The first quarter of college is probably the hardest time in any child’s education, especially if that child went to a four-year university rather than a community college. Be prepared for tears. Be prepared for “I want to quit” and “College isn’t for me”. Four-year universities are hard. Many of the first courses that freshmen take are general education classes with 300 students to an auditorium. If your child can hear the instructor, she’ll be lucky. If she can pass the class, she’ll be even more lucky. It takes lots of hard work.
Community College First
There are a lot of reasons that your child should go to community college before transferring to a four-year university. Let’s go through them, one by one.
Community colleges have class sizes of 20-40 students, while four-year universities have 300 students per class. Smaller classes means your child can speak up and ask questions. She can interact with the instructor one on one. The instructors quickly get a sense of the students who care and those who don’t. If your child shows up for every class, participates, and asks questions, she’ll do well.
Community college courses usually grade on a curve. That means they take the highest grade on a test or exam and make that 100%. You may not think this is a big deal unless the highest score is 62 out of 100. Grading on a curve makes the difference between flunking the course and getting an A. Many four-year universities refuse to allow grading on a curve, so if your child gets a bad instructor, she’s going to fail.
Here’s an example. The highest grade on an exam was 62 out of 100. Your child got 58.
- 58 out of 100 points on an exam not curved is 58/100 or 58%
- A: 90-100%
- B: 80-89%
- C: 70-79%
- D: 60-69%
- F: 59% or lower
So, your child received an F. The grade is scary, but so is the point value which will be associated with her final grade for the course, 58 points out of 100.
If the test’s grade is curved, then the highest score, 62, becomes 100%. Now your child’s grade is out of 62 points rather than 100.
- A: 53.6 – 62 points
- B: 49.6 – 53.5 points
- C: 43.4 – 49.5 points
- D: 37.2 – 43.3 points
- F: 37.1 points and lower
Now your child has lost only four points and gets an A. Big difference. Now she’s being graded fairly, on her learning the material rather than the instructor’s skill at teaching (which is obviously poor). Since most exams are approximately one fourth to one third of the course grade, she’s also only lost 4 points out of 300 (1.3%) rather than 42 out of 300 (14%). If she loses 14% of her grade on the first test, there’s no way she can get an A in the course unless the professor lets her do extra credit, a rarity in four-year universities. If she loses 14% on every exam then she’ll end up failing the course with a 58% overall score.
If everyone does well in an exam and your child doesn’t, she can go to the instructor and ask for extra credit. Almost every community college instructor offers extra credit, especially when asked. Four-year university professors don’t.
Teachers Who Teach
Community college instructors teach. That’s all they do. They’re not paid to conduct research and write papers with multiple co-authors. They’re paid to teach and that’s it. Four-year university professors are required to do research, write papers, attend conferences, and a myriad of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with teaching. They teach 10% of the time and that’s it. If they completely fail at it, it doesn’t matter. They still get paid. So there’s no incentive to do it well. Don’t expect them to care. Don’t expect them to be good at it either. Most are not. That’s the reason for class sizes of 300 students.
Community college classes are around $1,200 per course. Four-year university courses are around $2,500 per course. Students at community colleges can usually find decent housing near campus. Four-year universities are notoriously bad when it comes to housing. They have too many students and not enough room. Your child will pay, on average, four times as much for housing at a four-year university as for housing at a community college. Pay attention to where they’re located. Community colleges are geared toward people who can’t afford a four-year university.
No Big Sports
Four-year universities are getting more and more into big sports, even the universities that used to be geared toward scholarly works and science or engineering. That means funding goes with the athletes and athletic programs, not with other departments. The opposite is true of community college. They’re geared to teach equally among disciplines and departments.
All of the above means better grades for your child at a community college than at a four-year university. If your child works hard, she can leave community college in two years with a 4.0 gpa. That means that when she has a few lousy courses at the four-year university she transfers to, she’ll be okay. Her gpa won’t drop so dramatically. She’ll be eligible for Honors College, scholarships, priority registration, priority housing, and internships. Doors will open for your child that would otherwise remain closed. Honors College students have smaller classes and special privileges.
Let me explain the way GPAs are calculated. For each A your child gets, you multiply the number of credits for that course by 4.0 to arrive at the point value your child gets for that course. For example, Calculus is a four credit course x 4.0 for an A as a final grade. 4.0 x 4.0 = 16.0 grade credits for that course. Each course is calculated this way and then the total grade credits is divided by the credits she took that quarter. This is how you arrive at the term GPA. If you do this for every course ever taken, you get the cumulative GPA.
So if your child has gone to community college for two years and maintained a 4.0 GPA with 112 credits, she’ll transfer into a four-year university as an honors student with 4.0 x 112 = 448 grade credits.
Let’s say her first term at a four-year university was horrible. She was a transfer student so she didn’t get priority registration and was put into two courses with 300 students. She had 4 credits with a B (3.0), 4 credits with an A (4.0), and 4 credits with a C (2.0). She’s terrified her GPA is going to drop below the mandatory 3.4 for Honors College. It won’t. If it was her first quarter of college it would be a problem, but it’s not because she transferred in with 448 grade credits. 😉
For this term, she calculates her grade credits as follows:
- 4.0 x 3.0 = 12 grade credits for the B course
- 4.0 x 4.0 = 16 grade credits for the A course
- 4.0 x 2.0 = 8 grade credits for the C course
- 12 + 16 + 8 = 36 / 12 = 2.0 GPA for the quarter
If this were her first college term ever, she’d be dropped from Honors College because her term GPA is also her cumulative GPA. She’d be depressed after maintaining a 4.0 GPA at home while homeschooling. But probably the worst thing of all is that she’ll spend the next four years stressed and trying to improve her GPA. Every teacher that sees her GPA is going to think she’s not a good student and if she ever challenges a grade, she won’t be taken seriously because of her GPA.
If she transferred in with 448 grade credits and 112 credits from community college, there would be hardly a dip in her GPA.
- 448 + 36 = 484 grade credits / 124 credits = 3.9 GPA
She’s still in Honors College and not so depressed about the bad grades, because she already has 112 credits of As under her belt. See the difference?
This is perhaps the most difficult concept for homeschooling parents and children to grasp about college. Regardless of how many people tell you grades don’t count, they do. They count a lot. If they didn’t count, then why would universities give priority registration, scholarships, internships, and other perks to students with great GPAs? They wouldn’t.
Community college has another distinct advantage over four-year universities. Your child will be exposed to a wider variety of students. Real people. Not just a lot of public high school graduates. Real people in different walks of life and of different ages give your child a healthier view of the world. Your kids will be exposed to more than just public high school bullies and prom queens. At a community college there will be more students who really try and really care. Many of them will be trying college for the second time around. They want to be there. They’re not trust fund babies or kids whose parents paid them to attend college. Who do you want your children learning alongside?
Most community colleges now have two year transfer degrees. These are wonderful. It means that if your child meets the requirements for the transfer degree, she doesn’t have to meet the general education requirements of the four-year university. She’ll transfer in as a junior and get access to junior level courses as though she’d gone to the four-year university all along. Some courses, like Physics and Math courses, are much more difficult at four-year universities. Your child can get them out of the way at community college, especially when those courses are not in the field she wants to go into.
Four-Year University First
If your child is already in their first term of college, all is not lost. You have choices.
Most universities have a process by which students can challenge their grades. If your child has been diligent with an instructor and truly tried hard and can prove this with emails, attendance, coursework, and requests for extra credit, chances are she may be able to change her grade.
If her first term was really bad, and she wants to quit, let her. Enroll next term at a community college that has a two year transfer degree. She can make up the lost quarter during the summer and still get her four year degree on time.
If she doesn’t want to transfer to a community college, there are still more options. She can wait a few terms (or even the very next term) and retake the courses she received bad grades in. Students almost always improve their grade the second time around. Most honors programs have a probationary period in which students who fail to meet the criteria can make it up.
If none of these are options your child wants to take, then consider this. Is she in the right program? Children who love what they study will take lots of bumps and bruises and still keep going because they have a deep interest in the subject material. Although college advisers will tell students to load up on general education courses the first year, make sure your child signs up for at least one in her subject area of interest each term. That’s what makes college interesting for her. By the time she’s a junior or senior she’ll be taking almost nothing but the courses she likes, the ones in her own department.
The first quarter of college can be really excruciating. Don’t give up. Things will get better. Even if your child thinks she did an incredible job the first term, go online with her and check her grades. Be supportive, be informed.
Originally published November 24, 2013.