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US: community colleges aim to scoop pathway demand

Community colleges across the US are stepping up efforts to attract international students amid the flurry of pathway programme growth in the country.

Many community colleges are expanding their student services for international students, including accommodation. Photo: Green River Community College.Many community colleges are expanding their student services for international students, including accommodation. Photo: Green River Community College.

“A lot of students think it’s too good to be true because nothing exists like this internationally"

Historically, community colleges have been gateways to larger four-year institutions for students who wouldn’t have been academically prepared to enter via traditional application processes.

“The downside of pathways is that their quality is suspect. You have some really good students, and you have a lot of middle grade”

Now many are extending their offer of ‘2+2’ programmes– where students spend two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution to complete their undergraduate degree– to international students hungry for degrees from top US universities.

Colleges argue they are more affordable than pathways, offer more transfer options to top universities and provide a more intimate academic environment. However, they face the challenges of overcoming stigmas, providing adequate support services and getting visa approvals.

“We’re trying to raise the image of community colleges to show that the pathway is already laid out,” said Zepur Solakian, president and CEO of the Center for Global Advancement of Community Colleges. “Every new provider coming in they’re trying to create the pathways and at a much higher price.”

“A lot of students think it’s too good to be true because nothing exists like this internationally,” she added.

Open Doors data shows that international enrolments at US community colleges have increased slightly over the past two years (1.4% in 13/14, 4.2% in 14/15) to reach 91,648 students. However, this growth comes after four years of decline since 2009.

“We need to do more joint marketing,” said Solakian. “Most community colleges have very little to spend. That’s what we’re trying to do as an organisation, communicate with one voice.”

Nevertheless, Ross Jennings, vice president of international programs and extended learning at Green River College in Washington, where international enrolments totalled 1,750 in 2015 said the affordability and quality of community college programmes means he doesn’t feel threatened by pathways.

“The plus side of pathways is you get a whole boatload of students at one time, but somebody else is marketing,” he said. “The downside is that their quality is suspect. You have some really good students, and you have a lot of middle grade where to make it worthwhile to pathways they heavily recruit and if you can sign your name you’re in.”

Another selling point is that in most universities, “the class sizes in the first year are huge”, added George Beers, dean of international and distance education at Foothill & De Anza Colleges in California, which hosts 3,350 on two campuses. “At a community college all the teaching happens by full professors in a limited class size.”

Agents as well are beginning to promote community colleges as pathways into top four-year institutions. Andrew Chen, chief development officer at US-based WholeRen Education, said the company is actively promoting community colleges in China.

Citing the 10% increase in Chinese students in 2014, he explained, “All the growth of Chinese students is coming from the lower end of the pyramid. The top students are already going to the top programme.”

“Community colleges are better than pathways because they can provide students more options”

Chen said the agency sends about 500 students a year to community colleges but expects that number to grow significantly next year after the company launches its website promoting several community colleges as a group to Chinese students, offering a money back guarantee if they don’t transfer into a top 50 university.

“Community colleges are better than pathways because they can provide students more options. Pathways don’t have the risk of not transferring but community colleges have more options [of transfer partners],” he said.

Jennings reported that while it’s easier to sell the 2+2 transfer model to students, barriers still exist when they go to apply for visas. “I’d say part of the problem is relative unfamiliarity of visas officers with the transferability of 2+2 programmes. I think a lot of them came from elite schools and they kind of look at community colleges as the place for losers, but we get our kids into Ivy League schools, Berkeley, schools like that.”

However, of the 1,100 community colleges in the country, top providers are mostly located in California, Texas and Washington. Jennings said that despite similar transfer models, many colleges aren’t prepared to receive international students yet.

“The barriers to entry are significant, anyone can do it but to do it right is hard,” he said. “I think it takes about five years to build any momentum at all. You’ve got to put the kids first and then work backwards to try to plan what they need, recognising you’re not always going to plan for what they need.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article reported that total enrolments at GRC “have grown from almost none to 650 in 10 years”. That only refers to Chinese students.  Current international student numbers at GRC equal 1,750 students.  

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