College strategy
February 26, 2017 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Situation- high school junior of middling to good grades with college ambitions and an eye on costs. One option is a year or two of community college and then transfer to a name brand college (think BU or NYU or such like). In real life, what are the chances, what are the possibilities, what are the best strategies to make this happen? And equally if not more important, what are the pitfalls and gotchas? (How good an idea is this?)

Bonus question - how beneficial would it be to take a summer college course between junior and senior year at a name brand college (Wesleyan or Yale)?
posted by BWA to Education (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I occasionally work at a local state community college and there are pipelines for exactly this sort of thing to happen. So it's not really that unusual esoecially if you are thinking CC - > BU and not CC - > Yale. The best way to make this happen is to do exceptionally well in community college and form good relationships with the advising office and let them know what your plans are. Community colleges don't take it personally if you want to go to a "better" school and will often work with you to try to make this happen. That said, it's always worth applying to the name brand schools anyhow, particularly if you have particular skills or attributes that might make you an attractive candidate. And the cost-conscious student should also look into state schools like UMass Amherst since graduating with a low debt load may actually open more doors for them than graduating with a good name on a diploma.
posted by jessamyn at 7:12 AM on February 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

I would warn against NYU for a cost-conscious student, since it's currently the third-most expensive college in the US (even before taking in to account the extremely high cost of living in NYC).
posted by Itaxpica at 7:15 AM on February 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Why not look at a transfer to a good state school? NYU and BU are two of the most expensive schools in the country.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:21 AM on February 26, 2017

jessamyn's answer is pretty much it. There are community colleges with established relationships with 4-year universities.

As an example, Piedmont Virginia Community College even has guaranteed admission to four year schools, including University of Virginia. There are GPA requirements and course requirements that are designed to give students the preparation they would need to be a competitive student at the university.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 7:27 AM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Community college professor and advisor here.

Common gotchas related to cc's:

1) I can't tell you how many students come into my office thinking they're going to take all their gen ed requirements at the CC, and wait until they get to the university level to start their major core classes. Wrong! Think of CC as the first 2 years of a university, and start the major requirements sequence as soon as possible. It's impossible (for most majors) to cram four years of major classes into two, even without gen eds. Courses have prerequisites or aren't offered every semester. I've seen plenty of kids go on to a university and it takes them 3 years after already spending 2 at the CC. And then their financial aid runs out...

2) Related to #1 - look at the university's degree requirements, and plan your time at the CC accordingly. Don't self-advise! Don't take any class that isn't a transferable class, if transferring is your goal and finances are a concern. (But if you can spare the time and money, CC courses are a great, cheap way to explore topics you might be interested in.)

3) But remember that CC advisors may not have your particular best interests in mind. They want 2-year degree completers. Two-year degrees are often terminal degrees (depending on major). So you may take classes to fulfill the requirements for a 2-year degree that won't transfer to the university. Some advisors (like me) will tell you this, others won't.

Helpful CC things to know:

1) CC's in your area will have transfer agreements set up with certain schools - usually state schools. Those really help - you'll know the exact requirements for transferring.

2) The benefit of a CC (besides the generally lower cost) is the smaller size. Take advantage of that. Get to know your professors and advisors. Get involved in school organizations. Be the big fish in a [relatively] small pond.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:33 AM on February 26, 2017 [22 favorites]

It's completely doable. If possible, you should be in talks with the admissions/registrar staff at the destination university pretty much every enrollment period to make sure all the credits the student plans to take will transfer cleanly. Even then, there are some universities that require a certain number of upper-level credits (at a 300 or higher level while all CC credits are 100 or 200 level) or require courses not offered at a CC that will effectively make the student need to take an extra semester or year or more to graduate beyond the overall four year expectation. There's also often a cap on the allowable number of transfer credits.

In terms of pitfalls, I'll also note that while this method can absolutely - if done well - save money, in my experience transfer students are not as successful academically as native students (though there are always outliers), and they also typically feel less of a sense of overall community with their transfer student body both as a whole but also in terms of making individual friendships.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:42 AM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is how I got my engineering degree. I did 3 semesters at a CC and then transferred to a state school (UW-Madison). SuperSquirrel's answer is awesome, and as they said, good advising is key.

One point though - although the CC was vastly cheaper for tuition, the amount of financial aid resources were much smaller than at the bigger school. I had access to bigger and (much!) cheaper loans and grants once I got into the UW.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:07 AM on February 26, 2017

To answer your question about summer courses at elite schools: these aren't helpful in terms of admissions. Students can definitely find it to be a beneficial or fun experience, but in the eyes of admissions officers, they are for the most part expensive educational camps (and cash cows for the institutions) that mark the applicants as kids who have rich and concerned parents.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 8:14 AM on February 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I transferred to a prestigious liberal arts college from a CC. It's doable! If your community college has an honors program or a Phi Theta Kappa group, get involved and connect with those professors and students. Find a highly-motivated crowd to hang out with. The advisors at my CC were clueless about transferring to out-of-state or private schools (which can work out to be cheaper than a state school in some cases) and talking to other students who had the same goals I did was much more helpful.
posted by horizons at 8:22 AM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

High school teacher and parent of three: one did CC and transferred, one just graduated from NYU and my youngest is going to UMASS-Boston in the fall.

Your plan is completely doable. Yes, NYU is INSANELY expensive, but my daughter got massive amounts of scholarships and graduated with little debt. She created her own major at Gallatin and ended up immediately being offered a job at Lincoln Center. But NYU is a VERY performance-oriented school. All of the kids at Tisch sing and dance and are immensely talented. Going to Gallatin allowed my kid to be a big fish in a much smaller pond and she ended up going on far more auditions than her friends. She also learned about marketing, hence the Lincoln Center job.

One thing I don't see in your calculations are college visits, which are what made the difference for all of my kids. We saw UMASS-Amherst, BU and a TON of campuses and my kids hated the campuses and lifestyles. As soon as one kid saw NYU and the other UMASS-Boston, the decisions were clear.

Another factor that mattered a lot to my kids was having the complete freshman experience. Living away from home with roommates and feeling like an adult was important. My CC college daughter hated when her high school friends returned and talked about their campus lives while she couldn't relate to that experience. She says in hindsight she wished she had just gone away.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:44 AM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

My daughter just did just this but even though she had a complete scholarship to the local CC she transferred in to her four year school for second semester of her second year for the access to prerequisites that she needed to get in to the particular program she wanted. What helped was that she knew where she wanted to end up and we had visited in person. The Admissions office at her school of choice was very helpful and she was careful to take classes that she knew fit in to her program and would transfer.

We did find out that aid we thought was available as it was unused first semester was no longer available second semester so we took a hit there, but the differential in costs more than made up for it. If I had to do it all over again I would have gotten with financial aid much earlier in the process.

As said above, good advising is key. If you are not sure of answers you're getting ask someone else. Not all advisers are created equal. And I would add that sometimes local community colleges offer scholarships to get a wider range of student in the door. My daughter would not have qualified for big school scholarships , but the local CC gave her a free ride as a Regent Scholar and she made honor society. Big fish, small pond but it allowed her to get in to a program that is very selective.
posted by readery at 8:46 AM on February 26, 2017

Bonus question - how beneficial would it be to take a summer college course between junior and senior year at a name brand college (Wesleyan or Yale)?

As others upthread state, definitely consider this if this is a thing your kid is dying to do. Otherwise, this is the time for your kid to really explore their interests. Get clubs up and going at school, teach art or coding to little kids, etc.

Bragging ahead: my youngest kid is academically-challenged and in his junior year started making movie shorts; two of them won Emmy Awards. Those Emmy Awards looked really good on his college application.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:55 AM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Professor and sometime chief departmental advisor at a four year research university here. Common pitfalls: 1- it almost always takes CC transfer students three rather than two years to finish up due to our requirement of four semesters of foreign language for the BA combined with asstastic advising at the CC level that the students only take gen ed classes instead of starting on the major pre-reqs. 2 The classes and culture at the CC are different from the four year institution. Students who transfer in are almost always surprised by the academic expectations. Sometimes they fail a couple courses and end up spending yet more money. 3. The four year institution where I work provides students with many, many more resources both financial and academic. Takeaway - students who seek out excellent advising and have a plan that includes expecting much more difficult classes once they get to the four year institutions could benefit financially- but in my experience that student is extremely rare.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 9:20 AM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I understand the potential benefits of attending a community college for some students, but if the warnings noted above that even with time at a CC it can take 3 years to graduate from the target institution it should be pointed out that, depending on the institution/major/student, it can be possible to graduate in three years from an institution like BU without spending any time at a community college: Getting That Degree in Three Years.

Highly motivated and disciplined students have all sorts of opportunities, whether via CC or accelerated graduation, that are not available to the usual kids who’re still working things out.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:51 AM on February 26, 2017

As many have noted, this sort of thing is possible. But.

I don't have experience with CCs but will certainly agree that expectations can vary dramatically even between four-year schools, and especially at the elite-ish level it might make more sense to enter the program with the other freshmen so as to have access to the various support programs from the get-go.

It's also the case that some of the value-added of elite-ish schools like BU or NYU comes from networking and other not-strictly-educational aspects of the experience, and coming in as a transfer student would reduce those. It's a gamble either way, but the money you save going to CC for two years might be penny wise but pound foolish.

More broadly, the first thing to do if you're thinking about college but keeping an eye on money is NEVER EVER EVER look at the sticker prices. Not under any circumstances. There are two things to look at: First, just about every college has some sort of net price calculator where you can put in your particulars and get a guess as to the total cost of attendance. This leads to the second things -- the total cost of attendance will be frightening everywhere, because it also includes living expenses. If you want to get a sense of what the net tuition-and-fees would be, subtract their estimated living expenses and "other costs" from their estimated TCA. I plugged in median-family-ish numbers to UConn and it came back with a TCA of about $18K, which implies a net tuition of about $2500.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:03 AM on February 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have to ask: BU and NYU are generally not in the business of accepting applicants with middling grades unless they're athletes or children of major donors. If the student is getting middling grades in high school, what makes you think they'd be able to satisfactorily complete college coursework at the level demanded by schools like that? I don't ask this judgmentally; I myself was a middling high school student (~3.2 GPA if I remember) who had a pretty successful college career (Dean's List, accepted to law school, 98th percentile on the verbal GRE at a state school that's generally ranked in the USNews top 50). So it's definitely possible. I just think you ought to examine why the stident's grades aren't better before dreaming about near-Ivies.

In my case, high school-level work (even AP) was too remedial, and I didn't have the attention span to care. The same problem dogged me my first two years or so of college, during my core curriculum stuff, but then when I got to classes that actually challenged me, my major GPA was something like 3.7.

If your grades are bad because high school is hard, though, college (especially BU and NYU) are a lot harder. Not to mention the distractions of college life, and the distractions of living in a city like New York or Boston.

I also agree with others up thread about the social aspects of the first two years of college. The college experience isn't just about the piece of paper you get at the end. It's largely about the people you meet. Nearly all of my close friends are people I met in college, many in my first two years. There's the networking aspect, too. If you're planning to transfer to a second-tier commuter school, it might not be a problem, but at the school's you're talking about, you'd be missing a major part of the experience.

Can you do it? Sure, of course. Many people have. Should you do it, though? My feeling is that you might be better off doing four years at a reasonably good state school.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:48 AM on February 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm also a community college professor.

I think everyone has covered the CC transfer concept above. This works really well for a lot of students. That said, I think there are major advantages to going to a four-year institution from the get-go.

1) Part of the reason to go to a Brand Name School is networking--the people who'll potentially be your connections for the rest of your life. 2 years may not be enough time to do this, especially since most of the people in a cohort will have already been there since the beginning of freshman year and have already formed relationships. And, if the student has any thoughts of maybe going on to a higher degree, relationships with professors are essential.

2) I take a while to learn my way around a place--physically, socially, conceptually, etc. Transferring means starting all of this over again.

3) After a while at a school, you learn about the culture and the pitfalls/benefits of the place: how to choose good classes, where to get help, etc. If a student is starting over again in this process after transferring, that means the time when they're going to make mistakes (not accessing tutoring, choosing professors blindly, etc.) starts over, too. But now it's in the critical junior and senior years of college, when they'll be taking many of their most important courses in their major, writing a thesis or doing other capstone projects, etc.

4) Many 4-year institutions, as ROU_Xenophobe mentioned above, offer significant scholarships and grants. In California, I sometimes talk to students attending a CC who could have gone to Stanford (!) for practically nothing (!!). Somehow, despite all the publicity over Stanford's changes to tuition charges, they and their parents just assumed it was impractically expensive.

5) 4-year institutions often have student health insurance, access to a hospital, on-campus clinics, and so on. Community colleges rarely do. It varies pretty widely, and YMMV, but particularly if the student has any health concerns at all, it's extremely important to do research into student health services.

6) Seconding everything that everyone has said about advisors. Some of them are GREAT. Some of them are focused on whatever mission Admin has tasked them with (and more and more, this is indeed certificate completion or 2-year-degree completion--which can be and tbh usually is an utter waste of time for transfer students). Some have outdated knowledge and no interest in changing that. And because many of them are adjuncts these days, due to horrendously short-sighted cost-cutting efforts, they may be working at 3 or 4 different schools and constantly on the road, meaning that they just don't have the energy or time to really keep up with all the different requirements. None of this is to say that advisors aren't helpful, but just that the prospective student HAS TO do their own research about requirements and courses etc. ("But my advisor said..." is worth nothing if there's a screw-up.)

All of these factors can vary wildly by school or campus, so it may all come down to what your specific local CCs offer. CCs are great choices for lots of students, and lots of CC transfers go on to do great things. But there are a lot of factors to consider that I think are frequently overlooked by prospective students.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 11:05 AM on February 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Something else to factor in -- when all the freshman come in together, all away from home for the first time, they do have a unique opportunity to bond and form connections.

Transferring in later on, you miss that chance and that's a HUGE part of the college experience. Coming in as a junior, it can be very hard to make friends and college ends up being an isolating experience.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:35 PM on February 26, 2017

Something else to factor in -- when all the freshman come in together, all away from home for the first time, they do have a unique opportunity to bond and form connections.

Indeed, my best friend in the world is someone I met on my first day in the dorms Freshman year. I'm still close with many of the people from that group, over 20 years later. My wife went all 4 years to a university, but lived at home with her parents in the beginning, and she regularly laments that she really missed out on that part of the experience (even though she was at the same school for 4 years). Clearly YMMV, but we both feel that those first formative relationships are one of the biggest parts of the experience.
posted by primethyme at 12:46 PM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Such a wealth of useful answers! Many thanks to all, this is extremely useful and just the sort of discussion I was hoping for.
posted by BWA at 1:47 PM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should also be considering how self-motivated this student is. Community colleges are often full of people who, for whatever reason, have not been able to and are not at the present time able to give their full attention and energy to their classes. They have kids. They have full-time jobs. They have other life problems or commitments that have kept them off the traditional track. Their previous educations may have left them severely underprepared for higher-level work. The exposure to diversity of life experience can be great, but if the student has high academic ambitions, she may not get a lot of peer reinforcement and support, especially of the informed variety. The student will need to be able to set her own standards (which in itself requires a lot of knowledge) and develop the discipline to adhere to them on her own (a problem even for many kids in more traditional environments). You would know better than us whether she is likely to be able to do so.

I also feel compelled to reiterate the words of those above who have said that it is madness to conclude that a CC will automatically be significantly cheaper than a good school. Sticker prices are meaningless at good four-year institutions. The only way to determine what she'd have to pay is go all the way through the admissions and financial aid process.
posted by praemunire at 4:00 PM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

"College rankings" tend to incentivize universities to provide better financial aid for incoming freshmen than transfer students. For example, in at least one "college ranking" system universities are scored on the average SAT scores for incoming freshmen (but not transfers). Consequently, schools may be more motivated to provide significant levels of merit aid for high scoring freshmen than transfer students.

Back in the day, I transferred between two private institutions. For me transferring was worth it, but the process wasn't easy. For instance, not all my credits transferred, and while New School gave me credit for the intro level courses taken at Old School, I found that I wasn't prepared for the intermediate level courses at New School.

IMHO it would be a more difficult transition (on a personal level) to transfer into an urban (vs a suburban or rural) university since it is harder to meet people when an entire city is "your campus."

You might find a college's "Net Price Calculator" helpful. In addition, try searching for "college name" + "common data set" (example).
posted by oceano at 4:13 PM on February 26, 2017

My daughter is doing this. Our local community college and state university system have an extremely well organized transfer pipeline which--if you know what 4-year school and major you're targeting--makes it easy to sort out what CC majors transfer into which 4-year majors, advising worksheets that ensures maximum credit transfer, that sets students toward completing the 1st/2nd year major requirements while still at CC, etc., all with a guaranteed transfer eligibility if all the boxes are checked off as far as your coursework and a 3.0 GPA. The flagship state school is extremely competitive for freshman admissions and the CC option is a great way for middling-to-good students to eventually get in.

A few potential pitfalls that I've noticed:

1. for a bog-standard major like general biology the pipeline is pretty clear and the courses you need to take as a 1st/2nd year student are widely available at CCs, but for some majors those core courses may need to be postponed until arrival at the 4 year institution;
2. a student who is a middling-to-good student in high school is not going to be miraculously transformed into high-performing "selective college" material thanks to 2 years of CC coursework, even if there's a pipeline to get into a selective state school.
3. The flip side of this is that a student who is indeed "selective college" material is probably going to feel unchallenged by the community college atmosphere, especially in social sciences/humanities IMHO.
posted by drlith at 7:02 AM on February 27, 2017

I highly recommend this route not just for financial but also academic reasons. Community Colleges often use adjuncts who teach high school, actually do the thing they teach for a living, or who also teach at private or more prestigious universities. I've taken meterology from a tv meteorologist, calculus from a high school teacher who was absolutely amazing at simplifying mathematics for weaker students without dumbing it down, and biology from a veterinarian who also taught at Cornell. Community Colleges frequently have how to study seminars and/or supportive study halls to help students who need assistance with the transition to self directed study and note taking. And on top of all that, by going to community college for a couple of years you can usually skip four year university residency requirements, which greatly reduces costs.

Check out a potential commmunity college's matriculation agreements. The one I attended offered full credit transfer to any college in the state system, including classes designated for majors.
posted by xyzzy at 7:25 AM on February 27, 2017

I work in community college admissions and have this advice:

+ Key words to look for: articulation agreement, 2+2 program, admissions partnership plan, and similar language about the exact programs that any two schools have coordinated in some documented way. Note that in many systems, signing on to a "2+2 type" program comes with nice things like meticulously mapped-out study plans, privileges to use facilities like libraries, and so on. Students at my college, for example, can do things like play in the university's marching band and stay in their dorms. Exact same fees and everything.

+ New college students are usually unaware they aren't just transferring to University X, but the College of Y within the university (e.g. the College of Education), AND a department within that college, and further, a specific program (e.g. Early Childhood Education with an emphasis in reading). Each level of these offers a chance to miss a crucial detail about transfer options. Sometimes, otherwise-similar programs in the same department may have different math or language requirements, for example.

+ Befriend advisors at both institutions, and preferably two that know each other and work together every day. Be a regular in their offices.

+ I love my faculty friends and respect them deeply. But many make incorrect statements about transferability. They point at last year's now-obsolete articulation docs still pinned to their bulletin board, among other missteps. They have varying degrees of engagement with and understanding of the "academic affairs" level decisions that shape articulation.

+ Lots of students transfer after just one year. That may change how various credits are evaluated, but for some majors, it's absolutely necessary.

I cannot stress enough the importance of communicating with program-level advising staff, preferably using someone at the CC as a kind of translator. Speakerphone mode works wonders, as does email.

Nearly every case of "evaporating credits" I've seen over the decades was the result of self-advising, changing intended majors without consulting someone, or something similar. Insist on someone outside the admissions office during the research phase - I consider myself a very experienced, careful, well-informed admissions rep, and I wouldn't dream of making promises about what will transfer and how without pulling in one of our many excellent advisors, who can always connect a student with someone at the destination school, too.

Final word about cost-mitigation: many high schools in the neighborhood of a community college (or some other four-year institution) offer college-credit classes right in their buildings. I'm not talking about AP or IB or such - I'm talking about concurrent enrollment classes, usually taught by high school faculty who have the requisite graduate training. These will go directly onto a college transcript. Basic gen ed stuff like Intro to Psych should be a slam-dunk for credit just about anywhere. More specialized classes require extensive research. AGAIN: check with advisors at multiple colleges, using the CC: line when reaching out.

Best wishes!
posted by Caxton1476 at 11:34 AM on February 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Community college admin here. I do not have much to add here because all of the advice in here is solid stuff, and I mostly just wanted to agree heartily with all of this excellent advice.

Can't stress enough how vital it is to make an appointment with an academic adviser when you're starting at a CC, especially if your plan is to transfer. Transfer agreements often require REALLY specific courses in order for the credits to be accepted and are usually aligned with a specific major.

Beyond that, I would just add that community colleges have a LOT of great resources available--scholarship opportunities, honor societies and programs, student life events, tutoring services, etc. Community college can be a great intermediary between high school and a four-year university for a lot of reasons (cost, fresh start, etc.) but I hope that rather than rushing through it as a means to an end, you stop and smell the roses a bit. You can really get a lot out of a community college if you take advantage of the opportunities while you're there. (Also: looks awesome on a resume/transcript.)

Also, if you do decide to do the full two years at a CC before transferring, please PLEASE apply for graduation and get your Associate's before moving on, even if you don't think you'll need it. A two-year degree is better than nothing if for whatever reason you get derailed in your junior year or something and you'd be doing your part to make your CCs retention and graduation numbers look good, which helps out big time when the state's budget is being drafted.

Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:15 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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