Core Idea 2: Graduate from a 2-year college with an Associates Degree

By Rajkamal Rao

Go back to Checklist for Core 4 Undergrads

This page is dedicated to undergraduates - that is, those that want to pursue a traditional 4-year US education to get a BA/BS degree.

A little known secret, indeed jewel, in the American education system is its Community Colleges.  This system truly has no parallel in the world.

The US is a country of 50 states.  Each state is divided further into counties (parishes, in Louisiana).  Public schools - from kindergarten to 12th grade - are the responsibility of each county and are free, often receiving massive amounts of funding from the state and the federal government.

Community colleges are the next level up from K-12 education and are found just about everywhere, generally, at least one community college per county.  The mission of community colleges has always been the same - to provide education for individuals, many of whom are adults, in its service region.  As the US economy ebbs and flows, as US jobs are outsourced to other nations, as job retraining becomes a critical need - community colleges play a vital role in imparting continuing education to American citizens.  And they get lots of money from the state and federal government to conduct their mission.

The facilities are excellent - though not as good as one would find at a 4-year university.  Professors are not as qualified as at a 4-year university (most Community College lecturers have no more than a Master's degree) but their commitment to teaching is generally unparalleled.  Many teachers have day jobs working full time in industry and return to the Community College to teach.  In fact, many students who attend college are working full time in industry but are catching up on college credits to earn towards a BS degree.  The focus therefore is not on partying or having fun - but instead on learning and getting home to their families after they are done at college.

For a full list of benefits of a community college, click here.

Our best reasons for some students to choose a Community College over a 4-year college to complete the first two years of study are:
  1. As we noted in Core Idea 1, the only way to earn a US degree is to earn credit hours. Your return on investment is the highest when you complete each credit hour at the lowest cost.  By taking AP courses, you knock off 15-18 credit hours.  Completing 15 credit hours means you are 12.5% done on your way to earning that college degree (assuming 120 credit hours for a 4-year degree).  Not only do you learn more when you study yourself, you also do so in the comfort of your home, at very little expense.

    Extending this logic, it makes sense to learn the basics of your education at a Community College, by completing what the State of Texas calls the Core Curriculum. This is a set of courses that provides the knowledge, skills and experiences you need to succeed in college and in life. Whatever your academic or career goals, the Core Curriculum can help you to launch a successful future. By state law, as long as you maintain at least a C average, all 42 core credits which you earn at a community college will transfer to any state college or university. This official website provides equivalence tables between community college courses and university courses for your favorite college or university.

    At a community college, class sizes are small, students are dedicated, distractions are fewer and costs are lower. Tuition and fees at a community college are significantly less.  In our A primer on US College Costs, we said that, for example, the University of Texas in Dallas (a Public university) charges an out-of-state tuition of $15,189 per year.  By comparison, Austin County Community College, in Austin, TX, charges $9,720 per year - a savings of nearly 36%.

    During your 2-year stint at a Community College, you could complete 60-70 credit hours.  So you will be nearly 65% done towards reaching your finish line.

  2. Getting into a Community College is a lot easier than getting into a reputed 4-year college. By state law, community colleges are open admission institutions, so the requirements to get in are fairly minimal. If your English is relatively weak, you can even sign up for remedial English classes during your first year of study.

  3. Community colleges are generally located in the suburbs.  Costs of living in the suburb are generally lower than in big cities where big colleges and universities are typically located.  

  4. Many community colleges offer classes at night to accommodate students who have a day job.  This allows you to spend substantial time at the college library or computer lab to study; or even find on-campus employment.

  5. When you complete your 2-year college with all the required credits, you will earn an Associates Degree.  This is something you can be proud of.

  6. At this point, you have two options:
  • If you're a foreign student, you could work for a year on an OPT visa (we cover this in Core Idea 3). Given the long wait for green cards, this problem is particularly acute. Often times, the parent who is still on an H-1 visa sees that his or her child, who is still on a H-4 dependent visa, is about to graduate from high school. For some families in this situation, it may be a good idea to have their high school graduate children convert to an F-1 visa, pursue a 2-year Associates degree first and take advantage of Core Idea 3.

  • If you're a U.S. resident or citizen, or if you don't want to work after getting an AS degree, you can transfer to a 4-year college via an articulation agreement (we cover this in Core Idea 4).

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