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What is a California Community College?

September 23, 2017

What is a California Community College?

College education in the United States can seem confusing to many international students, but it is easy to understand once you realize how the system works. Read on to learn more about the California Community College system and its relationship to four-year colleges and universities.

What is a California Community College?

Before we look at what a California Community College is, it is important to understand a little about the state’s entire education system.

Overview of the California College System

College vs. University

Technically, there is a difference between colleges and universities. The simplest explanation is that colleges are smaller and focus on specific areas of study; universities are made of many different colleges. Many colleges do not provide master’s or PhD degrees.

In American English, we use the words “college” and “university” as if they are the same thing. For example, a student attending UC Davis would say “I start college next week,” even though UC Davis is a university.

What is a California Community College?

University of California (UC)

UCs are public universities in California. They are generally known as having the most impressive research centers and qualified (often famous) professors. Education is typically based on theory and research and many students continue to graduate school to get their master’s degree; some get a PhD.

There are 10 schools in the University of California (UC) system.

  • UC Berkeley (UCB)
  • UC Davis (UCD)
  • UC Irvine (UCI)
  • UC Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • UC Merced (UCM)
  • UC Riverside (UCR)
  • UC San Diego (UCSD)
  • UC San Francisco (UCSF)*
  • UC Santa Barbara (UCSB)
  • UC Santa Cruz (UCSC)

All of the UCs except Berkeley use the quarter system: classes are 10 weeks total instead of the traditional semester-long course.

California State University (CSU)

CSUs are also public universities in California. CSUs are wonderful schools with many programs designed for practical use: a student from a CSU typically has some form of training or work experience, which makes it easier to get a job after graduation. Many students continue to graduate school to get their master’s degree; some get a PhD.

There are 23 schools in the California State University (CSU) system.

What is a California Community College?

California Community College

California Community Colleges are public colleges in California. There are 114 schools in the California Community College system. Some community college students attend for two years and receive an associate’s degree. Other community college students complete certificate courses, such as a Dental Assistant certificate or an X-Ray Technician certificate. Many students attend community college for two years and then transfer to a university (a UC, CSU, or a private college or university) to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Unlike UCs and CSUs, students at community college do not apply to go to school: there is open enrollment for anyone with English proficiency who is 18 years old (or for anyone who is 16 years old and has a high school diploma). 

Students can show English proficiency by:

  • Completing high school at an English-speaking school
  • Scoring high on proficiency exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, or ITEP 

If you do not have English proficiency through these two methods, do not worry: the International Education Center provides a path to community college acceptance for students who do not have TOEFL, IELTS, or ITEP scores. To be accepted to DVC, students only need to complete the IEC curriculum, including the Advanced B course. After students complete their studies at IEC@DVC, Diablo Valley College (a California Community College) recognizes that the student has English proficiency. 

What is a California Community College?

Guaranteed transfers

Community colleges have agreements with both the UC and CSU systems so that students are guaranteed admission to university. Transfer Agreement Guarantees (TAGs) are contracts between California Community Colleges and UCs. With TAGs, students are guaranteed to be accepted to university (f they pass all of the required classes, of course). The CSU system has a program called A Degree With a Guarantee, which promises admission to a CSU after completion of 60 units at a community college. These agreements are only for certain areas of study. What is a California Community College?

Advantages of California Community Colleges

There are many advantages to attending a California Community College. Here are just a few.


California Community Colleges are by far the most affordable option for education. Spending your first two years at a community college will save thousands of dollars.


Because community colleges are designed for everyone, including working adults and parents, the course schedules will often be very flexible. If you’re a morning person, you should be able to find many morning classes; if you’re a night owl, enroll in evening courses.

What is a California Community College?

Guaranteed admission to university

As mentioned above, the agreements (such as TAGs and A Degree With a Guarantee) that community colleges have with universities make it easy for students to gain admission to a four-year university. There is no risk in studying at a community college study; in fact, it is the first step in a clear path to a bachelor’s degree.

Small classes and quality instructors

Many people believe that there is more opportunity to speak with your professor at a community college. At universities, professors are expected to conduct research and publish papers and books. Much of their time is dedicated to this, so the time students spend with their professor can be limited to classroom lecture times and specific office hours. It’s still plenty of time to get to know your professor, but on a different level than at community college. 

What is a California Community College?

Student support

Community college is the first educational step after high school. California community colleges know that this is a scary transition; therefore, there are many resources to help students succeed. Academic counseling, advising, tutoring, and student-run clubs and organizations all exist to help students do well (and feel welcome!) on their new campus.

IEC@DVC works closely with Diablo Valley College, a California Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area. DVC was recently ranked the #2 community college in California: it was also ranked in the top 5 on EdSmart (this ranking was based on its graduation and successful transfer rates). Admission to Diablo Valley College is guaranteed after completing IEC’s English program: contact us for more information.

Photos from the California Community College, CSU, and UC Facebook pages.

*UC San Francisco only offers graduate programs.  

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