Should I Go to a Community College?
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.
Here at CollegeVine, we’re focused primarily on helping high school students successfully navigate the process of applying to four-year colleges and universities. Most of the advice you’ll find posted on the CollegeVine blog applies to this more traditional college-application scenario.
Obviously, however, four-year colleges aren’t the only option available to you when it comes to continuing your education after high school. Community colleges, public institutions that offer up to two years of study, are quite popular across the United States due to their accessibility, affordability, and convenience in location and scheduling.
Attending a community college may not be your first choice after high school, and it might even be one that you’d never thought to consider. However, the future isn’t always predictable. Whether community college is your top choice or not, it’s wise to make sure you understand what this option entails in case you want or need to pursue it later on.
Read on to learn more about what defines a community college, the pros and cons of the community-college experience, and how to decide whether community college is the right choice for you.
Intro: The Basics of Community College
Community colleges, as defined in the United States, are publicly funded post-secondary educational institutions designed to make college-level classes accessible to a wider range of people. These schools are located within the communities they serve and are typically much more affordable than other colleges, even other public schools.
Most community colleges don’t award bachelor’s degrees, but do offer the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree after the equivalent of two years of full-time study. They might also offer professional training and certification programs. Often, however, you don’t have to be officially enrolled in a degree program in order to take courses there.
The experience of attending a community college is usually quite different from that of attending a more traditional four-year college. Instead of joining a matriculating class of students who are roughly your age and progressing toward a bachelor’s degree on a relatively predictable timetable, you’ll attend classes alongside people of many different ages and backgrounds who are pursuing a wide range of different educational paths.
Compared to traditional four-year colleges, community colleges are more often designed to accommodate working adults in addition to full-time students. For example, you might find classes offered in the evening to accommodate students’ work schedules. On-campus housing and the type of student-life amenities available at four-year colleges are less commonly offered at community colleges.
In keeping with their commitment to accessibility, most community colleges have an open-enrollment policy, meaning that anyone can sign up for classes there. (Prerequisites or special requirements may apply for certain specific courses.) Enrolling in a certificate or degree program may require a nominal application, but these are much less demanding than the typical four-year college application.
Since community colleges usually don’t offer four-year degrees, if you want to get your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to transfer to another college to complete your education. Each four-year college has its own process for evaluating transfer applicants and deciding whether the credits you earned at community college will count toward their degree programs.
Why might you consider community college?
Attending a community college isn’t the most glamorous option when it comes to your educational plans after high school, and some students may dismiss it as a possibility for this reason. It’s not as exciting as attending a well-known school and traveling far away to study, and planning to transfer later on means you’ll have to go through the application process all over again, which is no fun.
However, there’s a lot that’s commendable about community colleges. In particular, the community college option can be a solution to a number of different practical situations you might run into during application season.
One of these situations can occur when all your colleges have made admissions decisions. When the news isn’t good, you may be left scrambling for appealing options, and community college can present itself as a way to continue your education despite these obstacles.
Maybe you weren’t admitted anywhere, as we describe in our post What If I Wasn’t Accepted to Any College?, or the schools that did accept you don’t seem attractive by the time you needed to make your matriculation decision. Maybe you were admitted to a college you loved, but didn’t receive the financial aid you needed to make that a viable option. (If you’re in this situation, check out our post You Were Accepted to Your Dream College, but Can’t Afford It… Now What? for more advice.)
Cost can be a factor in a more general sense as well, since community colleges are widely known to be relatively inexpensive. With college costs rising every year, you and your family may be attracted to community college in hopes of reducing the overall expense incurred in the process of getting your bachelor’s degree.
If your high school record is lacking in particular ways, you might consider community college as an opportunity to improve your grades, extracurricular activities, writing skills, or whatever else might have held you back. These improvements can help you get accepted to a better school as a transfer than you might have been accepted to in your initial round of applications.
Finally, you may be interested in community college because you’re not sure yet what educational path you want to pursue. First-year college applicants are quite young, and it’s understandable that some simply don’t know what they want to do next. If you’re in this position, you may be reluctant to commit to a four-year college. (Your family may also be reluctant to help you pay for college if your future goals aren’t yet clear.) Community college can provide an interim solution.
Making a Decision: The Pros and Cons of Community College
If you’re potentially interested in community college, the next step is to look into the practical details of whether the experience will meet your needs. Below, you’ll find an overview of the major pros and cons of attending community college.
Obviously, every school is different, and you should conduct more in-depth research on any particular community college before you decide to attend. However, these lists can provide some guidance regarding what issues you should consider.
- Cost. Community colleges are generally the least expensive way to take college-level courses. The exact cost will depend upon residency requirements, what types of classes you choose to take, and financial aid considerations, but many students will save money at a community college compared to an average four-year school.
- Accessibility. It’s easy to get into a community college — they may even have a formal open-admission policy, and any application process will be minimal. You’ll almost certainly be able to attend if you choose to do so and pay the tuition.
- Later application or registration deadlines. Deadlines for community college generally fall quite late in the year compared to those of other schools. This means that community college may be a feasible last-minute option if, for example, you were waiting on a college that waitlisted you, and that school eventually turns you down.
- Convenience. While community colleges aren’t typically residential, in order to make life easier for their commuter students, they’re usually convenient to get to. Aside from very rural areas, there’s likely at least one community college wherever you want to be. Some even have multiple campuses.
- Guaranteed transfer programs. Some community classes have established programs through which, if you maintain a certain level of academic performance, you’ll be guaranteed admission to certain four-year colleges as a transfer. This can save you a great deal of time and stress in the transfer process. (Contact the colleges in question for details about their particular programs and requirements.)
- Time. Some students just don’t shine in high school for whatever reason, and may need a little more time to demonstrate their abilities. Attending community college gives you a second chance at improving your academic record, building relationships with mentors and instructors, and generally becoming a stronger candidate.
- Less funding. Since they rely on public funding and don’t charge high tuition rates, community colleges don’t generally have large budgets. This, of course, will affect what they’re able to offer you in every area, from academics to extracurriculars to campus facilities.
- Less rigorous coursework. Community colleges aren’t generally known for having especially challenging classes, as they are designed to make the educational experience accessible for students of many different backgrounds and skill levels. Your instructor might spend more time reviewing and explaining material than you’d like and take a slower pace than you’d prefer.
- Less access to high-profile faculty who are at the top of their fields. Community college courses are frequently taught by adjuncts and other instructors rather than traditional full-time professors. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lacking in quality instruction — some are very knowledgeable and talented teachers — but it may mean that they’re not among the most well-known or distinguished faculty in their fields.
- Fewer student-life resources and amenities. With less on-campus housing and a limited overall budget, you won’t find as much attention paid to the atmosphere outside of the classroom at community colleges as is typical with residential four-year colleges. You’ll likely have fewer extracurricular choices, fewer student events to attend, and surroundings that are less luxurious than at some high-profile schools.
- Having to go through the transfer application process. Some colleges, especially those that are already competitive, have very low transfer acceptance rates — in 2015, Harvard’s transfer acceptance rate was only 1.5% — but many universities have transfer acceptance rates that are equal to or even higher than their admission rates for first-year students. You’ll need to research schools individually and put time and effort into the application process. Guaranteed transfer programs are a more reliable option, but you’ll have to meet certain requirements in order to qualify. (For more information about transfer admissions, see our post A Guide to Transferring: What You Need to Know About the Transfer Admissions Process.)
- Having to disrupt your life by transferring. Even once you successfully transfer to a four-year school, the experience can be difficult both practically and personally. You’ll have to upend your life and possibly move to a new place, and you may feel out of place or unsure of yourself as a newcomer to campus. You may also have to deal with administrative difficulties like whether your community college credits will transfer.
So should I attend community college, or stick to a four-year school that’s not ideal?
There’s no way around it — this is a tough decision. Community college has its pros and cons, but so does attending a four-year school that you’re not happy at. In the end, it’s up to you to decide what to prioritize and what trade-offs you’re willing or able to make.
Here are a few tips for making that choice:
- Thoroughly research both options. You don’t want to miss a positive feature — or a deal-breaker — about either of them. Think broadly about the overall experience of attending each school, academically and otherwise.
- Calculate and compare the full cost of attending each school. Make sure to take into account housing and transportation costs. Also consider how much financial aid you’d receive at the four-year school — that may change your calculations.
- Make sure you understand how the transfer admissions process works. As we’ve mentioned, it can be very competitive, and a few colleges, Princeton among them, don’t even accept transfer applications. Like the first-year college application process, it can ask a lot of you in terms of time, effort, and stress.
- Consider how you’ll improve your applicant profile while you’re at community college. You want to enter the transfer application process as a stronger candidate than you were in high school. You’ll need to make a plan to achieve this, and also to consider whether a community college option offers the resources you’ll need to make it happen.
The process of getting a college education doesn’t always fit the neat traditional narrative of working hard, getting accepted to your dream school, and pursuing your dreams. Sometimes the road to a degree involves twists, turns, and obstacles.
However, you can absolutely have an excellent educational experience even when things don’t go entirely according to plan. For some students, attending community college is a wise decision that, in the long run, will help them more successfully pursue their educational, career, and all-around life goals.
Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.