Community colleges are an affordable option
WHILE MOST HONG KONG students pursuing higher education in the United States opt for a four-year university or college curriculum, more are choosing to enter community colleges, which offer more affordable two-year foundation programmes that can transfer to university studies.
Michelle Mak Sau-man, director of the China-Hong Kong Institute of International Education, said the number of Hong Kong students joining US higher education institutions has been rising steadily in recent years, totalling 7,849 in the 2005-06 school year, which was up 9 per cent from the previous year. Hong Kong's ranking as a place of origin for overseas students rose to 12th from 15th in the previous year.
'Compared with a few years ago, the proportion of students choosing community colleges has increased to 10 to 20 per cent of the total, while at least 60 per cent go for universities,' Ms Mak said.
She will chair a forum on the US higher education system during the Education & Careers Expo's US Study Day on Saturday.
Community colleges are smaller than universities and have relatively easier entrance requirements. Form Five graduates from Hong Kong are eligible to apply.
Ms Mak said the two-year transfer programmes at community colleges paralleled the first two years of a four-year college or university course. These colleges also offered associate degree programmes, which generally prepared students for getting a job.
'There has been a misconception that it is difficult to transfer from a community college to a university. [But now] people understand better that this is not a problem. They have become more receptive to community colleges.'
She said another attractive feature of community colleges was their low tuition fees which, with living costs, amounted to HK$130,000 to HK$140,000 a year, compared with more than HK$200,000 a year for university studies.
Ms Mak said while some people thought the academic standards of community colleges were low because of their open recruitment policy and lower admission requirements, the objective of these colleges was to make higher education accessible to all. She said that while their standards might vary, they were generally good.
'Many Hong Kong parents still aspire to send their children to [well-known] universities. While this is understandable, there are many different options provided by the 4,000 higher education institutions in the US,' she said.
'For example, liberal arts colleges are becoming popular. Like community colleges, they are smaller in scale but their standards are just as good. They have smaller classes, which means students get more attention from their tutors.'
Dawn Schrepel, consular officer at the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, which will host a forum about visa applications at the expo, said local student visa applicants were generally well qualified and the rate of successful application was more than 90 per cent.
She said application procedures had been simplified and were straightforward, and that a visa could be issued in a few days under normal circumstances.
Ms Schrepel said students and parents should try to shop around to find a suitable institution rather than rely on word of mouth.
Ms Mak said students could seek advice about an institution from the Hong Kong alumni association.
Students who are unfamiliar with the US could take summer study programmes to get some experience.
'Culture shock is a common problem for newly arrived students and they may feel homesick. Many universities have a support system to help international students settle in. Students can help themselves by making friends to build up a support system,' Ms Mak said.