Community colleges have long been an important alternative for aspiring students, from high school graduates looking to save money before transferring into a bachelor’s degree program to single parents that need flexible, career-focused training. The rise of online community college courses and degrees has only furthered the popularity of two-year programs, making it easier than ever to start the college journey. Keep reading to find answers to critical questions about cost, transferring credits and options after graduation. Also included is a section for new online community college instructors, featuring indispensable teaching tips and resources.

Compare Online Community Colleges Side-by-Side

As with traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, students want to know they have all the information needed to make an informed decision and find a school fitted to their needs. The following search tool helps students create a tailored list of online community colleges that takes into account important factors such as tuition, acceptance rates, student-faculty ratios, and the number of online programs available.

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Student Snapshot: Who Goes to Online Community Colleges?

According to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 39 percent of all postsecondary students were enrolled at two-year institutions during the 2014 academic year. Many elect to complete coursework online via community colleges with distance learning options, from single parents and full-time professionals looking to fit school into their hectic lifestyles to low-income college hopefuls needing to save on tuition. Here’s a snapshot of students who tend to benefit most from attending an online community college:

The Back-to-School Grown-up

Having completed high school many years ago, the back-to-school adult is often very committed to furthering their education, yet they also have other commitments to consider. Whether working full time or raising a family, online community college programs are highly appealing due to their flexibility.

The First-Gen College Student

First generation college students are highly motivated learners, yet they are often unsure of the process since they are the first in their family to walk through it. Online community college classes allow them to dip their toe in the water and familiarize themselves with how higher education functions while also earning a two-year degree at a fraction of the cost.

The Future 4-Year Transfer

Students who complete online classes at a community college in their state benefit greatly from in-state tuition, making it possible to complete half of a bachelor’s degree at a fraction of the cost. Because approximately half of the courses which make up four-year degree can be gained at a community college, this option is especially attractive for the cost-conscious student.

The Student With a Disability

Online community colleges are consistently growing in popularity amongst students with disabilities as these programs allow them more flexibility to learn in a way that suits them best. Online learning also means students with disabilities spend far less time seeking out accommodations to make classrooms or coursework more accessible.

The Re-Entry Veteran

Having spent four or more years learning and using specific skillsets, community colleges are often appealing to veterans for their focus on vocational skills and knowledge. Online community colleges also help veterans adjusting to civilian life ease back into their communities.

The Low-Income Student

The cost of an academic year at a local community college significantly undercuts that of a private four-year institution and allows many low-income students the opportunity to complete courses they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford without incurring significant debt. Students who rise to the top of their classes at the associate level may also qualify for additional scholarships if they choose to transfer to a four-year institution.

The Credit-Hungry High Schooler

Many high school students – especially those at smaller schools with fewer elective options – complete postsecondary classes via online community colleges during their junior and senior years. This option allows them to earn transferable credits while also cutting down on the overall cost of their college education.

Benefits of Online Community Colleges and Potential Drawbacks

As with any major decision about future educational and career paths, prospective students should weigh the pros and cons of online community colleges against their unique needs and learning styles. Students who require flexibility to complete their educations benefit greatly from this educational option, while those who struggle with time management and self-discipline may struggle. Use the table below to learn about some of the benefits and potential drawbacks of online community colleges.

Benefits

Career-Focused Curriculum

Community colleges allow students to focus on future careers without requiring additional coursework in unrelated disciplines.

Development of Foundational Knowledge

Online community colleges are excellent for students who need to establish or build upon the core concepts of several academic subjects.

Flexible Class Schedule

Asynchronous classes allow learners to complete assignments on their own schedule, while many schools also allow students to start at different times throughout the year.

Ability to Transfer to Four-Year School

A significant portion of students begin their collegiate career at a community college thanks to significantly lower costs and ease of transfer.

Continuing Education and Professional Development

Unlike four-year degree programs, associate degrees and certificates allow students to continue learning without committing years of their life to education.

Space to Explore Academic and Career Goals

Because many associate programs are considered entry or foundational degrees, they’re a good option for students who are unsure of their exact goals.

More Affordable

As you’ll see below, the cost of postsecondary education is a massive consideration for students, and community colleges almost always come out favorably in this area.

Potential Drawbacks

Subdued Campus Culture

Because students are interacting behind computer screens, it can be difficult to feel truly connected to peers and develop a strong school spirit.

Limited Program Availability

Since community colleges typically receive less funding than four-year institutions, their online offerings are typically not yet as expansive as universities that grant bachelor’s degrees.

Extra Accountability

Because you’ll never set foot in a classroom, discipline plays a significant role in ensuring your online education is a success.

Untranslatable Topics

While many programs translate seamlessly to an online environment, other disciplines (especially those that are visual or hands-on) may suffer in this format.

Computer Literacy

Knowing the ins and outs of a school’s learning software platform, along with common programs used, is a huge component of whether or not a student feels their time at an online community college was valuable.

A Closer Look at the Affordability of Online Community Colleges

Academic program options and extracurricular activities are important factors when considering a college, but a 2015 study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos showed that the price tag of an education also ranks high on the list. This survey found cost to be the third biggest consideration when choosing a college, and online community colleges can score very favorably in this respect.

In addition to money saved on tuition, online community college students also benefit from the absence of other expenses incurred by campus-based learners. Private room and board is often much cheaper than options offered by colleges and universities, and students also save costs on commuting and car maintenance.

The table below highlights the significantly lower cost of an online community college as compared to in-state and out-of-state public schools and private institutions. The numbers represent one academic year, meaning a bachelor’s degree completed at a private institution could cost in excess of $130,000.

Average Published Tuition & Fees for Full-Time Undergraduates (2015-16)
  • Public Two-Year In-District
  • Public Four-Year In-State
  • Public Four-Year Out-of-State
  • Private Nonprofit Four-Year

Note: Figures are enrollment-weighted

Source: CollegeBoard

Student Roadmap Through Online Community College

Students follow many different paths upon completion of their online community college degree, and this section is designed to provide a roadmap for students considering their options. Whether planning to go straight into the workforce or use their degree as a launching pad for further education, these milestone steps help students ensure they’re on track for a meaningful experience after community college.

Transfer Path
Setting a plan
in motion

Students who plan on transferring to a four-year institution need to ensure the classes they take will be accepted by their next school. If a student plans to stay in their state to complete a bachelor’s degree, they should find out if their community college has transfer partnerships (also called articulation agreements) with state schools.

Preparing for
next steps

Once a student has a grasp on how their community college credits transfer, it’s time to continue researching four-year universities and begin narrowing down the list. They should use this time to decide if they want to continue with a similar degree program and what the most important factors are when picking a school.

Finishing
strong

As graduation nears, students need to make sure all of their ducks are in a row for a stress-free transfer. Get in touch with an admissions advisor at your future school and also work closely with the advisor at your current school to make sure all applications, transcripts, and other paperwork is received in a timely fashion.

Direct Career Path
Creating a list
of objectives

Since degrees earned at community colleges take half the time of a bachelor’s degree, these two years can often zoom by quickly. Students with a clear sense of their career path should create a list of objectives early in their college career to ensure they make the most of their time in school. These may include finding a mentor, regularly attending networking events, or setting aside time to develop a new skillset outside of class.

Getting on-the-
ground training

If possible, students should complete an internship to gain experience and make contact within their chosen industry. This is especially true for online students, as networking opportunities may be harder to find.

Staying ahead
of the pack

As graduation nears, students should contact the career services department and take advantage of services offered, including resume review, interview practice, and tips on proper business attire. Students should then research job opportunities, update their LinkedIn page, and contact any acquaintances or colleagues that may have job connections.

Continuing Education Path
Staying two
steps ahead

Adult learners who want to specialize further in their field or branch out and learn a new skill may consider undertaking an online certificate program at a community college. Before enrolling, students looking to move into a new field or position should research if the continuing education program is enough to qualify them for future job openings.

Getting to know
your professors

Many students who elect to complete a certificate are looking to move into more senior level roles upon graduation, and oftentimes professors can help since they know the industry well. Even if a professor doesn’t have a lead, their recommendations can be very valuable on a job application.

Leveraging
your resources

At the end of a certificate program, students have new skills and knowledge and a network of peers and professors closely connected to their chosen field. Finding ways to leverage all of these resources and continue to make the most of the experience will help ensure their educational investment was worth the time and effort. Students should update their resumes, LinkedIn pages, and any websites to reflect their education and stay in regular communication with their colleagues.

Student Transfer Mini Guide: Making the Leap to 4-Year Studies

Transferring to a four-year institution after completing an associate degree is a perennially popular option for students, and for good reasons. Aside from cost-saving benefits, students can also take advantage of the flexibility offered by online programs. Learners considering this path likely have many questions about the logistics of such a transfer, and this section provides answers.

Why Consider 2-Year to 4-Year Transfer?

The average cost to complete an associate degree as in-district student came to $6,880 in 2016, while two years at a public or private school would cost $18,820 and $64,820, respectively. Although community colleges have gotten a bad rep as being less academically challenging, the tide is beginning to turn as more students in the top percentiles of their graduating class elect to complete their first two years at these institutions. Because the first half of a bachelor’s degree is largely made up of foundational, general education classes, it makes excellent financial sense to complete these at a lower cost before transferring to a four-year university to gain specialized knowledge.

How It Works

Students transferring to a four-year institution must submit their community college transcript for review after final grades arrive. While some schools have articulation agreements with community colleges that allow for easy transfer of courses, students outside of these agreements must have their transcripts analyzed. Depending on course content and GPAs, admissions advisors decide how many courses transfer. Under best circumstances, students can begin their first semester as a junior. Some students may need to retake classes if they don’t transfer.

Must-Knows About Transferring
  • Make sure your associate degree is transfer-friendly.

    Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees are generally considered terminal degrees and are designed for students who want to directly enter the workforce, while Associate of Science (AS) and Associate of Arts (AA) degrees are typically transferable.

  • Some schools have more room for transfers than others.

    Especially true for small schools or those that don’t have large graduating classes, prospective transfer students should research rates of admission to understand their chance of being accepted.

  • Online programs are available at every level.

    Community college students who took advantage of online classes can often continue in a similar path of learning once they transfer. Because four-year institutions traditionally have larger budgets, they may even have access to a wider array of courses and degree programs.

  • GPA scores matter.

    Since college entrance exams are designed to capture a student’s knowledge when they are in high school, these scores matter less for transfer students. College admissions panels place more weight on grades for classes taken at a student’s previous school, making it paramount to keep GPAs as high as possible.

Transfer Glossary
  • 2+2 Transfer.

    Also known as the 2+2 model, this is the most popular transfer option, allowing students to complete two years at a community college and two years at a four-year university.

  • Articulation Agreement.

    The process used to determine if coursework at a community college is equivalent to the offerings at a four-year institution and whether or not previously earned credit will transfer. In some states, this agreement guarantees admission to partner universities.

  • Degree Audit.

    Analyzes the requirements of a chosen degree path alongside courses students have already completed in order to provide a progress report for the student.

  • Reverse Transferring.

    This option exists for students who did not finish their associate degree program at a community college and decided to continue their education at the university level. After the necessary courses are completed at a four-year institution, they are reverse transferred back to the community college – thereby allowing students to earn their associate degree.

Resources for Future and Current Online Community College Students

Looking for the best resources for online community college students? This list presents a well-rounded collection of websites and applications to enhance your college research and make sure your time in school goes smoothly once enrolled.

Future Students
10 Truths About Community College Every Student Should Know

Noodle provides this informative look at how to make the most of online community college courses.

Community College: A Viable Option

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling takes a look at why this type of institution is appealing to students from a spectrum of backgrounds and interests.

Community College FAQs

The College Board provides answers to some of the most common questions about attending community colleges, many of which apply to online students.

Current Students
BibMe

Get confused when using MLA, Chicago, or APA styles for citations? Bibme is a fully automatic bibliography creator to ensure students don’t get marked down for stylistic errors.

Essay Punch

This website helps students improve their essay writing skills and offers numerous helpful tutorials.

OpenStudy

This online social media platform connects likeminded college students to act as online study buddies.

Rate My Professors

Since online students don’t get the chance to talk to other students or meet potential professors in person, Rate My Professors helps them find out if they’ve got a good instructor.

Study Blue

This online resource allows college students to create online flash cards for studying without ever having to touch a printer.

The Online Books Page

Provided by the University of Pennsylvania, users can search more than 30,000 book titles that are provided for free online.

TEACHING MOMENT: ADVICE FOR NEW
ONLINE COMMUNITY COLLEGE INSTRUCTORS

New instructors for online community college courses may wonder about some of the common challenges they’ll face in this type of teaching environment and how to overcome them. The following section highlights those issues while also providing a list of resources to help them design interactive, engaging courses.

Common Challenges of Teaching a Community College Class Online (And How to Solve Them)
img
1
Not understanding the Course Management System (CMS)

Because community colleges are relatively new to online learning platforms, teachers at these schools may feel overwhelmed when navigating the variety of features available to them.

Solution: Programs like BlackBoard, Moodle and Desire2Learn all have comprehensive tutorials on how to make the most out of the CMS.

2
Finding ways to engage with your students

Because teachers likely never meet their class face-to-face, finding ways to engage them through a computer screen is one of the first challenges instructors often note.

Solution: Rather than thinking of technology as a hindrance, use the massive amount of resources at your disposal to create new ways of engagement through forum discussions, webcam chats, or Skype sessions.

3
Assigning virtual resources

Teachers accustomed to providing book lists and having a brick-and-mortar library to point their students to may feel flustered the first time they design an online class syllabus.

Solution: When books aren’t an option, harness the vast amount of resources available online – ranging from articles to full publications to instructional videos.

4
Managing your time

Much like students, teachers transitioning to online teaching must find ways to manage and balance their time – often while also teaching campus-based classes.

Solution: Google Calendar is an excellent, free option that is web-based and can be synced to other devices.

5
Translating room-based activities onto the web

Most teachers have an arsenal of teaching techniques and activities they use to engage students, such as small group discussions, presentations, and guest speakers. Finding ways to translate these activities to a web-based course can be a challenge, but there are resources available.

Solution: Cincinnati State provides a list of the 15 best activities for online community college teachers to engage their students in a distance learning environment.

Must-Reads for Online Community College Teachers
5 Ways to Engage Community College Students

Shared by CMS-provider Blackboard, this article provides helpful ideas for bringing online community college students together.

Engaging Practices, Engaging Students

The Center for Community College Student Engagement offers this exhaustive resource on high-impact practice for engaging community college students.

How Can We Meet the Unique Challenges of Community Colleges in the Online Environment?

This article by Online Learning Consortium addresses the question that’s on the mind of online community college instructors across the nation.

Online and Engaged

This article by University Business addresses how to best engage distance learners enrolled at community colleges.

Using Technology to Engage the Nontraditional Student

Educause looks at the best ways to engage students who haven’t been in school for a while.