Dear Mentor:

Can community college reduce the cost of a BS in the US?

I secured 1st position both in metric and intermediate examination in Karachi, Pakistan. Now I plan to take admission in a community college in the US. Is this okay? I am doing this because, as much as I know, I can transfer to a university in the US from a local community college more easily than if I were to transfer from here. It would be a whole new education system. Other than this, community colleges are pretty inexpensive and the universities are way too expensive. You can pay tuition of the community colleges by working part-time, as I've heard that one can easily earn $5000 in a year which is enough to cover the tuition. What do you say about 2+2 option; i.e you complete 2 years in a community college and than the remaining 2 years from a 4 year university? This sounds very good to me. Oh yeah, please tell me which is the best community college in the field of engineering and technology or computer science in Chicago. Also tell me if I can submit the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] score in place of the SAT {Scholastic Aptitude Test] score if I intend to take admission in engineering and technology or computer science. What are the criteria for international students for getting scholarships? Please answer me soon. I'd be very grateful to you.

Perhaps Too Excited, Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan

Dear Perhaps Too Excited:

You are obviously a bright student; it is no small feat to place first in a city like Karachi for any exam, let alone doing it twice for academic threshold qualifications. Very well done indeed! It is also obvious to us that you have done some research and thought through the situation in some detail, before shooting off an inquiry to us, for which are grateful.

You have indeed identified a way - not often followed by international students - to pursue a Bachelor's degree in the US. The reasons international students do not often follow this path are:

  1. At best, you only receive a "discount" on an extremely expensive proposition; that is, you still need to be fairly wealthy to undertake this approach.
  2. While the potential savings may appear obvious, they may not always be realizable.
  3. The approach has inherent risks.
Community colleges in the US offer 2-3 year long programs. Some of these programs are intended to offer vocational training, so that the graduates can enter the workforce upon graduation. Some programs at community college, however, are designed in such a way that the graduate can enter a traditional Bachelor's program upon graduation.

Transfer of "credits" for studies at a community college to a Bachelor's degree program to offset its duration - that is, to reduce the length of the Bachelor's program - is somewhat complicated. Transferability of credits varies across colleges - depending on which courses you took at a community colleges and to which colleges you are applying for the Bachelor's degree. There is not a standard, universal rule for the transferability of credits. Here are some examples.

The University of California at Berkeley, a prestigious institution in the state of California, requires that the transfer must occur for the Junior year (3rd year of the 4-year program); that is, you must have accumulated transferable credits worth 2 years of education. However, not all credits from a community college are transferable. Berkeley determines, by its own rules, which courses are eligible. If you went to the College of San Mateo, a community college in neighborhood of Berkeley, you would be able to transfer only about three-fourths of the credits. Effectively, you would end up spending more than 2 years at the community college for 2 years worth of credits for a Bachelor's at Berkeley.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious institution in the state of New York, has agreements with some community colleges under which the graduates of these community colleges can get credits for almost all courses they have done at the community college.

The University of Chicago, prestigious institution in the state of Illinois and in the city of your interest, allows the transfer to occur into any stage of the Bachelor's program from a community college. However, very few credits are deemed transferable. In most instances, the University of Chicago grants transfer credit for liberal arts courses (such as English, Mathematics, History, linguistics, and so on). Credit for professional or technical courses in fields such as speech, communications, law, nursing, engineering, journalism, business, and musical performance do not transfer.

What does it all tell us? It tell us that:

  1. The path from a community college to the Bachelor's degree is not straightforward.
  2. You would most likely spend more than 2 years in a community college to reduce your Bachelor's education by 2 years.
  3. The cost savings due to lower annual cost of tuition at a community college are offset, at least to some degree, by your longer that 2-year stay to obtain credit for 2 years towards a Bachelor's degree. These savings are further reduced substantially when you consider the total cost of education. The total cost of education - which should be your focus and not just the tuition -include: tuition, fees, room & board, books & supplies, transportation, medical insurance, and other miscellaneous costs. The total cost is much higher than the tuition alone. The costs beyond tuition alone range from $8,000 to $20,000 per year. By spending less money on tuition alone at a community college and spending longer time to offset two years of the Bachelor's degree program gets you much reduced savings at the expense of spending valuable time in your life.
Let us understand the impact on costs further. Even under the most optimistic scenario of 2 years of studies at a community college to offset 2 years of the Bachelor's degree, you get a "discount" for still an extremely expensive proposition. Here is an example.

A Bachelor's degree at Berkeley costs an international student approximately $15,000 in tuition and $15,000 in other costs per year, effectively $120,000 in total cost for the 4-year program. Assume you went to a community college for 2 years for which the tuition was $4,000 per year and other costs were $10,000 per year, effectively $28,000 for the 2-year program. Further assume that you are able to offset 2 years of the Bachelor's degree at Berkeley - an optimistic but unlikely scenario - you would still have to pay $60,000 for the remaining 2 years of Bachelor's degree education. The total cost, under this most optimistic scenario, is then $88,000 (=$28,000 for 2 years at the community college + $60,000 for 2 years at Berkeley). True, it is a substantial net saving of $32,000 (or 27%), but you still have to be able to pay the hefty bill for $88,000. Obviously, this is just an illustrative example, and you situation would vary and it can vary substantially.

While getting a discount is nice, you must still be able to afford a huge chunk of money. It is like wanting to buy a $100,000 Mercedes, for which you can get $25,000 discount; the fact remains that you still need $75,000. The moral of this example is that if you can afford the Mercedes, it is worth looking for the best discount possible, but if you can not afford it, a discount is not likely to help.

This brings us to the issue of employment, mentioned by you, to offset the costs. Your earning power from employment is severely limited due to your international student visa status in the US. You are allowed to work for up to 20 hours per week - but only on campus - while maintaining a mandatory full-time course load. There is no guarantee that you would find these jobs, let alone for 20 hours every week of the year. These jobs are menial - such as being a receptionist or secretary or re-shelving books in a library - and pay near the minimum wage around $6 per hour. Even if you find somewhat steady employment, balancing the full-time course load with 20 hours of employment may be challenging. Regardless, this form of employment can not come even close to offsetting your total cost of education.

Further, you must demonstrate your ability to finance your education and stay in the US before an international student visa is issued to you. Since the type of employment discussed above is no guarantee, you would be required to show financing without including any prospects of employment in the US.

Virtually no financial assistance is available to international students for pursuing the Bachelor's degree program, other than the type of employment discussed above. Some international students do get some assistance, but the number is minuscule.

The approach of first going to a community college and then for a Bachelor's degree has inherent risks. By going to a community college, you create an additional decision point in the process - that is, applying for admission as a transfer student - for which the decision may not necessarily be positive. What do you do then? The other obvious risk, mentioned earlier, is that you may have to spend 2 to 3 years in a community college to offset 2 years of the Bachelor's degree; thereby further reducing your savings significantly.

In a nutshell, you need to be quite wealthy to pursue a Bachelor's degree education in the US as an international student. You might ask: How do others, who are not wealthy, go to the US for higher studies as international students? The answer is: They go to the US for the Master's or PhD studies, for which the financial assistance is available to international students. The competition for assistance is fierce, so you must perform very well in your academic studies and on the entrance exam.

Let us deal with the TOEFL and SAT. Colleges and universities use the TOEFL to test your proficiency in the English language. They use the SAT to test your preparation for a Bachelor's degree program. The two exams - TOEFL and SAT - are completely different, designed to test your abilities for two very different purposes and thus, one exam can not substitute for the other.

Finally, you can find the List of Community Colleges in Illinois in the iMahal Worldwide Directory. The City of Chicago is in the State of Illinois.

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