Community College vs. University: Which is Best for You?
Do you know how to improve your profile for college applications?
See how your profile ranks among thousands of other students using CollegeVine. Calculate your chances at your dream schools and learn what areas you need to improve right now — it only takes 3 minutes and it's 100% free.
- Differences Between Community Colleges and Universities
- Should You Go to Community College, and Then Transfer?
- The Bottom Line
When making a decision about higher education, many students never think to compare community colleges vs. universities—simply believing a university education superior. The fact is, while there are many characteristics that differentiate the two, students can receive a quality education from community colleges as well.
In this post, we’ll break down the differences between these two types of institutions.
The type of degrees offered is one of the primary ways that community colleges and universities separate themselves. Graduates of community colleges generally earn associate’s degrees or professional certificates, while university graduates earn a bachelor’s degree or, in some cases, a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
Associate’s degrees are also commonly called two-year degrees because they’re typically earned in two years, although students can take as long as needed to complete a program. Associate’s degrees are frequently used as a pathway into a particular career, but they are also commonly transferred to a four-year school, as they normally will fulfill the general education requirements necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree.
If you’re planning on transferring community college credits into a bachelor’s program, it’s important to work with an academic advisor to ensure you take the correct classes—those being ones that will transfer.
Professional certifications are typically earned between six months and a year and provide a shorter path to a career than associate’s degrees. It’s common for the professional certifications to reflect the employment needs of the region the school is located in, however, it’s common to see certificate problems in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, business, and technology.
A bachelor’s degree is what most people commonly think of as a “college degree.” They’re four-year programs where students pursue a particular area of study and are the entry-level requirement of many careers.
In addition to bachelor’s degrees, some students attending universities enter 4+1 programs. A 4+1 program allows a student to work toward a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously—allowing students to accomplish in five years what commonly takes between six and seven.
Affordability is one reason why some students choose community colleges over universities. According to U.S. News, the average cost of annual tuition and fees in the 2018-2019 academic year were:
- Private colleges: $35,676
- Public colleges (for out-of-state residents): $21,629
- Public colleges (for in-state residents): $9,716
The $3,660 average tuition and fees for in-state students at public two-year colleges in 2018-19 stands in stark comparison to more costly four-year colleges. The cost savings is particularly impactful when you consider more than half of college attendees take on debt to pay for college, and the average amount of student loan debt per borrower has grown to $38,758.
It’s not only tuition and fees that make community colleges more affordable. The majority of community college students commute—and living at home can save on the expensive housing and meal plans found at four-year schools.
Admissions Requirements and Selectivity
A big difference you’ll discover when comparing community colleges vs. universities is in their admissions requirements. Community colleges are much easier to get into—one reason why their academic reputation isn’t as strong as four-year universities—in fact, many have open admissions policies and will admit anyone who has graduated high school.
Conversely, universities are much more selective in their admissions process, taking a host of factors into consideration when determining whether or not to admit a student—for example, grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and an essay. If you’re curious about your odds at a particular university, CollegeVine can help. Our free chancing calculator can predict your odds of acceptance at over 600 schools.
This tool will let you know whether you’re academically prepared for universities, and how to improve your admissions profile.
Admission to a university is more rigorous, but the time spent at community college can make it easier. For many students, community college provides a chance to bolster their grades, take part in internships and extracurricular activities, hold a job, and become a more interesting candidate. Systems like the UC System prioritize students coming from in-state community colleges—they make up over 90% of the transfer class.
Classes at community colleges are often smaller than comparable courses at universities, allowing students to have greater access to teachers, take a more active role in the classroom, and build relationships with their classmates. While many universities tout their small class sizes, it’s not uncommon for general education classes to fill a lecture hall and be taught by a graduate student.
Academic Resources and Options
Universities have a huge edge when it comes to academic resources and options—one of the ways community colleges keep costs down is by limiting expenses like costly facilities, buildings, and staff. Universities, on the other hand, are known for their expansive libraries (Harvard’s library houses over 20 million volumes), modern computer labs, and many have a variety of facilities devoted to research on their campuses.
Universities also offer a variety of additional programming that you’re unlikely to see on a community college campus, like:
- Study abroad
- Large scholarship programs
- Student centers
- Study groups
- Athletic teams
- Student-run organizations
- On-campus events
Another difference between community colleges vs. universities is the number of areas of study. Community colleges offer general areas of study while universities offer a wide variety of academic areas—many large universities are divided into smaller, more specialized colleges.
Community colleges often have small, tight-knit communities, but they pale in comparison to the size and scope of the communities found on university campuses. The most obvious difference is that the majority of university students live on campus for all, or at least some, of their college careers. Many colleges even offer living-learning communities where students can live with students of similar backgrounds and interests.
Additionally, universities have a variety of clubs and organizations—ranging from fraternities and sororities to groups bringing together students with similar interests or identities—all of which help build bonds between students. Universities also have athletic teams, host activities, and have facilities like student centers and dining halls that encourage interaction and unity among the student body.
A bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary to have a successful career, but is, in general, beneficial—it opens doors and paves a path toward higher earnings. Bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as a person with just a high school diploma and earn an average of $1 million over their lifetime.
While attending a university, students can build their professional network as they earn their degree, connecting with other students, professors, and professionals through internships and alumni. Many universities provide resources to students entering the labor force. For example,
- Career counseling
- Interview coaching
- Resume help
- Recruitment resources
Just because a university education gives students a leg up when entering the workforce doesn’t mean that community colleges don’t also have their merits. There are a handful of well-paying jobs that only require an associate’s degree. It’s also worth noting that while an associate’s degree holder may not earn as much on average as those with more advanced degrees, an associate’s degree provides the best return on investment.
Should You Start at a Community College, Then Transfer?
If you want to start at a community college and transfer to a university, check if the community college has an articulation agreement—a protocol for granting transferring admission and ensuring credit transfer to students who take particular classes and maintain a certain GPA. For example, Massachusetts’ MassTransfer program allows students to start at any of the state’s 15 community colleges and transfer into one of its 13 public four-year state colleges.
Articulation agreements vary from institution to institution (and from state to state), making it critical to know exactly what the future holds before committing to a program—consider that a 2017 report found that students who transferred between 2004 and 2009 lost 43% of their credits on average.
If you take proper precautions to ensure your transfer will be smooth, this option is great for students who want to save some money, or aren’t quite academically ready for a university yet.
The Bottom Line
How a school “fits”—that is, how a school aligns with your goals, needs, and desires—is an important factor to consider when faced with the question of community college vs. university. Community colleges are a great choice for students who aren’t academically or socially prepared for life at a university. Community college allows students to get comfortable working with more academically rigorous material and get accustomed to the extra freedom afforded by college, without the high price tag and more competitive classrooms found at universities.
Community college is also a great option for students with other commitments. Whether it’s working a job to help pay for school or the necessity to stay close to home to help around the house, community college offers a flexibility that is beneficial to many students.
Lastly, community college is a fantastic choice for cost-conscious college students, who don’t mind forgoing some of the perks of a university experience to avoid student loans or to save on tuition.