Community colleges offer a more affordable path to a Bachelor’s degree for students who are interested in transferring to a four-year institution. Students at community college can fulfill general education requirements on a flexible schedule while earning their associates degree. However, community colleges don’t offer a Bachelor’s degree option and can lack student life and extracurricular opportunities.
Community colleges can be a great fit for some students while others may prefer to start out at a four-year college or university. As you explore your choices, review the differences between community colleges and four-year universities. See how they stack up with what you’re looking to get out of a college career.
What Is a Community College?
Community colleges are one type of post secondary institution. Sometimes called junior colleges, these are educational institutions that offer two-year degrees and a path to transferring to a four-year college or university.
Community College vs University: How They Compare
Community colleges, as mentioned generally offer two-year associates degrees. In comparison, colleges and universities often offer four-year degrees such as a Bachelor of Arts or Sciences.
Both types of colleges have some similarities, including the types of aid that you may receive to attend.
It’s possible to get student loans for community colleges. Students at both community colleges and four-year schools may qualify for the same types of federal financial aid. These options may include scholarships, grants, and federal student loans.
Community colleges will offer some of the same prerequisite courses as universities. Classes like General Chemistry 101 or Microbiology 101 are similar at community colleges and students may be able to transfer these prerequisite courses toward a four-year degree if they choose to transfer.
It’s easy to think of community college classes as a breeze to complete — but, in many cases, community colleges offer academically rigorous classes that cover material comparable to those offered at four-year institutions. Additionally, community college professors do not conduct research, so there may be more of a focus on in-classroom instruction at community colleges than at four-year colleges or universities.
There are also plenty of differences between attending a community college vs. university. In addition to the estimated time to earn a degree and the type of degree available, these include things like the cost of attendance, class size, and the application process.
Attending a community college can be significantly cheaper than going to a four-year university. For example, at schools that are part of the California Community College system, the cost of classes is $46 per credit unit. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost per credit at a four-year university with in-state tuition is $390.
The average class size can vary dramatically depending on the school you attend. Community colleges typically have class sizes that hover around 25 to 30 students, depending on the course and school. Some four-year universities can have class sizes into the hundreds, especially for intro-level courses.
The application process at a university vs. community college can be much more competitive. At many four-year colleges, the application process consists of requirements like a college essay, recommendation letters, and high school transcripts. Additionally, schools may have strict deadlines for admissions each year.
Community colleges often offer more flexibility in the application process. Many community colleges are open access, meaning almost anyone can enroll in classes. There may be restrictions for certain programs or classes, for example, classes required for nursing programs.
While some community colleges may offer on-campus housing for students, a large number of them will continue to live at-home or off-campus. This can make on-campus life feel very different than at a four-year college where most students live on-campus.
Similarities and Differences Between Community College vs. University
|Topic||Community College||Colleges and Universities|
|Financial Aid||Both types of schools may be eligible for federal student aid.||Both types of schools may be eligible for federal student aid.|
|Prerequisite Courses||Both types of schools offer general education or prerequisite courses like General Chemistry 101 or American History 101.||Both types of schools offer general education or prerequisite courses like General Chemistry 101 or American History 101.|
|Cost||Community colleges are significantly cheaper than four-year institutions.||Colleges and universities are generally more expensive than community colleges.|
|Class Size||Class sizes at community colleges are generally smaller than at four-year institutions.||Class sizes may be larger at some colleges or universities. At some schools, intro level courses can have hundreds of students in a single class.|
|Application Process||The application process for community college is usually more lenient than at four-year institutions.||Colleges and universities often have strict requirements that may include a college essay, letters of recommendation, and standardized testing.|
|Campus Life||Because many students live off-campus, campus life may be less robust than at four-year institutions.||Many colleges and universities are known for having a rich on-campus life available for students and offer a variety of extracurricular activities.|
Pros and Cons of Attending a Community College
There are both downsides and benefits of community college. Community colleges can offer an affordable path to get a four-year degree, but transferring and a lack of on-campus community can detract from the community college experience.
Pros of Community College
One of the top pros in the community college column is the price tag. As previously outlined, courses at community college can be significantly less costly than at a four-year institution. For students who are paying for college without parents’ help, starting at a community college can help them significantly lower the cost of their overall degree.
Additionally, students may be able to continue living at home with their family, which can cut costs even further since they won’t be paying for room and board.
Community colleges have flexible scheduling options that can make working while you are in school easier.
Students may also be able to take a variety of classes if they are not sure what field or major they’d like to pursue at a four-year college.
Qualified Professors and Small Class Sizes
As already mentioned, community colleges may offer smaller classes. These small class sizes can lead to more hands-on professors and lecturers — who may be just as qualified as those at larger universities.
Cons of Community College
Limited Curriculum and Degree Programs
Community colleges can be a good place to explore interests and fulfill requirements for a four-year degree. But they may be limited in the types of courses available. Students who are interested in exploring or fulfilling general education programs.
Need to Transfer for Bachelor’s Degree
To pursue a Bachelor’s degree, community college students will need to transfer to a four-year institution.
Lack of On-Campus Life
Because many students live off-campus, on-campus activity and extracurriculars may be limited.
Pros and Cons of Attending a Community College
|Pros of Attending a Community College||Cons of Attending a Community College|
|Cost. Community colleges are generally more affordable than other educational institutions.||Limited Curriculum and Degree Programs. Students may be limited in the types of programs and degree options available.|
|Flexibility. Students can choose from a variety of class times that may make it easier to work while studying and can allow them to explore a variety of academic interests.||Need to Transfer for a Bachelor’s Degree. Community colleges typically offer up to an Associate’s Degree.|
|Qualified Professors and Small Class Sizes. Class sizes at community colleges hover around 25 to 30 students.||Lack of On-Campus Life. Campus life and extracurriculars may be more robust at a four-year institution.|
Pros and Cons of Attending a University
Attending a four-year college or university can have pros and cons — just like its community college counterpart. Some benefits of universities include improved long-term earning potential and the opportunity to build a network. The major downside can be the steep cost.
Pros of a University
Long-Term Earning Potential
Bachelor’s degrees can lead to a significant boost in earning potential. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, individuals with Bachelor’s degrees can earn up to 31% more than those with an associate’s degree.
Plus, a Bachelor’s degree is sometimes a prerequisite for careers in some fields, like human resources, marketing, or computer science and software engineering.
On-Campus Life and Extracurriculars
Many colleges have a rich on-campus life with an active student body and a variety of extracurriculars. Depending on your interests and the school you attend you could participate in the school’s television and radio station, join an intramural sports team, and more.
Build a Network
Many colleges have a strong and extensive alumni network that students can tap into post-graduation while they look for a job. While you are attending school, you’ll also build soft-skills like time-management, organization, and interpersonal communication that can be invaluable in the professional world.
Cons of a University
One of the biggest downsides to college is the cost. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at private four-year institutions was $38,070 during the 2021-2022 school year. Add in costs for room and board and other living expenses and it can be easy to see why some students may be dissuaded from pursuing a four-year degree.
With all of the hustle and bustle at a college, it can be challenging to balance work, well-being, and fun. With parties, extracurriculars, sports, and more it can be easy for students to get distracted from their studies.
Can You Combine Community College and University?
Yes! It’s very possible to attend a two-year community college and then transfer to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. Many community colleges have articulation agreements in place with local state schools that can make it easier to transfer credits.
Check in with your academic advisor as you complete community college classes to be sure they will transfer to the college of your choice.
Figuring Out What’s Right for You
As you’re crafting your own pro/con list, here are some questions to ask yourself before making your decision.
• Do I want to live at home or on campus? If you’re hoping to be close to family or need to stay in town for a job, finding a community college campus nearby could be the right call.
• Do I want to join clubs and organizations? While community colleges offer lots of activities, universities typically provide a lot more for students to partake in.
• Do I have enough money to go to a big school? Whether a major state school or a private college or university, student loan debt could follow you for a long time after you graduate.
• Where is my support system? Not having friends and loved ones around may make school more difficult for some. If your support system is vital to you, and you can’t find a big school near your close family, opting for a community college might be better.
• Is this the best option for my major? Determining what you want to pursue as a career is a big deal. If you aren’t certain about what you want to do, you might not want to move far away quite yet. Or alternately, maybe getting some distance from your close friends and family will help you find your direction.
Community colleges can offer a more affordable path to a four-year degree. Universities can offer a rich on-campus experience and a strong long-term earning potential. Depending on your personal situation, either or both could be a good fit. Once you decide where you want to go, you’ll need to figure out how to pay for college. Typically, students rely on a few different funding sources to fund their education including scholarships, grants, work-study, and student loans.
If you’ve exhausted your federal student loan options, private student loans may be something to consider. They can help fill in funding gaps, but keep in mind, may lack borrower protections available to federal student loan borrowers.
SoFi doesn’t offer funding for community college classes, but does for undergraduate degrees and some graduate certificate programs. If you’re looking for funding to cover some higher education costs, consider SoFi. Student loans from SoFi have no fees and as a SoFi member, borrowers will qualify for additional benefits like career coaching.
Is community college easier academically than university?
Community colleges often have qualified professors and courses that are comparable to those offered at a four-year institution. The course selection and degree programs available at a community college may be more limited than at a university.
Is getting a degree from a community college worth it?
Getting a degree from a community college can be worth it. In addition to securing an associate’s degree, you may be able to transfer to a four-year institution to continue your education to get a Bachelor’s degree. Doing this can be less expensive than pursuing a Bachelor’s degree exclusively at a four-year institution.
Is going to community college a good way to cut down on the cost of a 4 year college degree?
The cost of classes at a community college is typically significantly cheaper than the cost at a four-year institution. Starting out at a community college transferring to complete your degree can significantly cut the cost of tuition. Plus, community college students may have the option to live at home which can reduce room and board expenses.
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