The Two-Year Attraction: Community Colleges

David Lombard Harrison graduated with an associate’s degree from a community college more than 30 years ago. “It was the perfect transition from high school boredom to the rigors of college curriculum,” he says of his experience. Like many students coming straight out of high school, Harrison had questions about his future. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get a degree—I spent time running a business and living as a struggling artist and musician. But it became apparent that education–and a degree–was my best chance to make a living that was both satisfying and challenging.”

Today, Harrison is Associate Vice-President for Legal Affairs for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. He describes his Associate in Arts degree as the one he is most proud of, and adds that in many ways it was his most difficult degree. “I was an indifferent high school student in a new high school with inexperienced teachers, and really needed that community college degree to help me learn how to be a good student. I think getting the associate’s degree was harder in many ways than getting my J.D. By the time I was in law school, I knew how to study, write, and have the discipline to perform well.”

Like many community college students, Harrison also credits the lower costs of community college with making higher education possible for him. “I was able to get two years of quality education, transfer all my credits, and never take out a loan.” After community college, Harrison attended an excellent four-year university on a full scholarship. “That start put me in a position to get a full scholarship to law school, which is relatively rare. From start to finish, I’m a product of public school education.”

Harrison’s experience with community college — creating a long academic career on the building blocks of an associate’s degree — is not rare, but it does challenge modern notions that community colleges are somehow the poor relations of higher education. A hundred years ago, “junior” colleges were intended to prepare students for their final two years of university. Today, community colleges send qualified employees into the workforce, provide remedial education to adult learners, offer continuing education to life-long learners, and extend an open admissions policy to potential students who lack the means, the grades or the confidence to tackle the university admissions process.

In 2007, Washington Monthly magazine contributor Kevin Carey published America’s Best Community Colleges, an article that ranked the nation’s top 30 community colleges. In his research, Carey discovered that some community colleges were providing a better education to its students than many four-year universities. North Carolina’s Southwestern Community College (#4), South Piedmont College (#14), and Martin Community College (#19) made the top 20. Unlike four-year programs, community colleges make the results of student surveys public, offering a transparent look at whether or not any given school is applying research-proven best teaching practices.

Over the past eight years, 28 North Carolina community colleges have participated in the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), gathering information about such benchmarks as student effort, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, learning support and academic challenge. Parents and students can now search for participating North Carolina community colleges at CCSSE ( to find out how individual schools fared in those surveys.

Carey writes in his article, “Guides to four-year schools like the one published by U.S. News rely on measures that are only glancingly related to actual learning, such as the percentage of alumni who donate money or the reputation a school has among administrators of other colleges.” Actual learning doesn’t always factor into the college selection process, but it should. If we thought we could get similar information from our four-year institutions, it might make a significant difference in the way students and families pick schools.

Taking the Leap: From Community College to University Degree

A slight increase in transfer rates from community college to university suggests that more students are using two-year colleges as preparation for four-year degrees. In 2005, over 5,000 students transferred from community colleges to University of North Carolina schools. The number of students who transfer to private institutions is not centrally recorded, although 22 independent universities in North Carolina endorse the Comprehensive Articulation Agreement, which works to provide a seamless transfer from two-year programs to a four-year degree (visit for a list of participating private universities). A rise in transfer rates may also indicate that universities and colleges are doing a better job of communicating how the transfer process works.

According to Audrey Bailey, Assistant to the President for Public Information of North Carolina’s Community College System, “It is imperative that a student know to what college they plan to transfer and gather all the information needed to enter the field of study prior to beginning at the community college.” Ms. Bailey notes that Eastern Carolina University and Western Carolina University do an exemplary job at helping students understand what community college courses will transfer toward any given major, including what university courses are needed to earn a bachelor’s degree.

(For more information on Western Carolina University’s Western 2Step Program, visit or call 828-227-7317.) For students who plan to step over to a four-year degree, taking the “wrong” classes can cost money. By streamlining the transfer process, Eastern Carolina and Western Carolina universities minimize costly mistakes and send a message to potential community college students that they are respected, and wanted.

According to Ms. Bailey, there are many creative ways to work a community college degree, “Most of our colleges also offer 2 + 2 programs. This enables students to take the first two years toward a baccalaureate degree at a community college and then complete the university degree at the community college through either distance education or from four-year instructors who teach at the community college. There are hundreds of students who graduate from a four-year institution and the first time they set foot on the campus is when they receive their degree.” That’s an important feature for students who, for a variety of reasons, cannot commute or move to four-year universities.

Shoring Up College Credits During High School

North Carolina has 58 community colleges and runs the third largest system of two-year programs in the nation, enrolling more than 800,000 students in 2007. In past years, approximately 20,000 high school students transferred to community college, many of them working towards a college education in innovative ways. For decades, high school students were able to take college-credit courses in North Carolina, but a new initiative under Governor Easley promises to help make the process even more accessible, particularly through the Learn to Earn Online program ( As of 2007, 9th through 12th graders attending participating public schools can take online college-credit courses for free. In today’s world of towering tuition rates, it bears repeating that these college-credit courses are free — not just the instruction, but the textbooks as well. (For a list of participating community colleges and course offerings, visit By fall of 2007, an estimated 300 students had registered for 90 courses offered online; as the program grows, those numbers are expected to increase dramatically.

By 2008, approximately 70 North Carolina high schools will also offer Learn to Earn Early College programs, in which students attend high school at community college campuses and, after no more than five years, graduate with both a high school diploma and a two-year college degree, free of charge. (Participating schools are listed at

Universities Want Community College Transfer Students

Richard Shaw, dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, called “community college transfer applicants mature and interesting candidates.” According to New York Times reporter John Merrow, who is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford awarded 26 percent of its openings to community college students for 2007.
And Stanford is not alone. Other prestigious universities actively recruit community college transfers, although some studies show that the number who apply and are accepted is dropping. To help manage the financial transition from lower-cost community colleges to four-year universities, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides an undergraduate transfer scholarship of up to $30,000 for high-achieving students ( ), making it one of the highest scholarship awards in the United States for community college students.
In 2006, the Jack Kent Cooke foundation provided $6.78 million in grants to universities committed to attracting community college students, including Amherst, Bucknell, Cornell, Mount Holyoke, University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In return for the grants, these partnering universities agreed to contribute their own funds toward programs that support community college transfer students. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contributed $2.3 million, and created the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP), which focuses its efforts on students at Durham Technical Community College, Alamance Community College in Burlington and Wake Forest Technical Community College in Raleigh.

Community Colleges Offer a Menu of Opportunities

Community colleges offer much more than a stepping stone to four-year degrees, of course. Some offer unique programs that aren’t available anywhere else, often driven by local economic demands and academic specialties that focus on regional workforce demands. And in addition to the transferable Associate in Arts, Associate in Science and Associate in Fine Arts degrees, community colleges offer certificates and diplomas in courses from cardiovascular sonography to viticulture to air conditioning, heating and refrigerating technology.
To see the full list of courses offered at the different community colleges, visit and spend a few hours looking at the most recent Educational Guide Chart, a testament to the diverse, unique and essential nature of community college curriculums. Indeed, the quality of life in the state of North Carolina increases whenever a community college graduate takes his or her skills out into the workforce, where they show up in every imaginable sector of society, from hospitals, schools, courts, law enforcement agencies, farms, businesses, the arts, and the list goes on.
North Carolina leaders want every student in the state to go to college—a big dream, yes, but an important one — and community colleges play an important role in making that happen.

Did You Know?

For the 2007-2008 academic year, North Carolina was one of five states to offer the lowest community college rates in the nation. In-state tuition for curriculum courses was $42 per credit hour, or $1,344 per academic year. National average tuition for public two-year colleges was $2,272 in 2007. Visit for information about the 2008-2008 tuition rates which will be posted once they become available.

Unique Community College Programs in North Carolina

• Gunsmithing: Montgomery Community College
• Viticulture/Enology: Surry Community College, James Sprunt Community College, and Davidson County Community College
• Simulation and Game Development: Wake Technical Community College and Central Piedmont Community College
• Nanotechnology: Forsyth Technical Community College
• Zoo and Aquarium Technology: Davidson County Community College
• Shooting and Hunting Sports Management: Montgomery Community College
• Entertainment Technologies: Guilford Technical Community College, and Halifax Community College
• Gaming Management: Southwestern Community College
• Information System Security: Pitt Community College, and Piedmont Community College
• Film and Video Production: Piedmont Community College, Cape Fear Community College, and Haywood Community College
• Community Journalism: Central Carolina Community College

Web sites

North Carolina Community College System
Community College Survey of Student Engagement
NC Learn and Earn
New Schools Project
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Sheryl Grant is a Carolina Parent staff writer.