Why International Students Should Consider Community Colleges

American community colleges offer international students a cheaper entry point into their higher education pursuits via low tuition rates on freshman and sophomore level classes, often with the added bonus of an easier transition to U.S.-style academics, experts say. Students then transfer to four-year schools to complete their bachelor's degree.

For instance, the tuition and fees at Diablo Valley College in Northern California are nearly $6,000 for 24 credits, while it costs more than $16,500 for the same number of credits at nearby San Jose State University. Based on two years of attending community college, the price difference and savings could be enough to pay for a student's junior year of tuition, fees, textbooks, and meals.

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Using those saved funds, students have a variety of college choices to choose from for the latter two years. Washington's Green River Community College, for instance, will attract around 100 four-year schools from around the country for a college fair later this month, including Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and Arizona State University, says Ross Jennings, Green River's associate vice president of international programs.

Nineteen four-year universities offer guaranteed admission to Green River Community College students, as long they meet requirements such as grade point averages ranging from 2.0 to 3.5 and complete a specified number of credits, Jennings says. Similarly, Diablo Valley College has guaranteed admissions agreements with most University of California schools, according to Gloria Zarabozo, international students admission and services director.

The exceptions are University of California--Berkeley, University of California--Los Angeles, and University of California--San Diego, Zarabozo says, adding that these schools and others do often admit Diablo Valley students. For instance, more than 10 percent of California community college students who transferred to UC--Berkeley for the 2009-2010 academic year went to Diablo Valley College. Concurrent enrollment is also offered for Diablo Valley students to take one course at Berkeley while still enrolled at Diablo.

According to Jennings, top universities recruit international students from community colleges because of their proven academic performance in college-level courses, English speaking and comprehension skills, and knowledge of how American school systems work.

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Proving academic performance helps students who didn't have high enough high school grades or college admissions test scores to get accepted into their dream college, Jennings says. He estimates that 90 percent of international students he recruits are attending Green River Community College to ultimately transfer to a more prestigious university, as defined by the students.

Community colleges generally offer English language classes to prepare students to take traditional college-level English composition, Zarabozo says. Tutoring services also help community college students build language skills, she notes.

Darina Pogodina, a Russian student at Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, has benefited from such programs. Although she already has a bachelor's degree from her home country, she's at Bunker Hill to improve her English skills, in addition to earning an associate degree and completing prerequisites for a master's program in the United States. She says her Bunker Hill professors "speak slower and are helping her feel comfortable with a U.S.-style education."

Since colleges vary in support for international students, it's a good idea for students to contact international services or admissions departments by phone or E-mail during the application process to ask about services offered, Jennings says. Students need to get a feel for how easy it is to communicate with college staff based on their current language skills, he says.

Choosing courses is also a crucial part of adjusting to U.S. college life. International students often do not get to select individual classes while in high school, Jennings notes, and may stick with the same group of students throughout high school.

When students have course options, majors may change as well as school choice for completing their bachelor's degree. Community colleges allow for a period of adjustment to American schools before incurring four-year school tuition rates.

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Jennings does recommend students start at four-year colleges if they were already accepted to their dream school. While visiting a prep school in China where 20 students were on their way to Green River, he met a student who was accepted to University of Washington. Given that her parents could easily afford the tuition, Jennings advised her to attend to the four-year institution instead of his community college.

Ultimately, he notes, students need to look at all of their options and consider what's best for themselves academically and for their family financially.

Reyna Gobel, frequently quoted as an expert on student loans and college costs, is the author of "Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life" and "How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt." She has appeared on PBS's Nightly Business Report and speaks regularly at CollegeWeekLive.