Community colleges today are challenging the stigma that they are just backups to four-year colleges and universities. Instead, for students who want to pursue bachelor’s degrees, community colleges are essential stepping stones.
The Virginia Community College System is made up of 23 community colleges, and each provides an accessible, affordable education to students. A popular path to a bachelor’s degree is the 2+2 model, where a student attends a community college for two years, earns an associate degree, then uses those credits to transfer into a four-year university to complete the degree.
Here’s how to know whether the 2+2 model is for you or your child and how to guarantee success throughout the process.
Is It Right for You?
Why would you want to do this? There are myriad reasons why the 2+2 model might be the right choice, and they vary based on a student’s specific needs. Every student is different, and factors such as academic records, financial situations, and social or familial factors may mean that a traditional four-year college experience isn’t necessarily the right choice.
One of the clearest reasons why it may be worthwhile to start a college career at a community college is the price tag. Northern Virginia Community College, the state’s largest community college, charges $185.50 per credit for Virginia residents, or $2,226 for a 12-credit semester. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in its 2022-23 report on tuition and fees (the latest data available) said that students with associate degrees who transfer to complete their bachelor’s degrees can save an average of $20,065. “The cost saving is a very, very significant factor,” says Eun-Woo Chang, vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer at Northern Virginia Community College, which is also known as NOVA.
The community college experience can benefit students who may not be ready or able to live on their own without family members.
“Students might not be ready to go right on to a four-year school, or not be able to handle that,” says Joyce Draper, founder and owner of Draper College Consulting. “It is a big transition to go from high school to college.”
Draper says that students may need some “growing up” before attending college or may not be able to attend because of family illnesses or financial responsibilities.
With the community college system, students have time to ease into the college experience without going too far out of their comfort zones. They can take on some of the academic challenges while still living at home where they have the structure and support they need to help them succeed.
The academics of a community college may also be a better fit. Chang and Jennifer L. Nelson, coordinator of University Transfer and Initiatives at NOVA, says that community colleges often have smaller class sizes and more direct interaction with instructors compared to four-year universities. This more personalized setting is useful for students who need more academic support and gives students space to explore different areas of study.
“A lot of students are going to go into higher education not really having a clear sense of what it is they want to study,” Nelson says. “Coming to a community college gives them that opportunity to play around a little bit … take different classes, get different experiences, and really look into how their interests and values relate to various fields.”
Community college gives you a chance to try out a field of study to see whether you like it, and then switch to something else, if you don’t, with the help of academic counselors who understand the struggle.
But changing course is not just done at the community college level. Roughly 30 percent of students enrolled in an undergraduate program (associate and bachelor’s) change majors at least once within the first three years of initial enrollment, according to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, but having the extra support and less financial pressure can make that process less stressful.
Get on the Right Track
There are lots of things you can do during your time at community college to make sure you can achieve your transfer goals and make the process go as smoothly as possible.
According to Draper, the No. 1 thing students should do is meet with a transfer adviser during their first semester.
“A lot of times students think that the transfer process is something that happens at the end of their time at the community college, and really that can’t be further from the truth,” says Nelson. “The transfer process actually starts, in some ways, from when they first start at NOVA.”
An adviser will talk with you about your goals, whether that’s a specific college and degree program, or something more general, and then personalize your courseload to fit those goals.
For example, most colleges will have certain criteria that transfer students need to fulfill in order to be accepted. This may mean maintaining a certain GPA or completing specific prerequisite courses. Advisers will help students know and understand those requirements.
Help Along the Way
One element that makes transferring easier — and that will have an impact on the roadmap of classes in which you enroll — will be the partnerships community colleges have with four-year schools. Those agreements are designed to make the transfer between the two schools a smooth one.
These partnerships can take many forms and can vary from school to school. They may involve determining what credits will transfer and whether there is a guaranteed admissions program.
For example, NOVA and George Mason University have a partnership called ADVANCE, a guaranteed admissions program students can sign up for when they start at NOVA, and (given they maintain the GPA requirements and hit certain credit milestones) they’ll automatically be enrolled at GMU at the end of the first two years.
If there isn’t an existing relationship in place, that doesn’t mean you can’t go, it just means that you will need to communicate with that four-year school throughout your time at community college to ensure your credits transfer. Additionally, the Virginia Community College System website shows which universities and community colleges have partnered, and a new tool called Transfer Virginia, that aims to make the transfer process easy, accessible, and transparent.