How to Stay on Track in Community College

Lots of community college students find themselves enrolled way longer than anticipated: the dreaded 7-year plan. Here's how to avoid a longer academic journey.

Students attend community colleges for tons of reasons: they want to save a few thousand dollars, they want to explore their career options, they want to prepare for a transfer to a four-year university. However, despite these good intentions, many students find they don’t make it that far, either failing to transfer to that four-year school or failing to graduate with their associate degree. There is even a saying around campus regarding the “seven-year plan,” because so many students are enrolled longer than they anticipated and often don’t complete their degree. Luckily, there are a few things that students entering a two-year college can do to get in and out of there on time.

Become a “continuing” student

You may not realize that students can get locked out of community college courses just as easily as they would at a four-year school. This is the first mistake students make. Those who wait too long to enroll will generally miss out on the majority of prerequisite and core courses. But there’s no rule that states a student must start their community college studies in the fall. Students can sign up for summer courses and take as little as one-unit classes; then they can become a “continuing” student for the fall semester. Continuing students sign up earlier than new students. Many courses are full within a few hours of being opened for enrollment, so every hour counts. 

Related: 5 Tips for Summer Courses to Avoid Ruining Your Break

Complete prerequisites and entrance exams

Yes, community colleges have entrance exams. Although not the same as the SAT or ACT, they are used to place students in the appropriate level for core subjects (like math and English)—also known as general education classes. If a student forgets to sign up for their entrance exam until late in the summer, they won’t be allowed to take their math or English 101 classes until the next semester. This can hold students back a full year while they deal with taking prerequisites and postponed exams.

Visit the academic counseling center

Many students don’t visit their college’s counseling center until they have been in school for a full semester. This is a waste of a valuable free resource. Students entering community college should see an academic counselor before they even sign up for classes and follow through on advice. This is especially important if you’re planning to transfer to a four-year school. Academic advisors are there to ensure you do your best in school—and every college typically assigns an advisor to every student. Connect with your as soon as possible for academic success.

Related: 5 Great Campus Resources Students Should Know About

Opt for eight-week courses

Students who would like to finish their community college classes in two years are advised to take the shortened eight-week courses. However, many students don't consider this. Although condensed and more time-consuming, the course material isn’t any more difficult than the AP classes students took in high school. Students could potentially squeeze in a full year of classes in one semester if they are able to attend as a full-time student.

Choose the correct transfer program

Many community colleges have agreements with universities located in the same state. For instance, if a student had their heart set on their state’s flagship public university but didn’t get in straight out of high school, they can often boost their academic record at community college by following the correct curriculum pathway and transferring to that four-year university two years later (and enter as a junior). Most college students also don’t realize that when they transfer, they’re competing with other transfer students, not with other high school seniors. However, students who don’t pick a pathway within their first semester will be studying at community college longer than two years.

Related: Use Your Associate Degree to Find a Four-Year Major

Community colleges offer truly rewarding programs, both for students looking to launch a career with an associate degree and for those who want to transfer to a four-year university. They are also a great place for students to learn the self-regulation and time management required to transfer and be successful at a four-year school. Students just need to remember to be strategic about their time at community college—both while on campus and before they arrive.

If you plan on transferring after community college, check out these great colleges to transfer to in the Midwest.

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