to a full bachelor’s program.

7. Additional OPT time

OPT is a program that allows international students to work in the US temporarily during or after their degree program. Students are allotted 12 months of OPT for each degree level. You can work for one year under OPT while you earn your associate degree at a community college. Then, when you transfer to a university for your bachelor’s degree, your OPT time will reset, and you will have another 12 months of work authorization.

Key considerations when choosing a community college for international students

There are over 1,000 community colleges in the US that accept international students. Choosing the right ones to apply to requires research and careful consideration.  Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing community colleges as an international student.

Location and sizeIf you prefer to be in a small college setting, you should choose a smaller community college. On the other hand, if you want a more diverse and urban setting, a larger community college in a big city might be a better option.

If you plan to transfer to a four-year school, consider a community college near the school you want to transfer to. This allows for opportunities to meet other transfer students and continue to build your social and professional networks in the same area after transferring.

Population of international students/diversityConsider the international student population and the general level of diversity on campus. This can impact your experience, including opportunities to learn about other cultures, socialize with people from around the world, and expand your worldview.
Resources specifically for international studentsInternational students have unique needs when attending college, so it’s important to choose a community college that provides resources tailored to this population. For example, some community colleges offer English as a second language (ESL) classes, career services for international students, and an international student services office (ISSS).
Scholarships and financial aid for international studentsSome community colleges offer financial aid and scholarships to international students. Check each school’s website to see what they offer.
Programs offeredDo you want to pursue a specific program? Check if the college offers that program. Also, consider the college’s reputation in that particular field. Some community colleges have robust programs, such as science, business, and engineering programs, that may interest you.
Relationships or transfer credit agreements with other schoolsDoes the college have agreements with other schools so you can transfer in credits? If so, this can make the transfer process seamless if you plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree later on.
English testing requirements for admissionDoes the college require an English proficiency test for admission? If so, what tests are accepted and what are the required scores?

Key Takeaways

Choosing the right community college can be a game-changer for an international student. Take the time to research different community colleges, weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each, consider your long-term goals, and prioritize your needs to make the best possible decision. Community colleges are an affordable and accessible option to make your dream of an American education a reality.

Overall, we recommend these students to consider community colleges:

  • Students who are concerned about the cost of a US degree
  • Students who are not fluent in English yet
  • Students who do not meet the GPA and/or testing requirements for a four-year school
  • Students who are still unsure what field they want to study