Community Colleges versus 4 Year Schools: Thoughts on How to Transfer Credits

“I applied to so many schools, and then for me to end up at community college is kind of devastating,”

That quote closed out an article entitled “Sticker shock: New college graduates, here is why your education cost so much money” By Liz Goodwin, Yahoo! News | The Lookout – Mon, May 20, 2013.

Since reading that article, I have participated in many discussions and meetings regarding tuition, fees, funding, and more often the cuts in funding.  Many friends have also inquired about community colleges for both themselves and their children.  As the days passed, that quote above started to eat at me more and more.

The cost of higher education has increased rapidly.  Regardless of occupation or ideology few, if any, would argue otherwise.  The reasons for that additional cost, however, may and can be debated from many perspectives.

This piece is not intended to discuss costs.  Most of the arguments that I have heard have some degree of merit in my opinion.  Every institution with which I have been affiliated has had some extremely efficient areas and others not so.  I’ve seen accomplishments with minimal funding and regressions with vast funding.  Friends in other professions make that same statement regarding things with their jobs.

Ending up at a community college is not “devastating”

As a student, professor, and administrator I have had direct connections with prominent research institutions, regional and state universities, and 2 year community colleges.  My wife received her undergraduate degree from a private liberal arts college before receiving her graduate degrees from a Tier 1 research institution so I have a little insight about private schools from her experience.  Fortunately many people realize but some still fail to accept that each type of school has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Honestly, I believe it is true that a degree from Prestigious U may help open a few doors to that initial employment while someone with a degree from State U may need to locate and open those doors for themselves.  Once inside, however, the issuer of the degree plays less of a role.  Likewise, different students may take career paths which appear to be polar opposite yet achieve the same level of success on the career front.  In some professions, the CC route may pay greater dividends than the Prestigious U route.  Also, some careers are best entered via the apprentice route than the classroom.  Simply, it is not a one size fits all answer as to the best path.

My focus here is community colleges and more specifically considerations for students with plans to transfer from a community college to a 4-year institution.

Some things may not be as they appear:

For many students the decision is financial as in most cases tuition and fees at a community college are typically less than that at a 4-year college or university.  The cost aspect, however, differs tremendously among regions and specific schools.  Therefore, one should not assume that a community college is the cheaper option in terms of tuition and still conduct some comparative research.

If you choose the community college route what can you expect differently from starting at a 4-year institution?

Again, much depends on the schools, but generally community colleges tend to be commuter colleges with most if not all students living off campus.  Most likely you will encounter a larger number of part-time students who are taking one or two courses a semester and not the four to six average as full time students.  Often a greater age range exists amongst the student population.  For example, I have taught a section with a home schooled 14-year-old student and a young lady who was 80 plus.  I would guess that approximately half of the courses I taught at community colleges had at least one student over the age of 50 years enrolled.  Some of the older students took courses for career reasons while others took courses out of curiosity or enjoyment as part of their retirement years.  On the other hand, I have taught courses at 4-year institutions in Fall semesters that consisted entirely of high school graduates from earlier that same year.  I’ve also taught a few courses at both community colleges and 4-year institutions where I as the instructor was the youngest individual in the classroom.  For my friends in science and technology fields, they often encounter being the youngest but it is unique for someone teaching history.


Similar to the age range, academic preparedness tends to vary more in community colleges.  That disparity also exists at universities and in my experience only research level institutions have the majority of students in a particular intro level course at approximately the same stage of readiness.  For those familiar with statistics, my final grades at community colleges tended to trend to bimodal distributions while grades at 4-year schools generally followed singular statistical curves.  In reference to specific students, however, some of the best I ever encountered were at community colleges.  Many of these students later transferred to prominent institutions for bachelor’s degrees, and a few have earned graduate and professional degrees from some of the more prestigious and selective institutions in the country.  In other words, it depends on the student, and I have taught both stronger and weaker students at every type of school.

Faculty quality is another area which varies from institution to institution.  It is a misconception that faculty members at a community college are inferior to those at a 4-year institution.  Many faculty members at community colleges have similar academic and professional qualifications as peers at 4-year institutions, and in many cases actually have stronger credentials.  The primary difference is the placement of the emphasis on the tri-headed responsibilities of teaching, research, and service.  For the most part, teaching will be the area emphasized at a community college with service playing a lesser role and research at a minimum.  At many 4 year institutions, research plays the greatest role.

As an example of the difference, one of my first tenure track job interviews I had was at a regional 4-year institution.  The teaching load was 3/2 which meant the professor taught 3 courses in Fall and 2 in Spring.  Two of the Fall courses were survey sections so you had two course preparations per semester.  I still remember the department chair apologizing profusely for the course load and promising that he would work to get it to a “reasonable” 2/2.  Obviously, the primary focus at that institution was research.  The number of refereed journal publications, works accepted by university presses, and presentations at major conferences meant more in earning tenure than anything happening inside the classroom or in committee responsibilities.

Unbeknown to me at the time, the fact the position went to the other finalist who had about 10 years of experience over me was a blessing in disguise.  By not going directly from graduate school to a similar type institution, I discovered that there are differences but many similarities at the different types of institutions.

The fact is that many professors at community colleges choose 2-year schools because they enjoy teaching.  In many settings the teaching load is 5/5, but success in the classroom is the primary factor in obtaining tenure or in contract renewals.  While service and involvement in the community is implied with the community college designation, my personal feelings are that the expectations and levels of involvement are not different as everyone, regardless of profession, needs to find their own niche in the area where they live and work.  The amount of faculty produced research at a community college is limited because of the teaching emphasis.  Still, some that is produced is of superior quality than that from professors at 4-year institutions.  Again, it depends more upon the individual than the institution.


Students, a little work early can save a lot of frustration in the future

Regardless of where you plan to enroll, verify that the institution is accredited by one of the accrediting organizations for the Council for Higher Education.  The majority of my firsthand experience is with SACS (The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), but I have also had affiliations with institutions covered by MSACS (The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools) and NCA (The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools).  There are multiple reasons why accreditation from one of these organizations is important.  Some reasons involve financial aid, but I’ll simply write that you want any credits earned to be recognized by other schools and for any degree earned to be accepted as legitimate.

As a student planning to transfer, I also advise verifying that credits received at a particular community college will transfer to a 4-year institution.  Some schools and states have different articulation agreements in place, but play it safe.  Contact some of the schools where you think that you might transfer and verify the information for yourself. It does take a little of your time, but it might save a lot of aggravation, time, and money in your future.

Generally, introductory and freshman and sophomore level courses which one would take at a community college transfer without major hassles.  Still there can be some obstacles which you might not expect.  For example, I have taught in some states where a student is required to have taken either of the two traditional American History survey courses (Pre Reconstruction or Post Reconstruction time periods) at an institution in that state for the credit to transfer.  Even if that student had previously taken the course at an Ivy League School, from one of my former graduate professors, or even from me at a 4-year institution in another state, the credit hours would not transfer by themselves.  To transfer the course credits, the student first had to pass a written exam on state history for either time period.  The state legislature had placed both US and state history together in the code which created that hurdle regardless of if you tried transferring credit to a 4-year or 2-year institution.  I’ve seen the same with American Government requiring a written exam on state government.

This type of issue can happen with any course.  In my field, at the survey level some institutions will not accept a Western Civilizations course in lieu of a World History course.  I’ve seen students have issues with lab sciences courses where some schools would not transfer something like Physical or General Science but would accept Chemistry, Physics, or Biology.  I’ve seen issues with foreign language courses and with literature courses as some schools will only accept specific languages or perhaps they will not accept a World Lit course when they only teach English and American Lit at the survey level.  This transfer aspect applies to credits received anywhere, even a 4-year institution to similar institutions or even to a community college for an associate’s degree.  Each school has its own little nuances which can be frustrating.

As a result one recommendation I give all my students and to faculty members in my department is that every student should make copies of the catalog description for every course they take.  I even take that a step further in suggesting that the student keep the course syllabus from the instructor.  Unless you are working in higher education, most people would be shocked to see how many courses across institutions are essentially the same in scope and content but are given a different title or labeled with a different prefix.  On the surface, one would naturally think the courses are different, but with that extra information given in the catalog description and syllabus a Registrar will substitute that transferred course for its equivalent in their catalog.  In the long run, those descriptions and syllabi may save you time and money.  If I combined the credits that former students told me ultimately transferred by providing extra information to their new institution, those credits saved would most likely be the equivalent of a few bachelor’s degrees.

Some community colleges promote smaller class sizes and that the courses are taught by faculty members and not graduate teaching assistants. 

I have mixed feelings here both statistically and in what is implied by such promotions.  Generally speaking the class size promotions tend to be true, but because of course demand and room availability I have seen community college courses with 200+ students in a section.  Some universities have survey level sections with greater enrollment caps than 200+ while others do not have the facilities to accommodate individual course sections with more than 25 students.  It depends upon the institutions and the facilities it has available.

Just because a course is taught by a graduate student does not make that instruction inferior.  At my graduate institution every instructor of record in the survey level courses had already earned their master’s degrees.  A member of the graduate faculty, often your major professor, served as your teaching mentor and in addition to providing guidance observed many class sessions.  One graduate student teaching obstacle is to not provide too much information for beginning undergraduate students.  Since you had not taken a survey level course for years, it is easy to fall into that overload trap.

Here’s what happened with me: 

I was lucky in that my first position was not as the instructor of record but as a graduate assistant to a Distinguished Professor.  It was a nifty way to promote that Full Professors in the department taught a large percentage of survey level students.  The course took place in a large theater with approximately 400 students.  The Professor delivered the lectures, and the graduate students handled all other aspects of the course.  We divided students alphabetically in terms of grading assignments and providing study sessions and answering course related questions.  We all met with the Professor to write exams and discuss the type of information we expected to be included in the essay answers.  Even though we knew the material, each graduate student took notes each lecture.  We saw firsthand how to condense material.  I remember a football player asking me why I took notes, and I asked him what he would do if he got a chance to hear a lecture by retired legendary football coaches like a Don Shula or a Tom Landry.  He quickly understood why the graduate students took lecture notes.

When I taught my own sections, that Professor asked me daily about what topics I planned on covering for my upcoming classes.  Once he had the topics, he would ask about my approach.  Then he would begin discussing potential questions from students, transitions to other areas, and the many different ways he had taught that same material over the course of his 40 year teaching career.  Even though I was a new instructor, I had the benefit of 40 years experience from an economic and agricultural historian along with 28 years experience from my major professor who was a southern, cultural, and political historian.  I may have been in my early 20s facing my students, but I directly reflected nearly 70 years of experience from two men who had received every undergraduate and graduate teaching award given by the university in addition to numerous research awards for approximately 40 books authored combined.

Both have retired, but their willingness to mentor remains strong.  Technology, students, and many variables encountered are different from what they experienced, but many of the same approaches and lessons they learned can still be applied.

Faculty backgrounds at community colleges are diverse. 

Many community college professors have taught full time at 4-year schools, but wanted positions that were more teaching oriented.  I think it is a misconception that a professor will become bored teaching only survey level courses, and those courses are somehow inferior to that taught by a professor at a 4-year institution.

The opportunity is always there to focus more intensely on different areas and to incorporate new research into the courses.  At institutions where I have had willing members in upper administration, I have sought to create many cross disciplinary collaborations.  Tying a history section with a statistics section offers both students and the respective faculty to provide tangible examples which lead to increased inquiry.  A history section tied with a literature section can further understanding as how the times impacted the writing or certain styles of art or music influenced and were influenced by the times.  We’ve even tied a course on the Cold War to Physics.  Such cross disciplinary teaching opportunities are rarer at 4-year institutions, and most of my own collaborations with professors in other disciplines at those schools have been research oriented.

Finding out which instructor to take:

As a student, I would look at the qualifications of your instructors, especially those teaching in the field in which you hope to transfer.  Prior university or 4-year college experience is generally a plus as an understanding typically exists on the tools needed by students to succeed in the junior and senior level courses.  Also, those with prior experience tend to have more contacts.  Looking for faculty members who are active in their discipline is another thing I advise students to consider about registering for courses.  Your course may be at a community college, but does the professor attend and present at professional conferences and remain current in the field?

Many peers disagree with me here, but I wish more schools would place some type of designation next to faculty members who are ABD which means all but dissertation.  Seriously, some of the best teachers I have ever met do not have a PhD.  They completed all course work, passed qualifying exams which in many cases are brutal whether they are written, oral, or in many cases both.  The fact that they did not complete an original contribution to knowledge in the form of a dissertation is no reflection on their mastery of the subject matter.

Let me note and emphasize, however, that degrees or anything I typed above guarantees a good instructor. 

I think it is fair to say that at most institutions, a student can earn a degree with a high GPA by taking the “easy” teachers.  Another student at that same institution can earn the same degree with a significantly lower GPA but be far more knowledgeable in the field or more employable because of the instructors that student took.

Also, many “easy” teachers are not easy because they give less work or grade less stringently than someone else.  They are called “easy” by certain students because the student’s style and the teacher’s style mesh.  I’ve been labeled both extremes, and I have listened to complaints by students about faculty members in my department where one student calls an instructor too hard and another in the same class complains because they feel the instructor is not challenging.  I remember an undergrad course which terrified me because the sole instructor was said to be impossible.  She was tough, but her teaching style and personality worked great for me, and I learned more from seemingly less studying than I did in other courses.  It really depends upon the teacher and the student.


One thing I recommend to students at community colleges is that they should introduce themselves to their professors.  I encourage that at 4-year institutions as well, but it always appeared to me that at the beginning of each semester I saw more students in faculty offices at the 4-year level versus community colleges.  In part that has to do with the commuter aspects and number of nontraditional students.  As instructors we would like to be able to put names on a roster with faces.  You must keep in mind, however, that you are 1 student out of possibly hundreds the instructor is teaching that semester, so do not take it negatively if you need to repeat your name or the particular section or course you are taking when speaking outside of the classroom.

It takes both teachers and students:

Whether it is a community college or 4-year institution, one thing is consistent.  What you learn is a two-way street or responsibility.  The student must be willing to work and to try and learn and the instructor must be willing to work and learn as well.  Some courses and instructors will be “boring” to a particular student just as some students and course sections will not bring out the best in the instructor.

The traditional 50 minute Monday, Wednesday, Friday course sections seem to go quickly while those 75 minutes in a Tuesday and Thursday section can seem like forever.  My advice is to try and take courses which you find less interesting on a MWF schedule along with those you find more difficult.  Subjects of a high interest are often best in the longer class sessions because the shorter classes often leave you with the feeling of being incomplete.  Night classes meeting once a week and courses taken during a shortened semester such as an intercession require additional concentration and perseverance to remain alert for the length of the entire class.  Class length though is another thing that differs amongst both students and instructors.  You have to find what works best for you and make adjustments accordingly.

Higher education is not a perfect system, and it is not entertainment.  It’s part of a continuing process along a winding path.  You might find something unimportant at the time, but you will be amazed at how what was so unimportant then is of the utmost importance sometime in the future.  The college path whether through community colleges or the various types of 4-year institutions may not be the right choice for everyone.  A lot depends upon your skills, goals, and career.  Learning, however, is something we all must do regardless of who we are.  There are certain levels to which we might strive and reach, but the process is for life.  Knowledge is something that cannot be taken away from you, and the right path for one individual may be the wrong path for another.

Some keys:

1)  If you plan or believe there is a possibility of transferring to another institution, try to verify that your course credits will be accepted at your new school.  Look at accreditations, articulation agreements, and contact the Registrar’s offices.  Course coding and descriptions vary so make copies from your school’s catalog and keep course syllabi which may make the transfer process simpler.

2)  Look at the credentials of the instructors.  If possible, try to meet the instructor prior to enrollment.  The instructors regarded as “easy” may not be easy for your learning style.  The “hard” instructors might be “easy” to you and prepare you better for later courses.

3)  Success requires effort from both student and instructor.  Styles of both students and instructors vary tremendously, communication is essential to maximize achievement.

4)  There is no “one size fits all” route or approach that is best.  Develop goals and take the time to speak with your instructors and other school personnel.  We have our own experiences and those of our peers, and we also have the experiences of many students prior to you.  Nobody will have answers all the time, but as professors our goal is to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that we know are ahead.  When the system works well, we will later hear about some of the pitfalls you found along your journey and share that information with future students to help them avoid those scrapes and bruises.  We all experience some obstacles, but sharing information can help transform some obstacles from mountains into small molehills.  Embracing lifetime learning may create opportunities that one cannot imagine beyond a dream.

The Big Question?  Financing a degree.

For a brief yet informative synopsis on navigating the maze of student loans, I recommend you read this article from Economic Professor Aaron Johnson.