Community colleges -- sometimes seen as a lesser alternative for college students -- can get many students started on a more flexible and less costly path toward a degree.
These schools offer an associate's degree in two years that is transferable to many four-year institutions for a bachelor's degree. Once called junior colleges, they popped up in the U.S. around the turn of the 1900s.
The biggest draw of community colleges is their affordability.
While the average tuition at public four-year schools for the 2017-2018 academic school year was $26,261, and $46,014 at private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, those numbers understate the cost of many private competitive universities.
The most expensive four-year universities in the U.S. include Amherst College ($82,008) and Tufts University ($70,000), both in Massachusetts. Third runner-up is Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania ($60,872), according to their websites.
And that doesn't include room and board, which, at Tufts, adds another $8,516 to the price.
But at community colleges, the average cost of a two-year school was $3,564, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some community colleges in recent years have offered free tuition in Arkansas, California and Delaware.
"It's a gateway for many students to transfer to the university," said Martha Parham, the senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.
"If they take their first two years at community college, it's a significant cost savings. You know, as well as it's affordable, it's accessible, it's a great place to go," she said.
While they are not as academically competitive as most four-year institutions, they offer students a chance to take courses that may not be related to their career aspirations, but are required, such as chemistry and algebra.
And for commuter, working and part-time students who live at home or off campus more cheaply than on campus, the savings is significant as they can attend classes at their pace and time of day.
The majority of students enrolled in community colleges work, Parham said.
About 80% of community college students have a job, with 39% working full time.
"It's an on-ramp to the middle class for many of our students who otherwise, you know, wouldn't have the same opportunity," Parham said.
Other advantages include flexibility in scheduling and lower academic requirements. Community colleges are located, as their name implies, mostly in areas where there is a cluster of students who can access them more easily than other schools.
Students can attend a community college more easily while they work, tend to family or lack the means to move farther away to a school that offers room and board. The average age of a student in community college is 28-years-old, Parham said.
"I personally didn't feel ready enough yet to go off to a big university, because I just felt like I didn't have that structure to be able to go into a higher institution like that," said Ella Paredes, a sophomore political science major at Miami Dade College in Florida.
Paredes, who commutes to community college from home, said she plans to transfer to Florida State University in Tallahassee for her bachelor's degree after she graduates in Spring 2021 from Miami Dade College.
"My advice to students would be to work backwards and understand you know kind of your ultimate goal and then plan accordingly to make sure that the classes that you take, and the institution you attend, has those articulation agreements to ensure that you have a smooth transfer," Parham said.
Alejandro Canas, a film production major, is going to be a sophomore in Spring 2021 at Santa Monica College (SMC) in California. In the meantime, he is taking his courses online from home in Jalisco, Mexico.
Community college is an American invention. The first was Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, which serves more than 30,000 students today.
It's "something new, especially if you are from a different culture or from a country that is different. It's really important because you will expand your knowledge," Canas said.
"You will see that community college is not just about studying, it's about expanding your experience, expanding your skills, and getting closer to different kinds of people you know," he said.
Many community colleges, such as Santa Monica College and Northern Virginia Community College, have resources and courses available for students whose primary or first language is not English. Many community colleges don't require English language skills for admission and will teach students based on their proficiency or lack of it.
Canas had about 60% proficiency in the English language when he began at SMC and credits his community college professors and available resources for helping him improve his English during his studies.
Community colleges offer tutoring, and teachers are prepared to help accommodate students who may be still learning English. Many community colleges have an English as Second Language (ESL) program centered around helping students whose first language is not English, according to the U.S. Department of State's EducationUSA branch.
Only about 7.4% of the more than 1 million international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education attend community colleges, according to the Institute for International Education. Most international students may not be aware of the advantages.
Many community colleges have articulation agreements with universities, meaning four-year schools have agreed to honor most if not all of the students' credits.
"It's a great way for international students to come study in the United States, get their first two years of their degree done at a place with smaller class sizes, more affordable," Parham said.
During the 2019-2020 academic school year there were 79,187 international students at colleges offering an associate's degree in the U.S., according to IIE.
The Houston Community College System has the largest number of international students among community colleges in the U.S., with 4,723 international students enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year.
China was the leading place of origin for international students attending community colleges, comprising 18.6% of international community college students in the 2019-2020 school year.
Vietnam was the second-leading place of origin, making up 10% of the total international community college student population.
Overall, however, international students at U.S. community colleges declined 8.3% from the previous academic year.
Parham points to the pandemic and recent federal travel restriction policies as explanation for the decline. For all international student enrollment at all U.S. institutions of higher learning, the decline for the 2020-2021 school year has been 43%, according to IIE.