The Critical Benefits of Online Community Colleges

How They Work, Who Benefits Most & Tips for Success

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Community colleges have long been a more financially viable alternative to four-year colleges and universities. There were more than 5.7 million students enrolled in public two-year universities in 2016, the American Association of Community Colleges reports. And with the rise of the digital classroom, more and more students are opting to enroll in two-year community colleges to begin their academic journey.

Community colleges are a great place to test the academic waters and save money at the same time. This guide was created to help students learn more about the online community college experience, from tuition costs to insight on how online learning programs work. Students can use this guide to determine if enrolling in an online community college is the right fit for them.

7 Reasons to Choose Online Community College

There are many reasons why students choose community colleges over four-year universities, but cost savings definitely is a primary factor.

  1. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of full-time in-state tuition at public two-year colleges for the 2016-2017 academic year was just over $4,000. That compares favorably to average in-state tuition cost of $7,800 at public four-year colleges. Of course, tuition costs are much lower at certain institutions, and much higher at others.
  2. For instance, tuition costs at Los Angeles Trade Technical College are an incredibly low $43 per unit. Average cost of tuition at all private, non-profit four-year universities, meanwhile, was $27,276 for the 2016-2017 school year. Students don’t have to mortgage their economic future with years of student loan debt for higher education when they enroll in community colleges.
  3. Tuition rates at online community colleges varies by institution. Many online community colleges accept students at in-state tuition rates, meaning distance learners don’t pay steep out-of-state tuition rates. That’s the case at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora, Ill., which charges in-state students and distance learners the same fee of $126 per semester hour.
  4. Other community colleges, meanwhile charge distance learners an “e-learning” rate, which is lower than out-of-state tuition but higher than in-state costs. For instance, in-state tuition at John Tyler Community College in Chester, Va. is $151 per credit hour. The college’s e-rate for out-of-state distance learners is $254 – which is 37 percent less than the cost out-of-state students who enroll in on-campus programs pay at $348 per credit. Distance learners often must pay modest technology and other additional fees that colleges use to enrich their online content and programming.
  5. Community college is a great place for students to dip their toes into college waters in a more comfortable and relaxed setting – especially for those students who weren’t strong high school students. Class sizes are typically smaller, so students can expect greater interaction with and accessibility to their professors that can help them perform better in the classroom.
  6. Students also can complete much of the required coursework for a bachelor’s degree at community colleges. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than 40 percent of students who earn baccalaureate degrees first earned associate degrees at community colleges. Community colleges typically have transfer agreements in place with various four-year institutions, so students who earn associate degrees can transfer as juniors and not have to repeat any general education coursework.
  7. Distance education at online community colleges allows for a greater school-life balance since students can study when it’s most convenient for them. Community colleges often offer night and weekend classes to better accommodate busy student’s schedules, another layer of flexibility that leads to better school-life balance for community college students.

Brandy Scarnati, program director for Truckee Meadows Community College’s WebCollege in Reno, Nev., says flexibility is a prime consideration for students who enroll at online community colleges. “A lot of our students work full time and have family responsibilities, but also would like to attend college to better their education,” Scarnati says. “By being able to take online classes, students can set their own schedule and study when they find time. Students may be able to fit in more classes into their schedule than if they were on a campus due to less travel time and the flexibility of completing the course work at home.”

Who Benefits from Online Community College

Historically, community college students are a much more diverse demographic than the student bodies at four-year universities, and that holds true for distance learners as well.

Students at online community college typically fall into the following categories:

  • Students new to the college experience
  • Transfer students
  • Returning students who have been away from college for few years or more and are wrapping up degree requirements or starting anew
  • Military and veteran students
  • International students attending college on F-1 Visas.
  • High school students earning early college credit

All of these student demographics can benefit from attending online community colleges.

Additionally, most community colleges have open admissions policies to help students easily begin their academic careers. This can be especially helpful for students who struggled in high school since they won’t need strong academic transcripts for admission like they would if they were applying at a competitive four-year university. Students also can benefit from taking classes part time so they can continue working full time to support themselves and their families.

Brandy Scarnati of TMCC in Reno says any prospective student can benefit from taking classes at an online community college. “Students take classes at a community college to receive their A.A. degree, which can be completed online,” she says. “Students also attend community colleges to gain the industry skills needed to receive a promotion or gain employment with a company. Students may also take online classes for personal knowledge and growth.”

How do Effective Online College Programs Work?

First and foremost, prospective online students should understand the nature of the digital classroom.

What it’s not

Picture boot-camp style training at a fitness facility. An instructor barks orders and instills motivation to help people get difficult work done. That’s not the case with online learning – there’s no formal classroom, so it can be easy to slack off on responsibilities since students don’t see instructors face-to-face. Students are responsible for self-motivation, and they can easily fall behind if they don’t establish a proper study habits.

What it is

A highly flexible learning environment that allows students to pursue higher education at their own pace. That said, time management and self-discipline are at a premium. Distance learners also must possess a modicum of technological savvy, since online courses require use of a digital content management system and communication tools such as email, chat and even video conferencing.

Here are several other important questions prospective distance learners often ask about online community college programs:

  • What kinds of support services are available to online students?


    Good online community college programs offer most of the same types of support services to distance learners as they do to traditional on-campus students. These include online student orientation, academic advising, career planning, access to online libraries and databases to support research, online tutoring, and even online success coaches. Many colleges even have staff dedicated solely for the support of online students.
  • What kinds of degrees are available at online community colleges?


    Generally speaking, community colleges offer associate degrees programs online when all the required coursework can be completed in a digital classroom. This includes study in areas such as business, communications, web design, general studies, language, and many more. Certain degree programs, such as allied health careers like phlebotomy or radiologic technology, can be completed mostly online. Students usually must complete required clinical or laboratory experience on campus or at an approved facility.
  • How do I apply to online degree programs, and what happens once I complete the registration process?


    Most community colleges require students to complete an online application prior to registration. They also may require high school transcripts to gauge student’s academic aptitude so students register for the correct classes. Once an application has been accepted, students can register for classes and pay for them. Colleges email online students prior to course start dates with instruction about accessing the college’s online course management system. Students also might have to complete a new student online orientation prior to beginning classes.
  • How will I communicate with professors and other students?


    Primarily through email, but also chat and even with video conferencing tools such as Skype. Online instructors usually keep regular office hours just like their on-campus counterparts so students can easily reach out to them when necessary.

Online Class Formats

Colleges deliver online classes in a variety of formats through content management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas or Desire2Learn. The formats mentioned below are the most common delivery options:

  • Web based
    • Classes are delivered entirely online with no face-to-face interaction with instructors. However, students still may have to take proctored exams on campus or through an approved proctoring service.

    • Hybrid or blended
      • Hybrid or blended courses combine traditional on-campus study with online learning activities. Students still meet with instructors, but “seat time” is reduced in favor of digital learning.

      • Web-enhanced or web-assisted
        • Classes are held on campus, but professors direct students to an online content management system for course syllabus, assignments, handouts and other course materials.

        • Cable broadcast or video lecture
            Courses are delivered through local cable television or via pre-recorded videos.

    There’s no set formula for the way community colleges choose to deliver online content. Students should check with their prospective community colleges about online delivery options and content management platforms prior to registration to ensure classes are delivered in a format with which they are comfortable.

    Transferring from an Online Community College to a 4-year School

    Community colleges across the country help foster easy transition to four-year universities through transfer agreements with select four-year colleges and universities.

    • Students who complete a transfer degree online at California Virtual Campus are guaranteed admission into any institution in the California State University System. It’s the same for students who complete an associate degree from any institution in the Virginia Community Colleges system – they are guaranteed admission to several dozen Virginia-based colleges and nine other colleges and universities as well. And the North Carolina Community College system has a comprehensive articulation agreement with public universities in the state that governs transfer of credits between the state’s public community colleges and universities. Students whose ultimate goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree should check with their prospective institutions about transfer agreements prior to enrollment at the community college level.
    • Students also should consider formulating a transfer plan by investigating potential transfer institutions and consulting with their academic advising faculty to select a major, learn more about general education requirements and all factors of lower-division curriculum that they can complete while enrolled at their community college.
    • Some community colleges also have tuition reciprocity agreements so that residents in certain areas don’t have to pay higher tuition fees. Lastly, students should take great care to ensure that their community college has regional or national accreditation, since colleges typically only accept previously earned credit from properly accredited postsecondary institutions.

    Online Community College Checklist for Students

    Students who’ve made the decision to enroll in an online community college should follow these eight steps as a checklist for what’s needed to become a distance learner.

  • Take a virtual campus tour
    • You may never set foot on campus, but many colleges offer virtual tours of their facilities.

    • Apply for admission
      • The first step in the admittance process is filing out an online application. Students also can drop by their prospective college’s registrar’s office and fill one out in person.

      • Research tuition costs, and scholarships and financial aid information
        • The struggles of paying for college has derailed many a student. Begin this process as early as possible to ensure you meet deadlines for federal financial aid and potential scholarships. Filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step.

        • Submit reading and math test scores
          • Colleges need to know students ACT scores to ensure they meet minimum competency requirements for English and math. Students who have been away from high school for many years should consult with their college’s admissions office – they may have to take placement tests. Colleges may also require high school transcripts.

          • Complete orientation for online classes
            • Many colleges require distance learners to complete an online orientation prior to registration.

            • Register for classes
              • Once students have been formally accepted to a community college, they are assigned a college account ID they can use to register for online classes.

              • Familiarize yourself with campus services
                • Colleges offer a wide range of student support services, such as academic advising, counseling, and online tutoring. Have these contacts bookmarked ahead of time.

                • Log in and begin your educational journey
                  • Login in as soon as classes are available through your college’s content management system, usually the first week of the semester. Students who fail to do so may lose their seat. Be sure to note all course requirements and deadlines.

    How to be Successful at Online Learning

    Online learning is not for everyone. Following these five steps can help distance learners excel in the digital classroom.

    • Plan ahead


      Online learners are strong planners and organizers. Make a weekly workflow schedule, and stick to it faithfully.
    • Set aside time for study


      Online learners need a dedicated workspace, as well as work time to complete assignments and study. Avoid time-wasting distractions such as social media and surfing the internet.
    • Engage your professors and peers


      Students can be hesitant to raise their hand in the classroom for fear of being the focal point for 20 or more pairs of eyes. That pressure and anxiety doesn’t exist in an online classroom. Ask questions. Reach out to peers and professors to give input, or for clarification and guidance. You’ll foster better relationships with instructors and classmates and feel more engaged with the coursework.
    • Work ahead


      Leave time for professors to respond to questions, and to learn course management software. Issues with coursework invariably come up – don’t wait until the last minute to begin assignments so you have time to address problems and come up with solutions.
    • Be dedicated


      This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Flourishing in an online learning environment requires an iron will.

    Students need to be self-motivated and need good time management skills. Online classes are not typically self-paced. Students need to realize there will be assignment due dates that need to be followed. A myth is online classes are easier than traditional classes – this is not the case. In online classes students also have to complete interactive discussions and group projects. Students need to check into their online class frequently and participate in online classes in order to succeed.
    Brandy Scarnati, Truckee Meadows Community College

    Additional Resources for Online Learners

    Here are 10 resources all community college and online students can use.

    American Association of Community Colleges

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