Yes, No, Maybe: Should I Go to a Community College?

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

Getting ready for college is an exciting time, but also one that comes with a lot of life-changing decisions.    One of the biggest decisions that you will make is whether you want to go to a 4-year university or a 2-year community college. That choice will have a lot to do with your financial situation, other responsibilities, and your desired learning environment. You want your college years to be successful whether you go to community college or a 4-year university. It’s easier to make the best decision by looking at the pros and cons that come with choosing a community college.  

Pros of choosing a community college

A full one-half of students seeking an undergraduate degree start their academic career at their local community college. Their reasons for attending are determined mostly by their specific circumstances. Let’s see some of the advantages that can come with opting for community college.  

Community college is cheaper

The average cost of tuition for a year of a public community college is $4,000. Students from out of state pay $9,000 or more, and private institutions cost over $15,000. On average, students who attend community college for the first two years will save between 50% and 90% on the tuition for those years, depending on whether they choose a public or private university.   Many students think financial aid isn’t available for community college but it is, and can be used in the same way it would for a 4-year college. You apply for aid through FAFSA. They’ll let you know which scholarships, grants, and loans you qualify for to cover the costs for tuition, books, and fees. And because college tuition is so affordable, any loan payments after graduation will be much more manageable than if you attended a 4-year school all the way through.  

They offer more flexible scheduling

Students who attend community college are of all ages and come from all walks of life. The majority are part-time students. Many have family-related and work responsibilities in addition to their classes.    The class scheduling at community colleges allows for these part-time students. Classes are not as rigidly structured as 4-year state colleges and universities, which focus on a predominantly nine-to-five schedule. Community colleges offer significantly more night classes and weekend classes. This flexibility can be helpful for students who are working and have home-life responsibilities.   Photo by StockSnap

Community colleges let you explore your interests

Some lucky students have had their future careers planned out since they were children. The vast majority, however, use their time at school to explore all possible options. Since community college is much less expensive than most other sectors of higher education, students can usually afford to take a bit more time to find a major they’re interested in committing to.  

Class sizes tend to be smaller

Unlike public universities where freshman courses may have as many as 2,000 students enrolled, attending lectures held in large auditoriums, the average class size for most community colleges is around 25-35 students. With much smaller class sizes, community college students have more interaction with their instructors and can obtain more personalized attention if needed.  

Community colleges are closer to home

For most students, their area community college is significantly closer to home than state or private universities. The proximity makes going to school easier for students with young families or those who have jobs. And for some students, being close to home is a necessity as they may be required to help their parents.   Being local also means students can commute to class and forgo the expenses of staying on campus, such as room and board.   

Cons of going to a community college

While there are many positives that can come from choosing a community college to further your education, there are some drawbacks as well. We'll look at those below.  

Most don’t offer a 4-year degree option

Typically a community college is designed to provide the first two years of education toward an undergraduate degree. Most students obtain their 2-year associate degree. Then, they either start working in their field or transfer to a 4-year college to complete their degree.   Associate degrees are valuable in terms of the money you can earn after graduation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you’ll earn approximately 7% more than students who attended college but did not graduate.   Still, a 4-year degree is even more valuable: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn 50% more. Remember, though, if your ultimate goal is a bachelor’s degree, you will have to transfer from the community college to a 4-year school.   Photo by Hagar Lotte Geyer

Depending on your school, there may be little campus life

Community colleges were developed to be commuter schools. Some still don’t offer the same campus life environment that 4-year colleges do. However, that’s been changing over the past couple of decades. Many community colleges have taken significant strides in creating a student life on campus that includes clubs and organizations.   If the full college experience – with activities as well as academic work – is extremely important to you, do your research. See if your local community college boasts of its vibrant student life. If not, you may want to look at attending another college that does offer athletics, clubs, organizations, and events so that you can experience college life in full.  

Community college degree options may be limited

If you plan to obtain your 2-year degree at the community college and then continue on to complete your bachelor’s degree at a 4-year college, you may have a hard time finding coursework towards the major you want.    While community colleges do offer a wide range of degree and diploma options, they are often for the most popular vocational occupations. In these careers, an associate degree is complete in itself. That means if you are pursuing a degree in a more specialized major, you may find the options at your local community college minimal.  

All of your community college credits may not be transferable

Again, if your plan is to transfer to a university that offers a 4-year degree program, you should talk with an admissions advisor before signing up for classes at your community college. While nearly all college credits can be transferred, some may only transfer as elective credits and not towards the required courses for your major.    An admissions advisor can better help you choose the classes you need to transfer to your desired college and major path.   Photo by Chantellen

Things to know about transferring credits to a 4-year college or university

Many students use community college as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree or higher. When taking this approach, it’s crucial to ensure you’re taking the right classes so your credits will transfer to your new school. Take the following steps to help make the transfer process go more smoothly:
  • Check with your community college advisor to make sure that the credits you earn from your classes will be transferable to the 4-year college of your choice.
  • Sign up for a transfer program at the community college if there is one available. These programs have courses that are the same as those you would take at a 4-year college. The program is designed to make the transfer process seamless.
  Plan ahead by talking with the admissions officer at the community college you wish to attend. You can even start your research in high school by speaking to your guidance counselor. Be sure to ask them questions such as:
  • Does the community college have a relationship with any 4-year colleges that will make credit transfers easier?
  • Will the courses I am considering transfer to the colleges I want?
  • Do I need to earn a certain grade to get credit at a 4-year college?

How the credit transfer process works

When you transfer to a 4-year college, the school will look at the classes you took and the grades you earned in those classes to decide as to how much credit to give you. Most courses are worth about three credits, and you need approximately 120 to graduate.   If all of your credits were to transfer, you would start college off as a junior. If any of the credits are not transferable, you may be repeating the same or similar classes at the 4-year college.   On balance, going to a community college can have more benefits than drawbacks. It provides more flexibility, is much less expensive, and allows you to stay closer to home. If you do your research, you can find courses that transfer to your desired 4-year college in order to obtain your bachelor’s degree.