The Problem with American Two-Year Colleges

Korean students and families are enticed by the lure of studying in America. At international college fairs and at presentations by American universities, you will find many, many schools preaching the tremendous value of an American education. However, not all colleges yield good results for their students.

We are often asked a common question by international students: “Should I start at a two-year college, then finish my education at a four-year school?” The two-year schools try so hard to find Korean students that it may seem like this is the preferred American path to a quality education. It is not. In truth, students who enroll at two-year colleges seldom obtain four-year degrees in a timely manner, if they obtain the degree at all.

The problem of on-time graduation is so bad that the United States government requires universities to compile six-year graduation rates, not four-year rates. Among all students studying in America, the percentage of students who graduate on-time with a degree is less than 40%. In other words, out of all students who intend to obtain a four-year degree, fewer than 4 out of 10 will graduate within four years.

Unfortunately, the statistics for students beginning in two-year colleges are even worse. Fewer than 10% of students who start at a two-year college obtain a four-year degree within four years. In other words, if you want to earn a four-year degree on time but choose to start in a two-year college, even American-born students have a 90% chance of failure. For Korean students studying in America, the results are even lower.

Why don’t students obtain their degrees on time?

The problem is not the intelligence of the students. The problem is that the college environment is dramatically different from the high school environment. Even the best students, who are usually well-trained for their classes, are not prepared for college life. Their support structure of high school, from parents to counselors to fellow students, disappears when they leave home. Students don’t know how to schedule their time, or how to get along in a world so different from everything they have ever known. They don’t even know how to eat or exercise; American students often gain significant weight in college, lovingly called the “freshman 15” pounds.

The problem is even more severe for international students than for those born and raised in America. Koreans, like other East Asians, live in a culture that is significantly different from the American one. While American high school students are busy playing sports or being involved in extracurricular activities and community service, Korean students are studying in hagwons. In America, there are relatively few Korean students, making cultural and religious identity hard to preserve. When you consider the cultural adjustments along with the struggles faced by non-native English speakers, you can see how the problem of college failure can be so rampant.

America’s four-year universities – especially those that are “residential” and keep students on campus for all four years – provide a much stronger support structure than do two-year colleges. When comparing four-year graduation rates of American universities, it is easy to see that the better private colleges graduate their students at an excellent on-time rate, often 80% or higher.

There are two keys to success for Korean students seeking to study in the U.S. First, when researching American colleges, be sure to select a school that provides a supportive environment. Look carefully at on-time graduation rates, retention rates, how the school keeps students together (look at the campus architecture), the design of the curriculum, the number of Korean students, professors and organizations on campus, and even the rates of depression and use of mental health services by students. Second, be sure to prepare for the American cultural and college experience. The best agents and independent consultants provide training for Korean students to learn more about the environment they are about to enter.

In the final analysis, when making the decision to study in America, please realize that many colleges are pursuing you for their own reason: money. An American education can be the most valuable in the world, but it must be the RIGHT education and environment for each student.