Female student seated at a table taking notes for a community college class
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What Is Community College?

12.06.2022 • 10 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

Learn what community college is, how it has changed, and how it differs from a university. Also, discover what course enrollments to expect and tuition costs.

In This Article

  1. What Is Community College?

  2. Why Attend Community College?

  3. Community College vs University

  4. What Is the Cost of Going to Community College?

  5. Most Common Courses Offered By Community Colleges

  6. What To Expect After Graduation

  7. FAQs About Community College

With so much to think about when considering higher education, whether right after high school or going back to school in your 30s, you may want to consider community college in your list of options.

Community colleges offer much of the academic rigor and quality instruction that colleges and universities do, but often at a significantly lower price.

What Is Community College?

The idea of a public two-year college began in California in 1907 when the state decided to make junior colleges branches of its university system. Community colleges quickly became popular due to their design—getting a specialized degree in less time at an affordable cost.

Community colleges—also called junior colleges or city colleges—are public higher education institutions where students can start their college experience.

Why Attend Community College?

To understand community colleges, it’s important to understand why they exist. The goal of community colleges is to provide a high-quality, post-secondary education to local students at a low cost.

About 41% of students who complete their associate degree at a community college transfer their credits to another school to complete their bachelor’s degree.

While many undergraduate students do attend community colleges for the purpose of earning transferable credit at a lower rate, there are many other advantages of attending a community college.

Today students from all over the world attend community colleges to earn associate degrees or certificates in a variety of fields that are in high demand.

Community College vs University

The first step in understanding if community college is the right choice for you is to know the differences between a university education and a community college education.

Type of Degree

Community colleges do not offer bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees. Rather, they offer well-rounded associate degrees that can take as little as two years to complete.

Many students who pursue coursework at a community college are doing so to gain transfer credits to complete a bachelor’s degree, but this is not all students.

Some students who attend community college enroll in certificate programs to gain a particular skill set for career placement or plan on working in their chosen field once they earn their associate degree.

Academic Quality

The professors at community colleges are typically working professionals in their chosen field. This ensures that they come to class each day with applicable industry-specific examples from their experience.

While professors at a 4-year university usually hold a doctoral degree, those teaching at community colleges are more likely to have a master’s degree in their field.

Campus Size

Many community colleges do not have the type of infrastructure that colleges and state universities tend to offer. Their campuses have academic-related facilities geared toward the programs available to students.

A significant benefit of community colleges is their class sizes. You will not find typical lecture halls, but rather smaller and more intimate classes of less than 20 students.

Housing Options

Since most students at a community college are local working professionals or those seeking further career advancement, many students commute to class.

There are generally no dorms or on-campus housing for students. International students or students coming into the area will need to secure their housing before beginning their community college coursework.

The average student balances working full-time and going to school, so they don't take out additional student loans to pay for living expenses.

Tuition Cost

One of the greatest benefits of attending community college is the lower cost of tuition and fees.

When combining tuition and fees at a typical university, students paid an average of $10,440 per year for their in-state education, according to a 2019 CollegeBoard report. A student at an in-state community college paid only $3,730 per year.

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Sports Teams

Around 50% of community colleges have the types of sports programs available at a traditional university. Community college students may feel that they are missing out on part of the college experience when it comes to spectating and participating in large university sports programs.

Often, community colleges will have intramural sports and clubs that are put together by student organizations in which any student can participate. This way, students can still participate in sports and interact with other students outside of the classroom.

Class Schedule

Another benefit of community colleges lies in the flexible schedule that they have to offer. Universities tend to work on a fixed weekly schedule of courses, but this is not the case for a community college.

Knowing that many students are working full-time or part-time jobs, community colleges offer courses during the week and on evenings and weekends. Students often have the choice of taking online courses as well.

Career Advancement

Depending on the field that a student is moving into, earning an associate degree or certificate at a community college can open several career opportunities.

Having a bachelor’s degree will always open a wider range of career prospects, and community college can be a great way to start.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest-growing careers requiring an associate degree are:

  • Dental assistants

  • Paralegals

  • Web developers

Student Body

With the nature of community colleges being a local, affordable, and flexible option for students, the student body may look different than a typical university.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 65% of community college students are attending classes part-time. There is also a higher percentage of non-traditional students in community colleges with an average age of 28.

Community colleges are becoming far more diverse. The average community college is composed of 27% Hispanic students, 13% Black, and 29% of all students being the first generation to attend college.

Choosing to enroll in a community college program has a lot to do with personal choice. Compare the exciting atmosphere that 4-year institutions offer to the benefits of a lower cost and more flexible community college education.

What Is the Cost of Going to Community College?

Overall Costs

Knowing how much college costs is a common way to compare which educational institution to attend. Many students become overwhelmed by looking at college costs and the debt that is accrued.

While it is wise to compare tuition and fees between schools, several factors affect college affordability.

Community colleges can offer average tuition and fees at less than half of a typical university. This is mostly due to the large infrastructure of universities and the resources available to students. Without that big college feel, community colleges can keep the price tag much lower.

At both community colleges and universities, students must account for room and board as well. Often at universities, students must live in college dorms for the first 1-2 years and usually acquire a meal plan in addition to their housing costs.

In contrast, community colleges do not often have on-campus housing and dining. While this can make securing room and board a bit trickier, it can also save you money.

Taking these factors into consideration, the average university student spends $19,230 on college per year according to CollegeBoard, when considering tuition, fees, and room and board. Community college students are spending $3,730 per year, but this number only includes tuition and fees, leaving housing and food costs up to the student to figure out.

Financial Aid

Another big piece of the college costs formula is applying for financial aid—loans, grants, and scholarships.

Most students use some combination of financial aid options to pay for college. Students use grants and scholarships first and then take out loans to cover the remainder.

Student loans can be applied to cover community college in the same way they can be used at a university. The best type of student loans to use are government loans since they usually have the lowest interest rate.

By filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), students can easily find out if they qualify for any grants and how much money they qualify for in student loans.

Grants are free money that is given out by the federal government to cover college expenses. This needs-based money does not need to be paid back and can be used toward any college expenses. Applying for grants can save you thousands of dollars in educational costs.

Scholarships are also free money that can be used to pay for college expenses but are awarded by private organizations and nonprofits based on merit. The student must apply for each scholarship individually, and it often requires both an application and an essay.

You can reduce your college expenses by applying for as many grants and scholarships as possible before taking out student loans.

Most Common Courses Offered By Community Colleges

Community colleges offer a wide range of coursework both in-person and online to fit the needs and interests of their community.

Since a significant share of students at 2-year colleges are planning on transferring their credits toward a 4-year degree, community colleges offer all the courses students need. By enrolling in 2-year schools first, students who plan to pursue some of the highest-paying degrees can save money on their college degree program.

At most community colleges, these general education courses (gen eds) meet the standards of university study in nearly any 4-year program. Think of completing courses in core subject areas like math, English, and science before entering a 4-year institution.

You can tailor general education content toward a specific career path in either the liberal arts or the sciences. Community college students can pursue an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS) degree, depending on their anticipated bachelor’s program.

Community colleges also offer both certificates and degrees for students who plan to enter the workforce in their chosen major of study. It is also common for community colleges to offer vocational education programs to students looking to enter the trades.

Some of the most common subject areas of study include:

  • Automotive Technology

  • Computer Science

  • Veterinary Technology

  • Public, Social, and Emergency Services

  • Communications

  • Nursing

  • Dental Hygiene

  • Culinary Arts

Having a certificate in a certain subject or an associate degree in a specific field gives students the skills they need to get a job right after graduation.

What To Expect After Graduation

The time to complete a program of study at a community college completely depends on both the pathway of the student and the pace they choose to study.

Most full-time students pursuing an associate degree finish their coursework and graduate in 2 years. Students enrolled full-time in a certificate program usually finish within 1 year.

Similar to university study, community colleges offer career services to help students gain employment after graduation.

These services include:

  • Writing resumes

  • Networking

  • Interviewing skills

  • Helping search for quality employment

Those students graduating with their certificate or associate degree have a host of new possibilities available to them in today’s job market.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by 2026, occupations requiring an associate degree will grow by 11%. Those graduating with an associate degree can also expect to make over 30% more money per year than those with only a high school diploma.

FAQs About Community College

Can I transfer to a 4-year college?

Many students attend community college and then transfer their credits to 4-year institutions. Students do not need to earn an associate degree to transfer credits and can transfer at any time.

The community college system has articulation agreements with 4-year universities that outline exactly how credits will transfer and is usually a seamless process.

Do I need a high school diploma to attend community college?

Most community colleges do not require a high school diploma.

It is becoming more common for students in high school to take several community college courses and earn credits before graduating from high school.

Dual enrollment programs even offer community college courses at local high schools and sometimes qualified high school teachers teach them.

What test do I need to take to enroll in a community college?

In the past, students needed to take placement tests in subject areas like math and science to determine college readiness at a community college. Today, this is not as much the case.

More and more community colleges are using non-testing methods (e.g., recommendations, high school GPA, etc.) to determine college placement. These practices open the door to more students who are hesitant to take that initial step toward a college education by reducing both cost and effort.

Can I do community college online?

Yes! Taking credits for college online is a great way to get ahead on your college coursework. There are several advantages to taking courses online:

  • Tailor school to your schedule

  • Reduce tuition costs

  • Bring quality education to where you live

  • No commute or expensive dorm rooms

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