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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Because you’ll never set foot in a classroom, discipline plays a significant role in ensuring your online education is a success.
While many programs translate seamlessly to an online environment, other disciplines (especially those that are visual or hands-on) may suffer in this format.
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
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.
Direct Career Path
Continuing Education Path
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.
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.
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.
Analyzes the requirements of a chosen degree path alongside courses students have already completed in order to provide a progress report for the student.
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.
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.
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.
This website helps students improve their essay writing skills and offers numerous helpful tutorials.
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.
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)
Must-Reads for Online Community College Teachers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Engaging Practices, Engaging Students
The Center for Community College Student Engagement offers this exhaustive resource on high-impact practice for engaging community college students.
Online and Engaged
This article by University Business addresses how to best engage distance learners enrolled at community colleges.