Community colleges are two-year schools open to everyone. Their programs lead to either an associate’s degree (preparing students for more education) or a certificate (preparing students for the workforce). Community college is one of the most affordable options out there, so it’s easy to see why it appeals to many types of students.


Who attends community college?

Community colleges are communities open to all students interested in learning. Many of these schools implement an “open admission” policy when it comes to accepting applications for enrollment. Anybody is welcome to apply and will be accepted with open arms. At a community college, you can find a diverse student body from all walks of life. You may find that your classmates include anyone from young students who need to complete remedial classes to adult students who are interested in changing careers. Community colleges offer something for everyone.

Community college provides the ideal learning environment for students with families of their own, older students who wish to make career changes or learn something new, and students who are fresh out of high school. These colleges offer more flexibility than traditional four-year colleges. You can work, study only part-time, live at home, or take classes online. Though working and taking classes only part-time will extend how long it takes you to complete your degree or certificate, you can save up money and continue to pay your bills while you are in school. That’s a luxury many students enrolled at four-year schools don’t have. Additionally, the low cost of community college allows you more liberty in the elective courses that you take. Not everything has to be directly related to your program.

As for the students you’ll be surrounded by, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, 36% are first-generation college students, 17% are single parents, 12% are students with disabilities, and 4% are veterans. These statistics encompass students of all ages, though the vast majority of students are under 40 years old. (Over 50% of community college students are less than 21 years old and only 10% are over 40).

Is community college worse or easier than traditional college?

No. Community college offers great opportunities for students willing to work hard. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. While a certain stigma surrounds community college, it actually helps a variety of students achieve their goals for a fraction of the cost of a four-year college.

Are my goals in line with community college?

If you are interested in either furthering your education or preparing for a certain career, community college could be the right option for you. These programs, depending on their curriculums, confer associate’s degrees and certificates. The former serves as either a terminal degree or a springboard to a bachelor’s degree. Certificates, on the other hand, always help you prepare to enter the workforce.

  • Tuition and fees: Community colleges offer one of the best deals out there. For the 2016–17 school year, the average cost of attendance was $3,520, about three times less than the cost of attending a public four-year school. From 2011–2014, nearly 40% of community college students received federal grants, 12% received state-based financial aid, and 13% received financial aid from their school.
  • Living at home: Just under 75% of community colleges are commuter schools, meaning that you come to campus when you have class, but you return home in the evenings. Living with family or getting a cheap apartment nearby are two options for housing if you plan on attending community college. Arranging your own housing is usually much cheaper than living in on-campus housing anyway.
  • Working while attending school: Community colleges are flexible. You are not required to be a full-time student. You can take classes in person or online. Plus, many classes are offered in the evening, so you can schedule your courses around your job. Working while in school allows you to save money for the future. In the 2011–12 school year, 40% of full-time students were also employed part-time, and 41% of part-time students also worked full-time.
  • Achieving a variety of goals: No matter your goals, community college can help you get ahead.
    • If you want to take remedial classes: If you are hoping to attend a four-year school but don’t have the grades to make it yet, attending community college and doing well in your classes can allow you to make up for less than impressive grades in high school. Class sizes at community colleges are traditionally small, and the top priority of faculty is teaching, not research, so you can receive a lot of support from your teachers. Additionally, most programs are open admission (meaning that pretty much anyone can get in), so if your grades are dismal, you still have the chance to make up for them.
    • If you want to finish general education requirements: If you’re sure you want to pursue your bachelor’s degree, you might begin your studies at a community college, where you can take your general education classes cheaper than you could at a four-year school. Once you transfer to the four-year school, you’ll have most of your requirements out of the way, and you will have saved money in the process.
    • If you want to take time to figure out what you want to do with your life: If you are unsure exactly what you want to do after high school, attending a community college for a year or two can help you decide what you want to pursue. Tuition is relatively cheap, so you can take a lot of general education requirements (and get them out of the way) and a variety of other classes that seem interesting before you commit to a program. This minimizes the risk of you dropping out of a pricey four-year institution because you picked the wrong school or major right off the bat.
    • If you want to get ready for your dream career: Many community colleges offer programs in professional fields (nursing, web design, geospatial technology, firefighting, and emergency medical technology, among others) which are designed to help you get ready for a career. You can enter the workforce as soon as you finish your degree or certificate program.
  • Improved job outlook: On average, students who go to community college will earn more money than those who don’t. Even more impressively, Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report shares that 30% of community college graduates make more money than people who have earned bachelor’s degrees. Not only can the money be better, but schools that provide bachelor’s degrees don’t typically focus on helping students find jobs after graduation. Community colleges, on the other hand, often work closely with the workforce to provide the right kind of training and ensure that their students can walk into jobs immediately after graduation.

What are the downsides of attending community college?

  • Credit transfers: If you are going to be a transfer student, four-year institutions can be picky about which credits they accept from community colleges. A 2014 study by Paul Attewell and David Monaghan of the City University of New York found that 14% of students lost over 90% of their credits upon transferring from a community college to a four-year college. Only 58% of transfer students were able to transfer 90% or more of their credits. If you are planning on attending community college to complete prerequisite and general education courses before transferring to a four-year institution, it is imperative that you begin working with academic counselors at both your community college and the school to which you hope to transfer as soon as possible. They can each advise you on which courses transfer between the schools and make you aware of any articulation agreements (partnerships between community colleges and local four-year schools that make transferring easier). Save all of your correspondence about credit transfers in writing.
  • Nonresidential campuses: The vast majority of community colleges do not have on-campus housing, so there isn’t a residential community for you to join. However, to make up for the lack of housing and to foster relationships among students, there are likely to be plenty of extracurricular activities offered outside of the classroom. You will also have to be sure to complete your classwork on time; living at home or on your own will save you money on room and board, but you are also away from campus for long periods. You need to remain dedicated to attending class and getting your work done despite the distractions of television, family, and housework.
  • Limited curriculum: Community colleges are only two-year schools, so if you want a bachelor’s degree, you will most likely have to transfer after completing prerequisite classes or your associate’s degree. Attending community college to get remedial and prerequisite courses out of the way is simple: Community colleges offer introductory classes in all of the basic subject areas. If you want to continue learning about a specific aspect of a subject or want to pursue a specific degree, you’ll need to double-check that the coursework at a community college is at the right level and appropriate for the degree you hope to obtain, particularly if you will be transferring.
    • Community colleges in 22 states are authorized to award bachelor’s degrees, but many restrictions remain on the types of programs and who can apply. This is likely to change in the future, but for the time being, you will need to check with each community college individually about its degree options.
  • Unengaged students: Because of their open admission policies, community colleges can sometimes play host to students who aren’t particularly engaged in their classes and don’t actually want to be there. As a result, classroom discussions and atmosphere can suffer. However, your education is what you put into it, so if you’re dedicated and engaged, your teacher will recognize this and reward you for it.
  • Low graduation rate: According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 39% of community college students graduate within six years. Granted, this statistic does not take into account students who transferred from community colleges to four-year institutions without receiving associate’s degrees or certificates, so it may be a bit on the low side if you consider that some of these students go on to complete bachelor’s degrees after starting at two-year institutions. Still, you will want to make sure that the school has some sort of support system in place to help you graduate on time.
  • Stigma: Some people refer to community college as “thirteenth grade.” Others see it as a last resort for people who can’t get into a four-year institution. This negative stigma simply isn’t merited. Unlike four-year institutions, where the majority of incoming freshmen arrive fresh from high school, community college is a place for students from all walks of life; they’re students with jobs, families, and other responsibilities who are pursuing higher education in a way that fits their individual lifestyles. There is nothing you can do to erase the stigma regarding community college overnight, but knowing the truth about your classroom—that it’s an inclusive and safe place for learning—enables you to feel proud that you are pursuing higher education.

Page last updated: 07/2017