Vietnamese national Tien Truong didn’t originally plan to attend a community college. He says he earned a score of 1370 on the SAT and applied to several four-year universities in Texas: the University of Houston, Houston Baptist University and the University of St. Thomas, with the latter two offering him scholarships. But instead, he chose to attend Lone Star College, a two-year community college in the same state.
“I decided to attend a community college because of its affordable tuition and the quality of a small class size,” says Truong, who is majoring in management information systems.
Affordability and class sizes are among the reasons prospective international students may consider alternative routes to a bachelor’s degree, whether in the U.S. or in the United Kingdom. Other factors can include exam scores, grades or high school courses not meeting the requirements to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program outside of their home country.
Here are some things for prospective international students to consider when deciding whether to choose a foundation year program in the U.K. or a community college in the U.S.
U.K. Foundation Year
What is a foundation year? Also known as a pathway program, a foundation year in the U.K. is a yearlong period of preparatory study, and upon completion, may provide a pathway into a degree program.
“The purpose is to provide a bridge across the education gap from high school to a British university and provide a smooth transition to a bachelor’s degree course,” Shayne Langlois, senior international officer at the University of Manchester in England, wrote in an email.
Langlois says the foundation year doesn’t end with a degree; rather, most programs end with a guarantee “for progression to a university program, based on meeting established entry requirements/grades.” He says a foundation year offers flexible routes and pathways into a network of U.K. universities and that the cost of a foundation year for international students varies from approximately 16,255 pounds to 24,000 pounds (roughly $21,000 to $31,000).
The foundation year can provide students with the skills, knowledge and qualifications they need to succeed in the university environment, experts say.
“It also helps international students to get used to the ways of studying, expectations, delivery, research methods and so on, which may be different to what a student is used to in their home country,” Lyndsey Ashton, regional development manager at Manchester Metropolitan University, wrote in an email.
Mika Shirahama attended high school in Japan and says her language and academic skills were not enough to be admitted directly into a bachelor’s degree program at the University of Leeds, so she was placed in the school’s International Foundation Year.
“I have learned a lot from International Foundation Year due to the education system in the U.K. is very different from my country, such as the exams, discussion style and assessment style. And it was a good opportunity to get used to life in the U.K. so I am not stressed out in the first year,” Shirahama says.
Some foundation year programs are tailored toward entry into specific fields.
“Foundation years are usually delivered for a subject specific area, either directly into a programme or for a range of programmes within a subject area,” Ashton wrote.
For example, the University of Sheffield International College offers two distinct foundation year routes: one in Business, Social Sciences and Humanities, and one in Science and Engineering.
“Foundation year programmes are offered in a wide variety of subject areas, including medicine. Particularly in the STEM subjects or those requiring a more advanced level of maths or sciences,” Langlois wrote.
At the University of Leeds, students who pass the International Foundation Year with the required grades move onto their chosen undergraduate degree program and are not required to reapply or take a new English language test, per the program’s website. Similarly, at Manchester Metropolitan University, once students have successfully completed the foundation year, they will progress directly to the first year of the associated degree program, according to the school’s website.
A foundation year also provides students more time to decide on a major. After having completed her foundation year, Shirahama is now in the Bachelor of Arts Theatre and Performance program at the University of Leeds. The foundation year was helpful, she says, and taught her good study habits.
U.S. Two-Year Community College
Prospective international students weighing an alternative route to a bachelor’s degree also have the option of attending a two-year community college in the U.S.
“U.S. community colleges offer a way for international students to start their studies at the U.S. undergraduate level with affordability, individual attention and flexibility,” says Nathan Jensen, associate dean of global engagement at Orange Coast College in California.
There are more than 700 accredited community colleges in the U.S. that enroll international students, says Katharine Caruso, associate vice chancellor, honors and international education at Lone Star College.
She says some of the advantages for international students are that entrance exams like the SAT or ACT aren’t required; students can gain the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at one-third the price of a four-year university — around $6,000 in tuition and fees for a full academic year at Lone Star College — and that most community colleges have articulation agreements, which allow students to transfer smoothly.
Students can take courses at a community college to fulfill general studies requirements, receive an associate degree and then transfer to a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Jensen notes students who attend a community college first are often able to transfer to their preferred schools, allowing them to attend universities that may have been out of reach if they had applied right out of high school.
“I plan to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin Red McCombs School of Business after I get my associate degree at Lone Star College. I believe it is a good option because I can transfer a lot of my credits since I attend a Texas community college,” Truong says.
Linda Serra Hagedorn, professor emerita at Iowa State University and a researcher in community college student success and international education, says costs vary, but overall attending a community college is cheaper than attending a four-year university. Hagedorn says tuition and fees for international students at community colleges can range between $8,000 and $10,000 per year plus books, room and board.
If a prospective international student chooses a U.S. community college wisely, Hagedorn says, the costs of attending and living expenses will be less than that of a foundation year in the U.K., though it depends on the school’s location. She says while the cost of living in the U.K. is relatively high, it is lower than that of New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But she says the Midwest, the Plains or the South, for example, can offer inexpensive, and safe, living conditions.
“The biggest benefit of attending a community college is getting into the U.S. system,” Hagedorn says. “Once in the U.S. and in the education pipeline, students can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
However, she says the foundation year offered by U.K. universities is also a good option since most international students and their families may not understand community colleges and the transfer pathway in the U.S. She says in most places around the globe, the university where a student begins is also the university from which the student will graduate, so parents of prospective international students may have difficulty understanding the transfer concept.
“Credit transfer and the idea of their child graduating with the same degree and diploma as students who began as freshmen at the same institution is an American ideal,” Hagedorn says. “The idea of a two-year college is often equated with the vocational colleges, which are typically not ranked high in prestige” in most countries.
In the end, she says, the right fit comes down to the individual student.
“It is a personal choice and depends on finances, goals and what the colleges offer,” Hagedorn says.
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