Pathways to U.S. Degrees

U.S. community colleges attract international students with their competitive exposure, support services and easy university transfers.

By Paromita Pain

April 2023

Pathways to U.S. Degrees

Foothill + De Anza Colleges have over 100 Indian students. Overall, 8 to 10 percent of the total students are international. (Photograph courtesy Deepali Shah)

For international students, community colleges are often viable options for the diversity of opportunities and support they provide to students. 

Rushil Sharma, an alumnus of Green River College (GRC), a public community college with its main campus in Auburn, Washington, is a case in point. “Archaeology was the only major I was ever interested in,” he says. “However, at GRC, I discovered I also had a penchant for dramatics.” He participated in many volunteer activities and took on-campus paid jobs. “As vice president of Peer Volunteers, I developed leadership skills and my trips to Native American reservations helped me appreciate anthropology,” he says. 

Community colleges are two-year institutions that offer a variety of certifications, technical degrees and certificates, and a limited number of four-year degrees. They are also more affordable and offer personalized interaction with faculty, thanks to small class sizes.

Adnan, a student at Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC), says the clear academic career path that his academic counselor has drawn up for him will help him major in computer sciences and cybersecurity and transfer to a four-year university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in information technology. 

He has also been able to get on-campus work experience while studying. “I work on campus for the Student Life program as a student ambassador, assisting other students,” he says. “I learn a lot about the college and the campus and how to help new and current students navigate the class registration process and make their overall experience easier and better.”

Financial aid

Lake Tahoe Community College awards approximately $215,000 in scholarships annually, which international students are eligible to apply for after successfully completing their first quarter. “Additionally, the overall tuition cost here is noticeably lower than at other U.S. colleges and universities,” says Marta Sternal, international program coordinator and the principal designated school official for F-1 students, at the college. “For example, tuition for one full academic year at LTCC costs approximately $11,500 for international students, whereas tuition for one full academic year at a University of California campus costs upwards of $40,000.” 

Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC) is located in South Lake Tahoe, California, a small resort community in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (Photograph courtesy LTCC)

Lake Tahoe Community College (LTCC) is located in South Lake Tahoe, California, a small resort community in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (Photograph courtesy LTCC)

International students at Lake Tahoe Community College also receive financial assistance in other, indirect, ways such as through access to the on-campus food pantry, free shuttle transportation, and free textbooks and laptop loaners available through the library. “LTCC is also unique among community colleges in offering student housing that is priced well below market rate,” adds Sternal. 

De Anza College, a public community college in Cupertino, California, does not offer scholarships for new students in the first year, but the college’s tuition cost is less than half of most U.S. universities, according to Deepali Shah, assistant director of international student recruitment at Foothill + De Anza Colleges. “We offer scholarships in the second year that range from $500 to $5000 and are awarded based on a variety of factors ranging from leadership and academic performance to majors,” she adds.

Many universities offer scholarships to students in the third year during transfer, she adds. “These usually range in value and are based on academic merit, need, leadership or talent in a sport, art or theater/music depending on the type of scholarship,” Shah says, adding that De Anza’s  Transfer Center assists students interested in seeking out universities that offer these scholarships.

Easy transfers

Community colleges provide international students with competitive opportunities and exposure that give them an edge during transfer to a four-year college. 

When Arushi Sharma did not get admission to her dream institution, the University of California (UC), Berkeley, she did not lose hope. She decided to join De Anza College, which allows transfer to the University of California college system, in hopes of a second shot at UC Berkeley.  

Like Arushi, many international students take the community college pathway to transfer to a larger institution for their four-year undergraduate degrees. 

Students who want to transfer to four-year colleges may need to take some mandatory classes to meet the prerequisites. Arushi, who pursued an associate degree to transfer in computer science, completed the mandatory general education classes required at California colleges during her time at De Anza, which is part of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. “I used to evaluate which classes would transfer over to my target institution and eventually had most of my units transfer over,” she says. “Not only did De Anza have dedicated resources for making the transfer process easier, but most University of California colleges are transfer student-friendly institutions.” 

Similarly, Rushil got a chance to work at two museums in Seattle, with help from Green River College. “This experience made me a more competitive candidate for transfer to a high-ranked university,” he says, “and enabled me to earn back a substantial part of the total cost incurred at GRC.” 

The Kent campus of Green River College. (Photograph by SounderBruce/Wikipedia)

The Kent campus of Green River College. (Photograph by SounderBruce/Wikipedia)

Advising services 

Arushi, Rushil and Adnan say that the guidance of advisers and counselors on campus, who help international students tailor their programs and assimilate to a new style of education, has been crucial during their course of study. “I had multiple resources to help me plan out my educational experience,” says Arushi. “There are counselors specifically assigned to international students who are familiar with the education pattern followed in the student’s home country and make the transition smooth.” In addition, De Anza also has a dedicated team of tutors who work alongside professors to ensure that students succeed in their majors. 

“We have over 100 Indian students at Foothill + De Anza Colleges,” says Shah, “We have the Southeast Asian Student Association with many Indian students.” 

Choosing your institution 

Rushil advises students planning to pursue higher studies in the United States to examine all options, including community colleges which are essentially pathways to four-year undergraduate degrees at different universities. “GRC offers a double degree program that enabled me to earn a high school diploma and a university transfer associate degree concurrently,” he says. “This was possible only in Washington state. I was able to save two years and substantial money.” Arushi asks students to participate in different events on campus, club activities and networking that can boost transfer applications and help master vital skills related to their majors of choice. “I would also suggest using the two years at your community college to take a range of classes and experiment, whilst having a clear education plan in place,” she says. 

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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