In the last several months, community colleges have been in the spotlight in discussions of US higher education. In January 2015, US President Barack Obama announced his plan to make community college free for US citizens. And as of July, Tennessee and Oregon have become the first states to pass legislation to make education more accessible for their residents.
However, less attention has been paid to a smaller but significant population within US community colleges – international students.
Community colleges are an increasingly important pathway for international students to access US higher education, and they are stepping up their international recruitment to both increase their revenue base and diversify their student bodies.
In 2013/14, almost 9% – or 70,000 – of the nearly 900,000 international students studying on US campuses were enrolled at associate degree-granting institutions, as reported in the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) 2014 Open Doors Report.
According to IIE, the Houston Community College System currently hosts the largest number studying at the associate degree level, with 5,200 international students enrolled on multiple campuses across the city. Almost 20 other US community colleges host more than 1,000 students, with institutions in states such as Texas, California, Washington, and New York well represented.
The top five countries of origin for international students at US community colleges are China, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Mexico. Community colleges are particularly attractive options for students in price-sensitive markets such as countries in Latin America and emerging markets in Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam.
According to a recent report from World Education News and Reviews (WENR), for example, more than half of all Vietnamese students studying on US campuses start at a community college. Students from countries that have recently launched national scholarship programmes, such as Saudi Arabia and Brazil, are also increasingly represented on community college campuses.
The benefits for students are clear. Many schools offer intensive English language programmes that help prepare students for academic study and offer homestay programmes as well as on-campus housing options.
But affordability is often the main selling point. While international students still pay non-resident tuition, the price tag is often less than half of what it would be at a four-year college.
Charlotte Bui, an international student from Vietnam studying at Edmonds Community College in Washington state, said that she saw community college as an affordable way to start her US education. She is planning to transfer to a four-year institution next year.
“A few colleges like mine actually allow international students to take college-level classes while finishing their high school programme, which can save a lot of money and time. Community colleges have most of the general courses for all majors within the first two years, and have a lot of resources for students as well. All at the same time, their cost is more affordable than many four-year universities,” said Ms Bui, who added she is looking forward to transferring next year.
Indira Pranabudi, a recent graduate of Brown University, has already gone through the transfer process. She started her college career at Green River Community College (also in Washington state) at the age of 16 after completing her O-level exams in her native Indonesia.
“I decided to go the community college route as it allowed me to start attending college with fewer requirements, and it also eased my transition into college life at a young age. In hindsight, it was a clever decision given the circumstances, as I was able to make close connection with not only my peers, but I was also able to find great mentors in my lecturers due to the ease of communication brought upon by the small classes,” Ms Pranabudi said.
She did, however, note that one of the challenges for students – not just international students – transferring from a community college to a four-year institution is “transfer shock.”
“It is no secret that attending a new school requires time for adjustment – whether it be with friends, classes, or even extracurricular activities. After transferring, your peers will already be ahead of you in terms of relationships with professors as well as on-campus activities, and it can sometimes be tough trying to catch up in a university environment,” she explained.
A common recruitment strategy for community colleges seeking to recruit students like Ms Bui and Ms Pranabudi is to develop so-called “2+2” programmes with four-year institutions, in particular through in-state articulation agreements. Colleges also offer individualised transfer plans for students to make sure their courses meet university requirements. While domestic students attending community colleges tend to transfer in-state, international students are often open to a wider range of transfer options.
Community colleges in the Seattle area, for example, coordinate an international transfer fair every fall and spring attended by representatives of more than 40 four-year colleges from across the country. Many four-year institutions benefit from the concentration of international students at community colleges who are looking to transfer.
University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) is one of the four-year schools that regularly attends the transfer fair in Seattle, in addition to recruiting from local community colleges in California.
“We have found recruiting international students from community colleges to be very beneficial for our campus. Our experience is that the geographic diversity represented by international enrolments allows us to meet students from across the globe in one location,” said Lisa Przekop, director of admissions at UCSB. “Transfer students have had a little more life experience so they bring a nice level of maturity and they have also successfully completed transfer preparation so we know they can adapt to upper division coursework on our campuses.”
For fall 2015, UCSB received approximately 14,600 transfer applications, approximately 2,500 of which were from international students. According to Ms Przekop, the university enrolled approximately 200 international transfer students in fall 2014.
For community colleges looking to recruit international students, there are a number of strategies. Green River Community College, which enrols approximately 1,600 international students, employs three full-time recruiters and works with selected education agents. They also pursue a strategy they call “armchair recruiting”, which can be a good option for institutions with limited recruitment budgets.
“Most of our armchair recruitment at Green River consists of responses to web leads generated by our strong, multilingual website and from commercial websites that screen and send leads to us,” says Ross Jennings, Vice President of International Programs at Green River. “We also occasionally write or are mentioned in articles or publications such as Open Doors… Finally, many local community members approach us seeking to reach out to students from their countries of origin abroad.”
However, he cautioned that armchair recruiting should be a supplement, not a replacement, for other recruitment strategies. According to Mr Jennings, if community colleges are serious about building their international programmes, they will need to commit the appropriate resources.
Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is another institution that pursues armchair recruiting strategies, in particular through online channels. Broward currently hosts more than 500 international students on its three campuses.
“The current generation of young adults does life virtually. They’re mobile. Broward College keeps that flexibility in mind when reviewing strategies for international student recruitment. ‘Arm chair recruiting’ makes sense for us due to low-cost (compared to travel costs) and market penetration. Online platforms put an urban community college like us on par with much larger colleges and universities. We use these services as a branding strategy as students abroad are not familiar with Broward College or what a community college has to offer.
Success with an online platform initiative depends on how well you know your institution and its strengths, what your key goals are and having the support of administration in tactical implementation,” said Regina Carvalho, Broward’s International Student Outreach and Support Coordinator.
Broward’s other approach to internationalisation is a collaborative model with foreign partner institutions that offer the college’s curriculum overseas. Partners can become affiliates or centres by seeking accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Courses are taught in English, typically by local faculty in the host country that meet the qualifications required for accreditation and are approved by the college. Students in such programmes can receive an associate’s degree and transcript from Broward without ever leaving their home countries.
As we have noted recently, international students in many leading destination countries pursue a variety of paths to higher education, and may begin their studies in English language programmes, secondary schools, or two-year colleges. The enrolment in any such pathway or transfer programmes, whether via formal links between institutions or otherwise, is an important aspect of the host country’s enrolment base. In that sense, the increasing international reach of US community colleges is particularly noteworthy and could well lead to a larger role for two-year colleges in American education exports going forward.