And yet, only around 3% of international undergraduates in the US have attended community college – compared with 46% of students who graduated from a four-year degree nationwide in 2014. International enrolments at community colleges are eking up slowly, up 1.4% in 2013/14 and 4.2% in 2014/15 to 91,648, but this follows four years of decline.
The problem isn’t with the offering, says Jennifer Falzerano, director of international programmes at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Lane’s 400 international students are attracted by “many of the same reasons domestic students are: smaller class sizes, being taught by a professor rather than a graduate assistant, and lower tuition costs,” she says.
“Community colleges answer a lot of needs in terms of economic development for a growing middle class”
And there are usually fewer prerequisites for admission than at a four-year institution; some offer high school completion programmes, and most provide English language training.
But community colleges’ biggest selling point is the ‘2+2’ deal, which allows students to transfer into the third year of a four-year degree after two years, leading to a bachelor’s at a heavily reduced cost. Everett Community College in Washington, for example, offers guaranteed admission to Oregon State University, while its tuition fees (just under $9,000 a year) are a third of the price.
Meanwhile, acceptance rates for international students applying to transfer from a community college to an elite institution are far higher than for those who apply directly. Steven Hales, dean of international education at Contra Costa Community College District in California, says at one college in the district, Diablo Valley College, “We’re talking 5-6% [for direct admission] versus 34-35% for some schools – elite schools like UCLA, Berkeley.”
A viable option
“As you look across all of Europe, Southeast Asia and of central and South America – India as well – you see a lot of recognition that technical colleges and community colleges answer a lot of needs in terms of economic development for a growing middle class,” comments Mara Andersen, executive director at Community Colleges for International Development, a global network of community, technical and vocational colleges.
But there are nevertheless challenges. Awareness of what community colleges offer, though “pretty strong” in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, is lower in China, according to Ross Jennings, senior director of international education at Green River College in Washington.
“It’s really the nature of the beast,” he comments. Students use their home countries as a frame of reference and the closest equivalent in China, technical and vocational institutions, operate differently and are generally seen as poorer quality. “The whole idea that you can not take the equivalent of the SAT test and get to a top university is a stunning revelation to most people in China.”
“The idea that you can not take the SAT and get to a top university is a revelation to most people in China”
Even lower tuition fees can be a turn-off, adds Hales: “Sometimes [students and parents] view community colleges as cheap, so assume the quality must be bad.”
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many community colleges have yet to invest in international recruitment. “Some of it I think is a bandwidth issue,” explains Andersen. “In many cases you’re dealing with small offices that are doing a tremendous amount of work, and so self-promotion falls by the wayside.”
Routes to recruitment
US embassies, which organise events such as fairs and high school tours, can be valuable on-the-ground allies in overseas student recruitment – but support can be patchy, notes Alex Peterson, director of the Center for Global Engagement at Snow College in Utah.
“If you have an embassy where everybody just went to a university, oftentimes you won’t get much help or feedback on visiting high schools because I think the perception is ‘These families don’t want a community college; they want a university,’” he observes.
Meanwhile, EducationUSA, which supports institutions with their marketing efforts overseas, is resistant to the use of overseas education agencies, a widely-used recruitment channel for community colleges.
Marina Khan, director of Kazakhstan-based Intellect, which has been sending students overseas for 20 years, says that though its affordability and lower English language requirements make the 2+2 route an attractive option for students in Central Asia, it’s usually up to her to present the idea.
“Families very rarely say, ‘I want to go to community college’. Normally they just say, ‘Tell us what is available’”
“We as parents didn’t have any chance to travel abroad for education because we lived under the Iron Curtain and that’s why when families come to us, they very rarely say, ‘I want to go to community college,’” she says. “Normally they just come and say, ‘Tell us what is available’.”
A soft landing
One reason Khan feels confident recommending community colleges is she believes they provide a better student experience. Students may find themselves ‘lost’ at a larger, four-year institution, she says. “The most important for us as consultants is the level of care.”
“That’s where [community colleges] have strong services,” affirms Hales at Contra Costa district. “There’s really hand-holding in terms of counselling and advising students to transfer.”
Community colleges also help acclimatise students to the US education system, which can help later in their academic careers, argues Jessica Guiver, director of international undergraduate & ESL admissions at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where around half of international undergraduates come via community colleges.
“A big advantage is that they have already studied in a US college, so they understand the ‘American way’ in terms of what is expected of them in their college work, study habits, how classes and lectures are conducted, etc,” she explains.
Though awareness among international students is slowly growing, many community colleges are only now getting their international strategies into gear. “There’s a challenge to do more with less in terms of funding, and I think that’s probably a dilemma facing many community colleges,” says Hales.
“A big advantage is that they have already studied in a US college”
Colleges in states with a history of recruiting international students have a head start, and 43% are enrolled across just five states: California, Maryland, Washington, Texas and Virginia.
Peers, four-year institutions in and outside the US and private pathways are all vying for international students, and a growing number of universities are developing in-house pathways to provide the same soft landing community colleges promise to offer.
To address these capacity issues, some community colleges partner with private companies that help with recruitment and programming best suited to international students.
One such company is Quad Learning, which has developed a rigorous transfer programme that’s closer in style to university teaching and based on selective admissions, leading both domestic and international students from community college through into university.
Its American Honors programme aims to enhance the community college offer for schools who don’t have the resources in-house to do it themselves.
“In essence, what we’ve done is created a pathway within a community college,” explains Phil Bronner, its CEO. The programme incorporates global learning across the curriculum and there is a “huge amount of hand-holding” and counselling about subjects and navigating the 2+2 route. So far, Quad has 10 community college partners and is looking to work with more in future.
Planting the seed
Colleges often operate in close-knit local communities that stand to benefit from international students, points out Peterson at Snow College. Located in Ephraim, a town in Utah with a population of just over 6,000, the college has been enrolling international students for more than 40 years – a rarity for rural colleges.
“A lot of times people don’t have the experience of rubbing shoulders with somebody from a different country”
“We’re working to try and help open minds in small towns where a lot of times people just don’t have the experience of rubbing shoulders with somebody from a different culture or a different country,” he says. In fact, the college considers international students to be of such great value to the area that it has begun offering in-state tuition to the children of alumni.
This isn’t the norm, and there is a monetary benefit to enrolling international students. One international office staff member at a community college said that international students account for 90% of out-of-state tuition fees.
At Snow, some of the income from international student fees goes towards subsiding study trips overseas and within the US. The college sees access to an international education for domestic students, most of which receive some form of federal financial aid, as part of its mission.
Many colleges are now pushing for exchange agreements that will establish a two-way flow of students. Glendale Community College in California has even established sister city arrangements in Japan and Korea; while links with schools in strategic markets such as Japan is part of Contra Costa’s burgeoning internationalisation strategy.
Hales hopes the signing of MoUs will open the door to student exchange. Though “not a major injection in terms of numbers”, he predicts: “This can evolve into something richer, where there’s faculty exchange and other possibilities. It’s planting a seed in the hope that it will grow.”
This is the stage at which many colleges now find themselves. While some have been working internationally for decades, many are beginning for the first time. They are planting the seed, in the hope that it will grow.
- This is an abridged version of an article, which first appeared in The PIE Review, edition 12.