Community Colleges: Defined, Explained, and Pros and Cons

By Jacqueline DeMarco · October 20, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Community Colleges: Defined, Explained, and Pros and Cons

Those looking to save on the price of higher education may decide to pursue community college as a path forward. What is a community college?

Community colleges are public colleges designed to make the cost of attending college more affordable for local students. While community colleges don’t offer four-year degrees, they have two-year degree programs and classes that can transfer to other colleges where students can obtain a four-year degree.

Keep reading for more insight into what a community college is and how these schools work, as well as how they compare to four year universities.

What Are Community Colleges?

Community colleges are colleges designed to serve the local community. Students live off campus (often at home with their families if they are young) and can pursue an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree, which typically only take two years to complete. Students have the option of taking courses that can transfer credits to a four year university so they can pursue a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree.

Community colleges may also have vocational and technical programs for those looking to pursue careers that don’t require a four-year degree, but that do require technical knowledge. If you’re considering trade school vs community college, review factors such as the programs offered, time to complete programs, and any other opportunities (such as professional development opportunities) available at the schools.

How Do Community Colleges Work?

Community colleges provide a flexible learning opportunity that can help students reach a variety of goals. While some students attend community college with a goal to transfer after earning some lower division credits, some attend with the goal of earning an Associates degree.

Other students aim to earn technical certificates (similar or the same as what technical schools offer) and some simply attend because they love learning and want to pick up a new language, take a film history course, or brush up on a favorite subject. Students can choose to take one class or can enroll full-time.

Do They Accept Everyone?

Community colleges generally accept all students. For example, in California community colleges don’t have any testing requirements and students don’t need to have a certain GPA to be accepted. A high school diploma isn’t required either, but for students that want to apply for federal financial aid, usually a GED or high school diploma is required.

Why Are They Cheaper?

Community colleges are funded by the government in order to offer an affordable education for students. The average cost of attending community college for a year is $3,800, but in many states students who meet certain eligibility requirements can qualify for free tuition. Not to mention, there is generally no on-campus housing option for community college students and many choose to save money by living with a family member such as a parent.

What Kinds of Degrees Are Available?

What are community colleges for and what do community colleges offer? As noted previously, community colleges are designed to help students afford the cost of attending college locally. They offer AA and AS degrees, as well as technical and vocational programs. Attending a community college can also make it possible to transfer credits to a four year university so that the student can spend less time and money at a more expensive school.

Pros and Cons of Attending Community College

Before attending community college, there are some advantages and disadvantages worth keeping in mind.

Pros

Pros of community college include affordability, flexibility, and the opportunity to live at home while attending school.

More Affordable

On average, the annual community college tuition is $3,570 versus $9,970 for attending an in-state and public four-year college. Attending a public college out of state or a private college can cost even more.

Can Live at Home

Because community colleges are designed to serve local students, it’s usually possible to live at home with family while attending community college which helps keep education costs down.

Easier Acceptance

Community colleges don’t require a certain high school GPA or test scores in order to be accepted.

Flexible Course Scheduling

Community colleges may have flexible course schedules that allow students to work while attending classes. Some programs may also offer online or hybrid class models.

Cons

There are also some disadvantages, worth considering before attending a community college.

Credits Don’t Always Transfer

Certain course credits only transfer to select colleges which can make the transfer process confusing. Some community college students end up taking courses they don’t end up getting credit for when they transfer. It can help to work closely with your advisor to ensure the courses you complete at community college will transfer to the universities you are interested in transferring to.

Instructors May Not Be Full-Time

Some community college instructors teach at multiple colleges, which could make them less accessible when it comes to office hours.

Less Social or Extracurricular Opportunity

Community colleges have less of an emphasis on social life and activities since students commute and don’t live on campus. Many students also juggle work, parenthood, and other commitments outside of attending community college which leaves little time for socializing.

The table below outlines a recap of the pros and cons of attending a community college.

Pros

Cons

•   More affordable

•   Can live at home

•   Easier acceptance

•   Credits don’t always transfer

•   Instructors aren’t full-time

•   Less Social or Extracurricular Opportunity

Differences Between Community Colleges and Universities

When evaluating community colleges vs. universities, major differences include degree types available, cost, time commitment to complete a degree, and the application process.

Community Colleges

Universities

•   Lower cost

•   AA and AS degrees

•   Vocational and technical training

•   Smaller class sizes

•   May offer guaranteed acceptance

•   Can’t obtain a four year degree

•   More expensive tuition

•   BA and BS degrees

•   On campus housing and meal plans available

•   Competitive application process

•   Specific admittance requirements

•   Better athletic and extracurricular opportunities

What Are the Job Prospects for Community College Graduates?

Attending community college can lead to many different job opportunities in the business and labor sectors. From automotive technology to culinary arts to childcare to marketing to sales — the list goes on.

Additionally, community college graduates can continue their education if they are interested in a career path that requires a Bachelor’s degree or more.

How to Pay for Community College

Even though community college is one of the more affordable higher education options available to students, some may still need help affording the cost of tuition, fees, and books, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. Here’s a few options students can pursue for paying for community college.

FAFSA

Each year, students can fill out the free Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to find out what types of federal grants, scholarships, and federal student loans they qualify for. After seeing what grants they qualify for, students can better determine how much they actually need to spend and if they’ll need to borrow money to afford the costs of attending community college.

Grants

Speaking of grants, this is a form of gift aid that students don’t need to pay back. This is why it’s so important to fill out the FAFSA each year to see what grants are available.

Scholarships

Scholarships are another form of gift aid that students don’t have to worry about paying back. Each school’s financial aid office can help students learn more about what scholarships they have available, but students can also apply for scholarships with external organizations. There are a variety of online databases and scholarship search tools that students can use to learn more about scholarship opportunities.

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans come from the U.S. Department of Education and as a result tend to have better interest rates and protections (like deferment and access to forgiveness programs) than private student loans for undergraduates offer. When students complete the FAFSA, they’ll learn more about which types of federal loans they qualify for and how much they qualify for.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans come from financial institutions like banks, credit unions, and loan lenders. These loans tend to cost more and how each lender handles repayment and fees, and the rates they charge can vary greatly. Generally, it’s best to exhaust federal student loan options before applying for private ones.

One important thing to know before applying for private student loans is that lenders will evaluate the applicants credit score and history, as well as their income are taken into account. The better someone’s credit history is, the better interest rates and loan terms they can qualify for. This is why many young students find it beneficial to add a cosigner to their private student loan application.

The Takeaway

Attending community college can lead students down many different paths, including transfering to a university that offers BA and BS degrees. Community college is typically a more affordable education option for students (unless they qualify for a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university) looking to pursue higher education.

That being said, some students may find they need to take out loans to afford the cost of community college. This is where private student loans can step in.

With SoFi Private Student Loans, borrowers can apply online with a cosigner in just a few minutes. While SoFi’s loans aren’t available to community college students, they may be an option for those transferring to a four-year university. There are no fees and graduates can enjoy a six month grace period before they have to start the repayment process.

Private student loans from SoFi have no fees, offer flexible repayment plans, and an easy online application.

FAQ

How are community colleges and regular colleges different?

Community colleges offer a variety of technical and vocational programs, as well as two year Associate degree programs. Regular colleges offer four-year Bachelor’s degrees, as well as graduate school degrees.

What purpose do community colleges serve?

Community colleges make achieving a post-high school education more accessible and affordable to students. Students can live at home with their families while attending a local community college so they can save money on housing while accessing affordable tuition.

Why are community colleges so much cheaper than 4-year universities?

Community colleges are funded by the government to help make pursuing a college education or vocational training more affordable. Community colleges also lack some of the expensive bells and whistles that large universities come with, like on-campus housing and dining halls.


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