The growing importance of the two-year college recruitment channel in the US

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There are now more than 95,000 international students enrolled in two-year colleges in the US
  • Many are pursuing their first years of degree study at these community colleges, sometimes also referred to as junior colleges, before transferring to a four-year university to complete their studies
  • This has opened up an increasingly important recruitment channel for degree-granting institutions who are giving more attention to transfer recruiting in recent years

With growing international enrolment in the community college system in the United States, American universities are increasingly looking to two-year institutions as a source of international recruitment. Collaboration with four-year institutions through transfer agreements and joint marketing also allows community colleges to overcome a persistent recruiting challenge: helping potential students understand the “2+2 model” as a pathway to a bachelor’s degree.

In the 2+2 model, students complete their first two years of degree study at a community college, earning either an associate’s degree or enough college credits to have junior standing (usually 60 academic credits). At that point, they can transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s studies.

Building awareness of the 2+2

“The 2+2 transfer model exists only in the US and Canada, so educating markets is a constant challenge,” says Ross Jennings, vice president of international programmes at Green River Community College in Washington state. “Although the universities to which community college international students transfer to are definitely name brands, the community colleges are rarely so themselves. Therein lies the challenge.”

David Moore, dean of international education at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says that the community college system in the US became popular after World War II when students wanted to earn a college degree while living close to home.

“Other countries whose modern university systems have not been as broadly established or offer students as many options often think of a bachelor’s degree as something that you can only earn at a university,” Mr Moore explains.

Broward College has around 580 students at its main campuses in Florida, and also operates a number of international centres around the world. “We describe how nearly one half of all undergraduates in the US start in community colleges and that universities in the US welcome these students as juniors in their third year of study,” he adds.

Changing demographics

Other community colleges also highlight some important demographic trends in their marketing and recruitment efforts. While those enrolled in community college have traditionally been older, non-traditional students, the college population is getting younger.

“The trend that I’ve seen in the last five years is that many middle class families are asking where they can get the most value for their money. We have (consequently) seen a rise of high school students moving into community colleges. In Texas, the data shows that about 62% of high school students are moving into community college before they go to university,” says Nithyanantha Sevanthinathan, executive director of international programmes and services at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas. “That’s a very powerful indicator and affirmation to families around the world. If US students are going to community colleges, why not me?”

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, around 41% of all undergraduates attend community college at some point in their academic careers. Further, the Community College Research Center at Columbia University reports that 33% of students enrolling at community colleges transfer to a four-year institution within six years.

There is no similar data on transfer rates for the 95,000 international students currently enrolled at community colleges in the United States. Current data from the Institute for International Education (IIE) includes students enrolled in English language and other non-degree programmes in addition to transfer students. For example, some international students may take academic courses as part of a gap year or study abroad programme, while others are enrolled in shorter certificate or other vocational or technical courses.

However, many four-year institutions do provide data on their numbers of international transfer students. At University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), 15% of the transfer students enrolling in fall 2016 were international. Nearly one in five (19%) of the transfer students at the University of Texas at Austin in fall 2016 were international, and around 12% of the University of Washington’s incoming transfer students were from overseas.

While most domestic students plan to transfer in-state, due to both location and affordability, international students will still pay non-resident tuition so they are more geographically mobile than their domestic counterparts. For that reason, many community colleges – especially those with large international student enrolments – have dedicated transfer advisors within their international offices.

However, some international students pick specific states because they are interested in a particular transfer institution. In California, for instance, junior-level transfer students from California community colleges are given priority consideration for admission to the University of California system.

Transfer agreements as recruitment tools

Many community colleges have worked with four-year schools to develop transfer agreements, which they can in turn use as recruitment tools. Some states, such as Florida and California, have statewide articulation agreements between two- and four-year schools.

The state of Florida, for example, guarantees that students who complete an Associate of Arts Degree at a Florida college have the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree at one of Florida’s state universities or colleges offering four-year degrees, although not necessarily at the institution of their choice. The system standardises general education requirements, common prerequisites, and the course numbering system. This helps ensure transferability of coursework and assists students in transitioning smoothly between schools.

As we noted earlier, the University of California (UC) system gives priority to transfer students who graduate from state community colleges. Six UC campuses also offer a Transfer Admission Guarantee, which provides early admission notification and personalised advising.

While some states have transfer agreements coordinated at the state level, individual colleges also pursue direct transfer agreements with both public and private four-year institutions. The College of Lake County (CLC) in Illinois has recently launched a number of transfer partnerships, which includes both in-state and out-of-state bachelor’s institutions.

“The Guaranteed Transfer Admissions concept is a great recruitment tool for us because students and parents want to prepare for long term planning and success. They want to feel the security of a guaranteed pathway to their dream college or university. It takes the worry away of what will happen after they finish the associate degree….We are one of the only community colleges in Illinois with these types of extensive Guaranteed Transfer Admissions partnerships,” says Tammy Mireles, international recruiter at CLC.

International recruiting domestically

“Our partnerships with universities have grown as they have come to recognize the easy access they have to a good number of US-bound college students. As long as we have students coming to the US, these university partners will want to recruit students to attend their institutions directly,” Mr Moore says.

As we previously reported, large numbers of international students are concentrated at community colleges in states such as California, Texas, Washington, Florida, and New York. Community colleges in the same geographic area often coordinate to organise transfer events. In Florida, Broward College, Valencia College, Miami-Dade College, and Hillsborough Community College have hosted a transfer fair for the last four years that is attended by around 30 universities.

In the Greater Seattle Area, more than 9,000 international students study at the region’s 13 community colleges, including seven institutions on IIE’s top 40 list of the largest two-year host institutions. John Tankersley, an academic advisor at Shoreline Community College, says that the international transfer fairs hosted by Seattle area colleges have really grown in the last few years.

“This year we had so many RSVPs that we are having to consider limiting who can attend. We are considering options like renting additional tables for university representatives, but we maxed out around 130 and we had 183 RSVPs,” he adds. “The bottom line is that there is a huge desire to welcome international transfer students. Many four-year schools are seeing the density of international student enrollment in Seattle and finding domestic travel to be a good value versus recruiting overseas.”

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